Electoral Pragmatism Reconsidered

Posted: Oct 10, 2007 12:01 AM
Electoral Pragmatism Reconsidered

In my column last week, I argued for electoral pragmatism by my fellow conservatives e.g., better a Giuliani Republican than Hillary. About two-thirds of my self-identified conservative Christian e-mail respondents strongly disagreed. That response reminded me of a very shrewd observation made several years ago by Robert William Fogel: "Coalitions spawned by religious movements are more ideological than partisan."

The current Republican/conservative coalition, which started forming under Richard Nixon and reached its zenith under Ronald Reagan, never would have become a national governing coalition without the powerful impetus of the expanding religious movement in America. Without the social conservative and religious faction of the coalition, the remaining fiscal conservatives, free-marketers, hawks and country club Republicans routinely would come up short of a national majority.

But the possible conservative religious resistance to Giuliani on the basis of his opposition to outlawing abortion at the federal level -- and their willingness to accept a Hillary presidency, if necessary, as a result -- points out how little partisan loyalty may have been built up in the past quarter century of the coalition's dominance.

Consider the continued loyalty to the Democratic Party of labor unions (if not always a big majority of their members), which has persisted since FDR's time -- now almost three-quarters of a century. Even when Democrats gave them little, they stuck with them -- a partisan bond that has transcended not only ideology, but sometimes self-interest.

It remains to be seen whether the bonds that have been formed between religious conservatives and the GOP will partially dissolve in 2008. Clearly, a year before the election, some of their leaders are threatening to break. And more than a few of their folks outside of Washington have informed me unambiguously that they share that sentiment.

I still believe that a powerful moral argument can be made for compromising on behalf of one's coalition in politics. I made that argument against my own cherished policy goals when I was inside government in the Reagan White House and as Newt Gingrich's advisor and press secretary. And I plan to continue to make it publicly now.

It is the same argument that Barry Goldwater made so many years ago, when he told the conservatives of his time to grow up politically and not always threaten to walk off with the ball when they didn't like every play their team called. Only a supreme dictator can get everything he wants out of politics. For the rest of us, politics is a team sport. Even vastly popular presidents -- from FDR to Ronald Reagan -- had to compromise on things they felt passionately about.

Those of us who have stayed in the fray have had to wrestle constantly with our consciences as to whether we are making a reasonable compromise or whether we are becoming power-mad political hacks. Those arguments went on constantly in the Reagan White House among many of us who came into politics not for power, but to return America to its founding principles, values and greatness.

No doubt, there is a danger of becoming precisely the sort of swamp creatures we came to Washington to rid the nation of when we said we wanted to drain the Washington swamp. But perfect purity of principle in application is not a functioning governing process -- it is a posture.

And whether one is a Washington professional or a citizen voter, anyone who considers himself a person of good conscience must have the courage to judge whether the net effect of his political decision advances his moral objectives.

It is certainly true that Ronald Reagan had an unerring sense of how far to compromise -- and when to stop, come what may. He governed for eight years and never lost his sense of principled direction, while many other principled people have come to Washington and lost their way.

But I believe that people of conscience -- very much including voters across the country -- have an obligation to struggle with the stress between principle and political pragmatism -- even at the risk of failing to make the right judgment.

Politics is the zone where one's religious and ethical habits are not always the only and best guides. We can make a 100-percent commitment to, for example, obey our marital vows or adhere to the teachings of our churches -- and consciously strive never to fall short.

But in the practicality of democratic elections, we cannot make such a similar commitment to every one of our governing ideals. Elections are very specific and limited choices between different outcomes. The decision not to vote or vote for a third-party candidate with no hope of winning is itself a moral choice for the outcome such a vote will effectuate. People of conscience will have to decide whether feeling pure by voting "none of the above" is the highest ethical act or not.