O Captain, My Captain

Notes from the political sidelines.
March 8 2007 4:16 PM

O Captain, My Captain

For conservatives, no comic relief.

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Conservatives have not yet begun to ache. In coming months, they'll have to listen as Giuliani and his fellow gypsy moth Mitt Romney pretend not to be what they've spent the last decade pretending to be. The savior conservatives want is Newt Gingrich—but even with their movement tied to the railroad tracks, the right's Dudley Do-Right waits to ride to the rescue.

Ralph Reed may be content to settle for cheap knockoffs, but real conservatives deserve the real thing. The answer, as always, is in their past.

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Most conservatives agree that the key moment in the history of their movement was Barry Goldwater's landslide loss in 1964. In defeat, conservatives found the courage to be ultra: "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

Those were the days. The years since have brought conservatives one disappointment after another. In 1964, conservatives were finally comfortable in the minority. Then Democrats ruined everything by losing one presidential landslide after another themselves. The far right was stuck with a string of Republican presidents who governed often but not well.

In 2008, the conservative movement should go back to doing what it used to do best: losing. If governing turned out to be no virtue for the right, then defeat should be no vice. Instead of trying to decide which Republican can win the chance to disappoint them again as president, conservatives should remember 1964 and rally behind the candidate who can lose the biggest landslide.

The great conservative icon Joseph Schumpeter referred to this process as "creative destruction." In memory of Goldwater, the right can call it the Phoenix Project: In order to rise from the ashes, you must first throw yourself upon the flames.

If Bush could run again, a crushing landslide would be inevitable. The way the current administration is going, any Republican in the field might be able to lead the party to defeat in November 2008. But conservatives should know better by now than to entrust their fate to George W. Bush. If the future of their movement depends on an electoral blowout, conservatives must nominate a Republican they can count on to lose everywhere.

Wingers, behold! I have found the man to lead you back into the political wilderness. He's a fighter. He will not bend to those liberal demons of evidence or reason. He will say and do the outrageous, with a fervor and gusto the right hasn't seen in a decade or longer. Best of all, he will lose—quite possibly by the largest electoral margin in American history.

So, on behalf of the great state of Idaho and all four of its electoral votes, let me be the first to nominate for president a man who loves conservatism so much he would destroy the Republican Party to save it, my freshman congressman, Bill Sali.

Now, ultraconservatives are a suspicious lot and won't swoon for a guy just because he represents the nuttiest congressional district in America. But it's not just local pride that makes me confident Sali would soon sweep them off their feet. On the issues that matter, his ultraconservative credentials compare favorably to anyone else in the Republican field or on the sidelines:

Abortion: Giuliani is pro-choice, McCain is more interested in national security, and Romney is macrobiotic on the issue: He lives off whatever opinions are grown locally. Bill Sali has a perfect pro-life record and insists that abortion causes breast cancer—even saying as much to women who've had breast cancer.

Experience: Giuliani ran the biggest urban bureaucracy in America. McCain has been in Congress for a quarter-century. Romney signed a universal health-care bill in Massachusetts. Bill Sali has the kind of experience their money can't buy—namely, none whatsoever. He has been in Congress a month. He spent 16 years as a state legislator, which makes him twice as qualified as Abraham Lincoln – and since it was in the Idaho state legislature, there's no danger he'll take the GOP off on progressive tangents like Lincoln. Last time I checked, Sali's webpage on "Legislative Issues" was a conservative's dream come true—completely empty.

Strength: Giuliani backed down from a race against Hillary Clinton. McCain refused to slime George Bush's character in the South Carolina primary. Romney lost to Ted Kennedy. Bill Sali made his fellow Republicans in Idaho so mad that one trashed him to the papers and another tried to throw him out the window. When the Weekly Standard asked about his internecine feuds, Sali gave the right's favorite answer: He blamed the media.

Extremism: As soon as the primaries are over, Giuliani, McCain, and Romney will run to the middle. Bill Sali won his congressional primary with 26 percent—the most conservative quarter of one of the most conservative state parties in the country. But Sali stuck to his guns in the general and didn't lose them when he came to Washington. He's comfortable in his own skin—and, more important to the conservative movement, comfortable being all alone. Last week, he told a right-wing blogger, "I'm not responsible for the Republican brand. I'm responsible for me."