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Third party conservatives: Fixers or spoilers?

By Mark Alexander
web posted October 25, 2010

In the years following the resolute conservative leadership of Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party became indolent, more reactive than proactive. Making matters worse, the party supported the infiltration of so-called "big-tent moderates," those whose policy positions are almost indistinguishable from their Democrat challengers. Consequently, conservative third-party candidates have become significant players in national and state elections.

Conservatives voters have mixed opinions on support for third-party candidates. Thanks to the Tea Party movement, the question of constitutional integrity has been reinvigorated, and there are more outstanding third-party candidates in this midterm election than ever before.

Many readers have asked: "How should one vote when a third-party candidate is more conservative than the Republican offering? Should one vote for the lesser of two evils on the major party tickets? Is a vote for a third-party conservative a wasted vote or, worse, one that takes votes from a moderate on the ticket, and seats a Leftist?"

The answers, of course, depend on one's affinity for purism versus pragmatism, and the particular circumstances and consequences of each political contest.

Purists are those who rigorously and steadfastly adhere to established traditions and principles in the conduct of their affairs, in application both to individual and societal matters.

Pragmatists, on the other hand, are those who take a practical approach to arriving at solutions, even if that means supporting the lesser of two evils. They thus try to strike a balance between principles and practicality rather than take a strict ideological line.

So, how to vote? By way of an answer, let's consider the following.

One of the issues challenging some incumbent Republican candidates is their vote for the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which many conservatives begrudgingly supported and which was signed into law with similar enthusiasm by George W. Bush at the end of his second term.

A conservative purist would argue that the government should have no role in the regulation of free enterprise, other than ensuring the exercise thereof, and that the economy, if left to its own devices, is self-regulating, and that self-regulation is the most efficient means to achieve economic prosperity. In the case of TARP, the purist objects to the intervention, and if the economy collapses as a result, the notion is that it will eventually recover and be stronger for what it was allowed to endure.

The conservative pragmatist, on the other hand, while concurring with the academic principles held by the purist, understands the consequences of the purist's position, and weighs that outcome against the consequences of striking a compromise. Thus, the pragmatist holds his nose and votes for TARP, understanding that averting an unprecedented economic collapse is more important than upholding an academic principle.

I consider myself a purist in regard to the government's TARP intervention, disagreeing with it in principle. However, while I did not live through the Great Depression, I have learned much about its causes and consequences from those who did, and thus I supported a pragmatic compromise in the matter of government intervention to prevent the cascading failure of our banking system, assuredly taking the economy down with it.

Now, whether you agree or disagree with this compromise, the bottom line is that government intervention created the crisis of confidence that led to the near collapse of our economy and, in my humble opinion, government intervention was the solution.

I will always be conflicted over my position on TARP. Fortunately, however, the original bailout cost to taxpayers, estimated to be $356 billion, has proven to be less than 10 percent of that loss and, in terms of our GDP, less than a third the loss due to the savings-and-loan crisis of the late 1980s. TARP should not be confused with Obama's so-called "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act" which is going to cost taxpayers more than a trillion dollars. (Many thanks to the Red Chinese for underwriting this DemoDebt, while growing their own economy at a 10 percent clip.)

How does this help answer the questions about voting for third-party candidates?

The purist will vote for the most conservative candidate on the ballot, regardless of the consequences. The notion here is that if such votes end up seating a liberal (as votes for Ross Perot may have done for Bill Clinton in 1992), this ultimately will be for the good of liberty.

The pragmatist will vote for the candidate most likely to defeat the liberal, even if that candidate does not comport with all, or even most of, the purist's principles. The pragmatist thus believes that the consequences of seating a liberal will be more injurious to freedom and liberty than seating a moderate.

The above debate is as contentious as the consequences of each approach, and it has been raging for as long as third-party candidates have been on ballots.

The consummate conservative protagonist, William F. Buckley, concluded that the best rule was to vote for the most conservative electable candidate.

A case in point would be last month's Delaware senate primary.

Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer, a pragmatist, wrote that the election of third-party conservative candidate Christine O'Donnell "was a bad day not only for Republicans but for conservatives." He doubts that O'Donnell can defeat her liberal opponent in the upcoming general election, but believes her moderate Republican opponent Mike Castle would have.

"The very people who have most alerted the country to the perils of President Obama's social democratic agenda may have just made it impossible for Republicans to retake the Senate and definitively stop that agenda," argues Krauthammer.

"Of course Mike Castle is a liberal Republican," he says. "What do you expect from Delaware? A DeMint? Castle voted against Obamacare and the stimulus. Yes, he voted for cap-and-trade. That's batting .667. You'd rather have a Democrat who bats .000 and who might give the Democrats the 50th vote to control the Senate? Castle wasn't only electable. He was unbeatable."

Whether Krauthammer is right about O'Donnell's electability is yet to be determined, but his conclusion should be weighed carefully by all of my likeminded conservative purists.

To be sure, we are in a unique political cycle this year. Other third-party candidates have already defeated numerous establishment Republican Senate candidates in the primaries. Joe Miller defeated Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska. Marco Rubio so frightened Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida that Crist became an "independent" and now stands to be pounded by Rubio in the general election. And there are strong conservatives running with an "R" next to their name: Rand Paul in Kentucky, Mike Lee in Utah, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Ken Buck in Colorado.

Additionally, post primary, there are almost 20 House seats with strong Republican contenders in which third-party conservative challengers are pushing those Republicans to the right. Will those challengers split the conservative vote and give the seat to Democrats in the process?

There's plenty of consternation within the ranks of the Republican establishment as to what to do with third-party conservatives. Here's one idea for the GOP: Back strong conservative candidates on the big ticket so as to obviate the need for third-party candidates.

In Tennessee's 3rd congressional district where I will vote, we face a dilemma similar to that in many House districts. I supported a longtime colleague and strong conservative primary contender, Robin Smith, an outspoken advocate for the Rule of Law, with a proven political record. Yet one of Robin's six Republican opponents, wealthy lawyer Chuck Fleischmann, a political unknown, defeated her by 1,409 votes. He did so by infusing his campaign with more than $100,000 of his own money, running negative ads and landing a last-minute endorsement from populist Fox News infotainer Mike Huckabee. (Fleishmann's campaign manager had run Huckabee's abysmal presidential bid and called in a political favor.)

It was a stinging defeat for Robin and all conservatives in our district. But, hey, I'm not bitter.

In the upcoming midterms, I must decide whether to support Fleischmann, whose campaign tactics were abysmal but who promises he's a conservative, or vote for one of his authentic conservative third-party opponents and risk giving the seat to Fleischmann's ultra-Leftist Democrat opponent.

What criterion will I use?

Fleischmann has a strong lead over his opponent and none of the third-party contenders are polling beyond single digits. So I will likely cast my vote for Savas Kyriakidis in order to fire a round across Fleischmann's bow, and give him notice that if he breaks his conservative promise, he will serve only one term. Of course, if things change and if I detect a risk of seating the Leftist, I'll hold my nose on Election Day, knowing that this election marks but one battle to restore constitutional integrity, not the end of the war.

My advice to our readers: Vote, and make your vote count! If you are faced with a choice between a third-party conservative and a Republican moderate, and you can vote for the most conservative candidate without seating a Leftist as a consequence, do so. If not, hold your nose and vote for the most electable conservative on the ticket. ESR

Mark Alexander is the executive editor of the Patriot Post.

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