Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Pragmatism, Principle and the GOP Primary

In deciding who I should support for the GOP nomination for president, I've found myself wrestling with the problem of pragmatism versus principle. Should I support the candidate most likely to defeat Obama in the general election? Or the candidate whose beliefs, values and principle most accurately reflect my own, even if that person would have poor chances of winning? Ideally some Reagan-esque option would come along, and I wouldn't have to choose but could have my cake and eat it too. Unfortunately, with the current pool of candidates, it seems I do have to choose.

Mitt Romney seems to be the current favorite to win the nomination, and in some sense would be a pragmatic choice. He looks and sounds very presidential -- more so than any of the others. He has a smoothness and charisma that none of the other candidates have. As superficial a criterion as that may be, it will play a significant factor in any election that takes place in a superficial society (which ours clearly is). He has raised the most money, he has solid experience governing, he has been successful at business and he has a fairly fiscally conservative record.

However, his own pragmatic streak makes him unreliable, and the likelihood for him to hold lightly to a principle and sway with the political winds is very high. This is most clearly illustrated by his position on abortion, going from solidly pro-choice -- when campaigning in a liberal state -- to solidly pro-life -- when campaigning for the Republican nomination for president. Similarly, one of his main accomplishments in his state was Romneycare, while he is strongly in favor of repealing Obamacare. He defends this position by saying the former was done at the state level, and the latter at the federal level, where it has no place. This defense actually does make sense, to a certain degree. I don't think it's a simple rationalization. Still, it should raise concerns for conservatives, both in terms of how vigilant he will be on this important manner if he got elected, and how Obama could wield this against him in a general election.

Also, Romney's Mormonism -- the elephant in the room -- is not a non-issue. The evangelical Christian base is one of the Republican's largest, most consistent constituencies, and there are some not-insignificant percentage of them who will never vote for a Mormon. That doesn't mean they will vote for Obama either, but it might mean that they will stay home or vote third party.

After Romney the most compelling alternatives seem to be Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty. Both of whom have significant trade-offs in terms of pragmatism and principle. Newt's legislative accomplishments are great, and he is articulate and extremely intelligent. However, his campaign has been badly mismanaged from the outset, with him opposing Paul Ryan's budget and then his staff leaving. Add to this the fact that he has an unseemly green streak, and his significant list of positives are somewhat cancelled out.

Pawlenty has a solid conservative record, with none of the faults of either Romney or Newt, but he lacks the distinctiveness and charisma that they have. However, as Thomas Sowell points out, charisma and empty rhetoric were some of the evils that delivered to us President Barack Obama in the first place. Still, it's difficult to imagine someone like Pawlenty defeating Obama in a political campaign, which Obama -- for all his faults -- excels at. Though there may be enough antipathy directed at Obama that he could pull it off. In terms of principle Pawlenty is one of the more pure choices available, but he comes with some lingering pragmatic concerns.

There are other candidates that I'd be willing to consider. Ron Paul is an extreme Constitutional conservative, which I like to a certain extent, but he has a wont for nuance. Not to mention his foreign policy prescriptions are something of a travesty. Michelle Bachmann is a solid conservative who I could see myself backing. Whoever I support in the primary though -- I'm currently leaning towards Pawlenty -- I will be forced to weigh some pragmatic concerns against principle. Ultimately, though, I dislike pragmatists and pragmatism in general, while I have great respect for men of principle. With that in mind, principle will always be given greater weight in my universe.

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