You Go To The Polls With the Candidates You Have

Don Rumsfeld: “You go to war with the army you have.” Alas, the GOP will go to the polls with the candidates it has — but the Party of Lincoln seems to have opted to bring knives to a tank fight.

On a federal level, the nomination battles continue, although the Keystone Kops routine of these incessant televised debates benefits no one as strongly as Barack Obama. Where else can he get hundreds of hours of sound bites of various Republicans drawing blood from whoever will be the eventual nominee?

Depending on the day of the week, phase of the moon and polling outfit under contract, Mitt Romney is either the obvious front-runner or a distant second behind Newt Gingrich. Ron Paul, the Republican version of Crazy Uncle Lester, won’t go away no matter how plain the writing on the wall. Rick Santorum heckles from the wings, having performed well in Iowa but without any sort of dollars or infrastructure to perform well anywhere else in the country. Newt Gingrich seems to be in full-frontal Looney Tunes mode; one day he attacks, the next day he retracts, the day after he’s boldly reorganizing the floor plan of the House chamber to accommodate the new Congressmen from America’s pending lunar state.

Meanwhile, the pundits wage a battle for the soul of the conservative movement. Some — most prominently Erick Erickson of RedState — define conservatism as being whatever Mitt Romney’s not, irrespective of what Romney’s for. The Majarushie, Rush Limbaugh, seems almost as scattershot about the candidates as a Rick Perry debate answer. Mark Steyn is so consumed by the debt bomb that he may not have noticed that New Hampshire had a primary. George Will, Charles Krauthammer and Peggy Noonan speak as voices of reason, but in a season when National Review and The Weekly Standard are reviled as centrist organs of some nefarious “Republican Establishment,” it’s not clear that what passes for reason nowadays even deserves a voice — let alone three. Ask any two prominent public conservatives for an opinion and you’ll wind up with seven conflicting answers.

The real lesson here is that there’s a dangerously wide gulf between boots-on-the-ground activists (often, prominent bloggers) and elected officials. The former often insist on purity at all costs. The latter, frequently demonized as “establishment types,” worry more about electability and skill at governance even if you have to suck up a bad logroll at times. Conservatives used to grudgingly obey the WFB dictum that you support the most conservative candidate electable. Today, the rabid wing of the conservative movement values symbolic purity over substantive success. Look no further than the way groups like RedState and Heritage Action have targeted U.S. Rep. Fred Upton for extinction. Upton is a genuinely decent and honorable man (I met him several times while an officer in the College Republicans at Western Michigan University) who has assembled a solid career of center-right policy wins. But because he didn’t pinky swear to someone’s pledge or have a hissy fit about light bulbs, he’s persona non grata. Never mind that if Upton were to be successfully primaried, the seat would likely fall into the Democratic column. Kalamazoo and its environs aren’t exactly staunch Republican territory (MI-06 went +8 for Obama). But hey, apparently it’s better to purge the kulaks even if it kicks the GOP back into minority status.

Speaking of Michigan — Pete Hoekstra still appears to be the leading nominee to challenge Sen. Debbie Stabbenow, although the powers-that-be that usually meddle in state Republican politics have resurrected an old ally to oppose the Holland-area native. Why? Probably because Hoekstra, when he first won his seat in Congress, launched a surprise and successful primary challenge against an obviously corrupt but very well-connected Congressman, and that man’s allies still bear a grudge. Hoekstra would make an outstanding addition to the U.S. Senate — his even-handedness as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee remains particularly laudable.

“Tis the silly season of national politics. Everyone’s jockeying for influence, and the knives of partisanship slice with ruthless abandon. This year, the conservative movement seems fractured in ways I don’t recall in my lifetime. The basic problem remains the question of ideological purity, and the degree to which we’ll accept a strong and electable candidate (for any race, in any jurisdiction) in the face of a less-qualified but more ideologically driven competitor.

The stakes are high. Let’s hope that in the end, the GOP can rally around its troops and win the battle instead of fracking each other and leaving no one left to man the barricades against the Obama blitz.