The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. The next and most urgent counsel is to take stock of reality."
— William F. Buckley, Sept. 11, 1964
On that evening 48 years ago — it was still summer, early in the presidential campaign — Buckley, whose National Review magazine had given vital assistance to Barry Goldwater's improbable capture of the Republican nomination, addressed the national convention of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom. Buckley told his fervent acolytes that "when we permit ourselves to peek up over the euphoria" of Goldwater's nomination, we see that it occurred "before we had time properly to prepare the ground."
He then sobered his boisterous audience: "I speak of course about the impending defeat of Barry Goldwater." He urged "the necessity of guarding against the utter disarray that sometimes follows a stunning defeat." Goldwater's doomed campaign should, Buckley said, be supported because it plants 'seeds of hope, which will flower on a great November day in the future." They did, 16 Novembers later.
Buckley understood the possibility of constructive defeat. He also understood the need to economize conservatism's energies.
Today, conservatives dismayed about the Republican presidential spectacle may write a codicil to what is called the Buckley Rule. He said that in any election, conservatives should vote for the most electable conservative. The codicil might be: Unless the nomination or election of a particular conservative would mean a net long-term subtraction from conservatism's strength.
If nominated, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum might not cause such subtraction. Both are conservatives, although of strikingly different stripes. Neither, however, seems likely to be elected. Neither has demonstrated, or seems likely to develop, an aptitude for energizing a national coalition that translates into 270 electoral votes.