The Buckley Rule has been cited repeatedly in the last few years as an inviolable commandment from the high priest of conservatism, William F. Buckley himself, that conservatives should forthwith sacrifice all principles and idealism on the alter of liberal sensibilities in order to ensure that the most “conservative” candidate should win an election. Most recently, the man doing the citing is Karl Rove, who buttresses his admonition with not just the words of William F. Buckley, but with a claim that that he should know better than anyone else, as he was there at the very beginning of the conservative revolution, as the guiding light of Reagan’s campaign team in Texas in 1980.
The problem is, no one involved with the Reagan campaign in Texas in 1980 can remember Karl Rove being there, much less having played a major part. Indeed, it appears that he was a Bushie all the way, having supported George H. W. Bush in the primaries, and only turning to Reagan after he selected Bush as his running mate.
It seems that this is not the only thing Karl Rove has gotten wrong. Neal B. Freeman, someone who was there in the very beginning, when Buckley promulgated his rule, has written at length about what Buckley really said, and what he meant by it.
The setting was 1964. Despite the fact that William Buckley had done more than anyone else to raise Barry Goldwater’s banner on the national scene, there were some on the staff of the National Review who wanted to shift their magazine’s support to Nelson Rockefeller. They had satisfied themselves that he was just as anti-communist as Goldwater, but that he also had the virtue of being more electable because of his background as an easterner, establishment credentials, money, and more favorable poll ratings.
Rockefeller personified liberal Republicanism. To have supported Rockefeller would have been to abandon everything the National Review held dear for the sake of partisan victory.
In Freeman’s words, here is what happened:
These intramural arguments, as I say, were protracted, begun in the winter and carrying on into the early spring. WFB sat at the head of the table, encouraging others to speak, keeping his own counsel. In early June, after Rockefeller had won the Oregon primary and Goldwater had won California, after all of us had had our say, after rumors had begun to creep out of 35th Street that NR might shift its support to Nelson Rockefeller — the equivalent, today, of word leaking out of 15th Street that the Washington Post might endorse Michele Bachmann — Bill, who rarely proposed, decided that it was time to dispose. With each of us in our assigned seat and with six pairs of eyeballs staring at him unblinkingly, Bill announced that “National Review will support the rightwardmost viable candidate.”
Victory for Team Goldwater! We all knew what “viable” meant in Bill’s lexicon. It meant somebody who saw the world as we did. Somebody who would bring credit to our cause. Somebody who, win or lose, would conservatize the Republican party and the country. It meant somebody like Barry Goldwater …
Bill Buckley was careful with words. If he had opted on that June day for the words “rightwardmost electable candidate,” we would all have recognized it as a victory for Team Rockefeller …
I did not check back every five minutes over the next 50 years to see if Bill had amended his formulation of the Buckley Rule. But in the following year, 1965, he reaffirmed his position by running in New York City as a third-party conservative against a highly electable Republican. I can tell you as the manager of that campaign that there was never a single day, from our first planning meeting in February until the polls closed in November, that Bill considered himself even remotely electable. But viable? Absolutely. He was the best candidate in the country to carry the conservative message into the heart of American liberalism. And for those who needed further reinforcement of the point, five years later Bill’s brother, James, ran for the U.S. Senate as a third-party candidate against a mainstream-Republican incumbent.
We all understand that it is Karl Rove’s mission to promote the Republican party. It was the mission of Bill Buckley to promote the conservative cause. There should be no confusion between the two.
In 1964, it is doubtful that any Republican could have defeated LBJ so soon on the heels of the JFK assassination. However, the fire that was kindled with the Goldwater candidacy led directly to Reagan’s victory in 1980. What is it that we desire? Is it only a watered-down, Republican version of Obama? Or rather, should we not be wanting to drive a stake through the heart of this monster of progressivism and rid our nation of this vile, profane, godless ideology for once and for all?