When it comes the Republican presidential primary, one thing is clear: conservatives are restless. There seems to be a consensus (well founded or not) among many conservatives that the "big three" — McCain, Romney, and Giuliani — have either questionable conservative credentials, or are blatantly hostile to conservative positions on key policy questions. Social conservatives seem to be having an especially difficult time finding an acceptable candidate to support.
In the midst of all the whining and complaining, Rep. Tom Tancredo has rightly observed, "The conservative movement is not supposed to choose a candidate; it’s supposed to produce one." He’s exactly right! Conservative voters should not be relegated to passively choosing the "best of the worst". The conservative movement should be producing top quality candidates for office at every level of government, including the presidency. This requires, however, that the movement be proactive, rather than reactive (as conservatives are rather wont to be), in generating candidates. But Mr. Tancredo’s axiom is right: Conservatives should be producing candidates, not merely choosing them.
To start, conservatives need to identify men and women who have demonstrated potential to serve in public office. Who in our community has the virtues, personality, and drive to succeed as an elected official? Who is sympathetic to our goals? In any given community there are dozens of people who would make fine public servants, and nationally, there are many men and women who would be excellent presidential candidates. We need to identity these promising individuals well in advance of the elections in which we want them to run.
Next, the conservative movement must recruit candidates to run for office. We should approach the promising men and women in our community and cast a vision of public service for them. Most Americans would rather get a root canal, without anesthesia, than run for elected office. We have all seen how candidates are treated by the media, and how candidates treat each other. Therefore, recruitment will not be easy. Nevertheless, conservatives often have a natural desire to serve, and they are passionate about helping to build a healthy, flourishing community. Therefore, if we cast the right vision, the conservative movement could recruit many outstanding candidates.
To produce new, conservative public servants, we also need to train potential candidates. Few men and women know how to enter a political campaign, develop a campaign team, or what to do on the campaign trail. Conservative candidates may also need to be taught about some political issues they have not yet confronted, or they may need to think more deeply and consistently on other key issues. It is not enough simply to find candidates; the conservative movement must be ready to teach the candidates what they need to know to be outstanding civil servants.
After candidates have been identified, recruited and trained, we must field them. The conservative movement should be there to launch them into the field, and support them throughout the campaign. There are many ways to help once the campaign has begun: one might attend speeches and rallies, provide financial support, offer words of encouragement, and volunteer in the campaign office. As a movement, we should be ready to meet all these needs.
Finally, after all that, we need to elect our candidates. Our political involvement should not start on Election Day, we should be involved every step of the way. But, ultimately, we must vote for the candidates we have identified, recruited, trained and fielded.
Or, of course, we can simply moan and groan when the right candidates do not present themselves more than a year and a half before the election.
When it comes to presidential politics, we know there are already fine candidates in the field. We should not allow the media to tell us who is and is not viable. We must also look at the candidates with fresh eyes; we should not see this election as an extension of the 2000 campaign. It’s a whole new year; we mustn’t be stuck in the past.
Then again, there is something wonderful about the reluctant man or woman who has been drafted by the people. George Washington was not a career politician who craved the presidency. He would have preferred to spend those years on his farm, yet he served as our first President out of a sense of duty and love for his country. Today, some politicians crave nothing more than the honor, prestige, and power of the presidency; they’ll do anything they can to get it. How different American presidential campaigns would be if the candidates were running out of a sense of duty, service, and self-sacrifice.
If the conservative movement is not satisfied with the existing candidates running for the presidency, it should consider identifying men and women who are not chomping at the bit to run, yet who would make outstanding candidates. There is still time to recruit, field and elect them, but that time is running short. Will conservative leaders put in the time and effort to field what they regard as a truly exceptional candidate, or will they prefer to take the easy route and simply complain for the next 20 months about who we are stuck with?
The vitality and strength of the conservative movement is in question in the minds of many. Will conservatives take this opportunity to assert themselves and produce a candidate, or will they passively choose one who has questionable conservative credentials? Time will tell.