Friday, October 05, 2007

Between the she-devil and the deep blue sea

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.


  1. 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.

    1. This issue really gets some "evangelicals" show their colors. Romney has been advised, as I recall, by Richard Land to downplay his Mormonism, so if you talk about this issue, some evangelicals will try and shut you down.

    2. I say "" to evangelical above, because I've read far, far too many lately among the rank and file in the pew who go right along with pretending Mormonism is just another version of Christianity.

    3. And if you dare point that out, you're "bigoted."

    4. But this highlights an inherent problem if we vote for Romney - Mormons will use this as pretext to aid their evangelistic efforts. That and (2) are both blatantly dishonest moves, and if we're going to impeach Clinton for not telling the truth, then why vote for Romney?

  2. Great post, Steve!


  3. Many conservatives continue to underestimate the significance of the errors of Mormonism. For example, Kathleen Parker writes in a recent column, which National Review has linked:

    "The only hitch: He's a cultist. Or so some Christians think. Even though Romney shares their belief in Jesus Christ as God, other doctrinal differences tied to his Mormon beliefs apparently cause deep conflicts for evangelicals. The crafters of push polls are no doubt working overtime, especially in South Carolina, where nobody goes broke baiting fear and phobia. If they could convince racist voters in 2000 that McCain's adopted Indian child was African-American, they won't have much trouble advancing the idea that Romney is a closet polygamist -- despite the fact that he's the only leading Republican candidate who has had just one wife." (

    John Hawkins also underestimates the problems with Mormonism, but he takes a more realistic view of Romney overall. I recommend reading his entire article. Here's one of the best parts of it:

    "And this is not just about abortion, where Mitt's position seems to have radically shifted, it's about a whole host of issues. He used to try to disassociate himself from Ronald Reagan and the Contract With America, but now he assures us that the Gipper and the Contract are close to his heart. He used to be pro-gun control and wanted nothing to do with the NRA, but now he's against gun grabbers and thinks the NRA is peachy. He came across as a member of the open borders and amnesty crowd whose position wasn't much different than that of John McCain on illegal immigration -- until it became a hot political issue -- and now he's running ads that make him sound like Tom Tancredo on the subject. Then there are the Bush tax cuts, embryonic stem cell research, and the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. There have been so many flips that the flops are still running about two blocks behind, trying to catch up." (

    Hillary Clinton has been doing better in the polls lately, but I still expect her to lose the general election. The Republicans are likely to be more united around a candidate in the future than they are now, Clinton's Democratic challengers aren't criticizing her nearly as much as the Republicans will next year, and the current anti-Republican sentiment should lessen with the passing of time. Not even a year has passed yet since the 2006 election. I think the public probably has a more negative view of the Republican party now than they will in November of 2008. The Republicans haven't had any major opportunity to change their image since the 2006 election, but they will have an opportunity during the campaign next year. If the Republican candidate distances himself from the Bush administration and the Republicans in Congress to some extent, then that distancing combined with the passing of more time should help significantly.

    I still think that Thompson has the best combination of conservatism and electability. He's been somewhat disappointing so far. His poor handling of his dispute with James Dobson is a recent example. But all of the leading candidates are significantly problematic. I don't think that Thompson's problems are as bad as the problems that Giuliani, Romney, and McCain have, so far. We'll see how Thompson does in his first debate and in the polling that follows.

    It's far too early to conclude that only Giuliani would defeat Clinton. I think that any of the four leading candidates should be able to defeat her. She has a lot of weaknesses. She's too liberal, and she often comes across as insincere. If her recent healthcare ad would run during the general election campaign next year, I imagine that the reaction from the voters would be more negative than positive. When you hear a term like "universal healthcare" in an ad that keeps putting pictures of Hillary Clinton on the screen, that may help Clinton in a Democratic primary, but I think it would repulse more voters than it would attract in a general election campaign. I think that the doubts about Clinton's electability that we heard so much about earlier this year are more accurate than the more positive view of her electability we've heard recently. There are some things going for her now that won't be going her way later.

  4. IMNSHO, in every election, since one is voting for/against humans, the choice is always for the lesser evil, howsoever one determines that to be. This choice is no different from any other choice. We choose what we think is best for us at the time we make the choice.

  5. I've come out of my non-voting position and decided to vote for Ron Paul, a political candidate who I think takes both his oath to uphold the Constitution and his commitment to limited government seriously. Though he may not be a 'front-runner' (he pulled 5.08 million in the 3Q), I see Ron Paul as the only non-fascist candidate running in the Republican field.

    He's known as Dr. No in Congress and once told an audience filled with NASA employees that he had consistently voted against their programs. I thought that was quite impressive for a politician.

    Besides his mormonism, I think Romney is terrible:
    see his debate with Ted Kennedy
    and the video 'Mitt Romney on Ted Kennedy'

  6. *gasp*


    *falls over dead*

    We may disagree on how we choose to resolve this issue - and on the issues we find important but if you'll allow it, I'd just like to celebrate agreeing with you on this post. :-)

    This is mostly what I've been trying to say re: the lesser of two evils argument.

    (Though, I should note, that there have been some interesting applications of game theory on this topic that you might find interesting. If I can remember where I read about them at I'll post it later.)

  7. I still think that Thompson has the best combination of conservatism and electability.

    You should probably check out his record. I really don't think he has what it takes to win. That's not just because I prefer another candidate - but an objective assessment even if my preferred candidate wasn't running.

    The man just doesn't seem to be capable of generating the kind of excitement a campaign needs. His laconic manner just doesn't seem to do it.

    (And eventually, his past is going to catch up with him regarding his poor record on conservative issues. It already has among the hard core, but it's going to become a lot more public as the race heats up.)

  8. Shamgar said:

    "The man just doesn't seem to be capable of generating the kind of excitement a campaign needs. His laconic manner just doesn't seem to do it."

    He has been disappointing so far, as I said, and what you're referring to is one of the reasons. But he did get reelected to the Senate when he ran, and he's been an actor. You'd expect him to be able to run a campaign sufficiently, especially with an opponent who has the weaknesses of Hillary Clinton. He may turn out to be disappointing, but sufficient. As I said, we'll have to wait and see how he does in his first debate (later this week) and in the polling that follows. He'll also have other opportunities to improve. We'll see what happens.

    You said:

    "And eventually, his past is going to catch up with him regarding his poor record on conservative issues."

    I never thought much of his record. But I think it's significantly better than Rudy Giuliani's, Mitt Romney's, or Hillary Clinton's.

    As I mentioned in a discussion with you in another thread, I have a low view of the American people. They have some good characteristics and are right on some issues, but they're also wrong on some issues and have made poor use of the many advantages they've had (access to the gospel, political freedoms, etc.). Having somebody like Fred Thompson in office rather than Hillary Clinton is likely to do more good than giving a larger minority percentage of the vote to a candidate or party with little potential for future growth.

    I agree with some of the comments you've made in the past regarding the corruption of many modern politicians, including Republicans. But I think you're underestimating how corrupt the American people are.