At the moment, conservatives find themselves in a typical quandary as we contemplate the next presidential election. I say this is typical because it’s almost the norm for us to be presented with a choice between a more electable, but less conservative candidate, and a more conservative, but less electable candidate. So this is a seasonal debate which we rehearse almost every election cycle.
And it isn’t always limited to presidential candidates. Back when I was living in California, there was the same debate over voting for Ah-nuld or McClintock to unseat Davis.
At present, the two candidates who are the principle objects of controversy are Rudy and Romney.
There are different ways of framing this issue. One question is whether it’s wrong to vote for a compromise candidate. Up to a point, I’m prepared to vote for a compromise candidate. The question is when and where to draw the line. How much compromise is too much compromise?
I don’t get to choose my choices. I only get to choose from among a set of choices which I didn’t choose.
Some people run for office, while others don’t. I have no control over that. So I can only choose from among those who choose to run in the first place.
For that reason, my personal responsibility is pretty limited. It’s a forced option.
BTW, Calvinism doesn’t deny that certain forms of inability are attenuating or exculpatory circumstances.
If I had an opportunity to actually elect the best candidate, then it would be wrong of me to vote for the second-best candidate. But the only reason we have these debates is when we’re not in a clearly defined position to elect the best candidate. Perhaps, if we vote our heart, our favorite candidate will win, but that’s in doubt. The second-best candidate may have, or appear to have, a better shot at winning.
There is also a difference between voting for a candidate you know is going to lose, and voting for a candidate who may have a fighting chance. One of the complications in these calculations is the danger of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I don’t vote for my favorite candidate because he can’t win. Why can’t he win? Because not enough folks will vote for him. And you don’t vote for him for the same reason. And so on. Of course, if enough folks don’t vote for him because not enough folks will vote for him, then we are the cause of the reason we don’t vote for him. We are effecting, or at least affecting, the very outcome we cite as our reason to do otherwise. Circular counterfactual causation.
Mind you, in some cases the margin is so great that even if everyone had voted for his favorite candidate, that would be insufficient to put him over the top. But I suspect a lot of conservatives suffer from the nagging doubt that if only they had voted their conscience, their first-pick might have been elected.
Are we spiting ourselves? Are we allowing the opposition party to pick our candidates for us?
But if we knew the answer to this question, there would be no debate. There are so many free variables and mutually adjustable variables that it’s a matter of guesswork, and too much second-guessing may influence the outcome.
This is part of the human condition in a fallen world. We must often make momentous decisions with inadequate information. And when the choices are this ambiguous, it is less than clear which choice is the “right” choice—or the “wrong” choice. So, in situations like this, I think we’re in a condition of diminished responsibility.
It’s because there are so many imponderables to calculate and so many variables beyond our control that I don’t generally think we’re morally obligated to either vote for the more conservative, but less electable candidate, or the more electable, but less conservative candidate. If we really knew who was electable or not, we wouldn’t have this debate in the first place.
There are cases when conservatives voted their conscience, only to see their candidate go down in flames and take the entire party right down with him. The effect was self-exile from power.
But there are also cases in which choosing the “electable” candidate backfired. In some instances, he got elected and then proceeded to govern like a Democrat. If you run as a RINO, and you get elected as a RINO, why not govern as a RINO? What’s to lose? In other instances, the “electable” candidate imploded before the election, or there was so little difference between him and a Democrat that he wasn’t a serious alternative.
However, some pundits have inverted the argument. Whereas, for some conservatives, it’s morally compromising to vote for a more electable, but less conservative candidate—some pundits say it’s morally compromising to vote for the more conservative, but less electable candidate.
And I suppose that’s a niffty tactical maneuver. They are trying to put the conservative diehards on the defensive—which gives the pundits a psychological advantage. If Hillary wins, the diehards are to blame. Shame on you for putting her in office!
But this argument is rather unscrupulous. We didn’t choose the circumstances. Rather, the circumstances are forcing us—one way or the other—to make an inferior choice. In a world of bad options, it’s hardly fair to fault someone for choosing one bad option over another.
There are three bad options:
a) Vote for a more conservative, but less electable candidate
b) Vote for a less conservative, but more electable candidate
c) Sit out the election
The reason many conservatives feel conflicted in this situation is that they are, in fact, confronted with conflicting moral intuitions—for each option has potential upsides and downsides, while no option has upsides without significant (potential or actual) downsides.
Therefore, it’s inappropriate to excoriate conservatives who choose to vote their conscience. Fingerwaging would only be appropriate if there were a clearcut moral alternative. But in that event, we wouldn’t be having this debate in the first place.
Moreover, the question is not that abstract. Yes, we can all agree that Hillary would be bad. But politics is very unpredictable.
Suppose that Hillary wins. She might be so bad in the short-term that she would be good in the long-term—because she wouldn’t have a second-term, and she would discredit her party in the process. Between Hillary and a Democrat Congress, it’s not hard to imagine such a disastrous term of office that the Democrats would be radioactive for years to come.
It’s possible to lose by winning. This is also true for the GOP. A victory can cost you too much depending on how much you you’re prepared to shell out.
If Rudy can win as a social liberal, why wouldn’t he govern as a social liberal? A candidate has no incentive to govern any further to the right or the left than it takes him to get elected or reelected.
And in the process, he might also redefine his party. If a GOP candidate can win without the social conservatives, then it ceases to be a party in which the social conservatives have any clout. The wrong kind of success will get you evicted from your own party.
As long as they need your vote, it doesn’t matter whether they like you or want you. But if you’re both unwanted and unnecessary, then you’ll find your luggage on the front porch when you return home.
Of course, the argument is that Rudy can’t win without the religious right. But why should social conservatives vote for a social liberal? So do they win if he wins? Don’t they lose either way?
For purposes of this post, I’m not taking a position on Rudy. (I’ve done that elsewhere). I’m simply raising some issues which conservative proponents of Rudy are overlooking or ignoring.
What about Romney? Well, for one thing, he’s a Mormon. For now, I’m not saying if that should be a deal-breaker. However, there are (conservative?) pundits who act as if his Mormonism shouldn’t even be a liability to evangelical voters.
Well, I disagree. Personal beliefs invariably affect one’s policy judgments. So it does make a difference. We can debate how much of a difference, and we can debate whether his brand of Mormonism is better or worse than Hillary’s brand of Methodism—but it’s a valid issue, and a serious issue at that.
Some pundits are trying to take this issue off the table—indeed, force this issue off the table, as if it’s out-of-bounds even to discuss it. Well, they don’t get to dictate my priorities.
However, we don’t even have to decide whether his Mormonism is a make-or-break issue, since that is not Romney’s only liability. There’s also the question of whether he governed as a liberal when he had the top job in Massachusetts.
Let’s remember that Romney’s a very bright, well-educated guy who’s 60 years old. It’s very unlikely that a man with his backgrond is going to undergo an intellectual revolution. It’s far more likely that he’s had plenty of time to think through his positions and solidify his positions.
If he ran to the left, and governed to the left in Massachusetts, and if he’s suddenly running to the right in his presidential bid, then by far the most plausible explanation is that he’s a naked political opportunist.
Now it’s possible that he’d still be better than Hillary. It would be easy to improve on Hillary.
However, the notion that we have some moral imperative to vote for Romney is, itself, morally clouded. You could make a pragmatic argument for either Rudy or Romney, but let’s not pretend that we are duty-bound to vote for a liberal Mormon. We wouldn’t be duty-bound to vote for a conservative Mormon, much less a liberal Mormon.
I’ve read pundits who make a reasonable case for electing Rudy, Romney, or McCain. That’s not how I’ll cast my vote, but I think this is an issue over which reasonable men can disagree.
Yet some pundits are getting to be overbearing on the subject. They’re so desperately afraid of Hillary that they are beginning to lash out at conservatives who can’t bring themselves to vote for Rudy or Romney.
But, speaking for myself, if providence doesn’t offer me an acceptable candidate, then I take that as a providential permission-slip to either vote my conscience or sit out the election. This is not a problem of my own making. And it’s not a problem that I can fix.