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In Search of a Gatekeeper

Jacob Heilbrunn observes that David Welch’s call for another William F. Buckley is actually a demand to have someone reverse Buckley’s work while using the same tactics:

Welch urges a different tack: the emergence of an establishment figure from the ranks of the moderate establishment that Buckley originally set out to destroy.

No matter what Welch’s ideological preferences might be, what he clearly desires most of all is to have a “gatekeeper” to enforce an ideological line and expel those that are unacceptable in one way or another. Today he waxes nostalgic for Buckley’s purge of the Birchers, but at another time he probably would have been equally horrified by Buckley and Goldwater. What matters most to him is to have someone in the party who can denounce, cast out, and anathematize.

Welch’s confidence in the power of a party “establishment” to have that sort of influence today is quaint. It is flattering to moderate Republicans to suggest that they have the potential to ostracize other Republicans and thereby make them politically irrelevant, but this proceeds from a basic misunderstanding of the composition of the modern GOP. Movement conservatives certainly can and still do ostracize those in their ranks that fail to “get with the program,” but in doing so they have gradually made themselves weaker, less appealing, and more ridiculous. If moderate Republicans tried to imitate them, any successes they had would be short-lived.

The truly objectionable aspect of Welch’s proposal is the obvious urge to purge and marginalize people that lies behind it. It eludes Welch that one of the long-term failings of the conservative movement has been its tendency to condemn former allies that it no longer found useful. As a political movement, it has been increasingly interested in heresy-hunting and not all that interested in persuasion in recent years. Perhaps that is in the nature of any political movement, but it has afflicted the conservative movement very much in the last two decades. Each purge simply makes the conservative movement and the Republican Party increasingly rigid, unimaginative, and oblivious to the world around it. Employing the same tactics for a different purpose won’t return the GOP to health, but will cripple it in new ways.

Welch proposes that the GOP write off and “drive out” those conservative activists and voters that account for somewhere between 15 and 20% of the electorate, which makes up approximately half of the Republican rank-and-file. As a strategy for making the GOP competitive and capable of winning elections again, it is a complete non-starter. I don’t suppose it was ever intended to be a serious proposal, but that is how it is presented and so that is how I will judge it here. Welch is saying for all intents and purposes that the GOP should dissolve its members and elect new ones. Welch then goes on to make the truly inspired suggestion that his would-be gatekeepers should team up with Karl Rove in Republican primaries following his completely unsuccessful 2012 election efforts. If there were any Republican leaders mad enough to follow Welch’s recommendations, they would lead their cause to one failure after another.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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