In politics, is the enemy of my enemy really my friend?

I don’t agree with Bill O’Reilly about everything, but I agree with him on this: “You don’t justify bad behavior by pointing to other bad behavior.” The fact that Christ Christie’s scandals are tiny compared to the Obama scandals isn’t what matters. At this stage in the 2008 election cycle, Obama’s scandals seemed tiny, but they revealed his character and what kind of people he surrounded himself with.

The time to take Obama’s dishonesty and authoritarianism seriously was in 2005, not 2008 when he was well on his way to election, or 2013, when he was safely re-elected and even some in the news media began to point to his flaws.

It’s tempting to make the enemy of your enemy your friend, and that’s what many conservatives who ought to know better are doing in response to the Christie scandal. But that’s not always the best course: Just ask the pro-democracy Iranians who helped overthrow the Shah, then got their throats slit by their Islamofascist allies, or the folks in Eastern and Central Europe who, at the end of World War II, welcomed the Soviets as liberators and ended up with bullets in their heads. Well, ask them if you could.

If you’re a Reaganite or a Tea Partier and you don’t think Chris Christie’s people have a similar fate in store for you—metaphorically, at least—you don’t know Chris Christie’s people. (The Christie defense seems to be: Governor Christie isn’t a sociopath; he just surrounds himself with sociopaths. Really??)

Accepting the enemy of one’s enemy as a friend is how Republicans from the Reagan wing of the party got shut out of the presidential nomination seven consecutive times—in every presidential election since the re-election of Reagan himself.

When I worked in the Reagan campaign (I was the only three-time Reagan delegate in 1976/’80/’84; you’re welcome!), my friends and I more or less assumed that our wing would become the dominant one in the party. Our vision seemed to be confirmed when Reagan won 44 states in one election and 49 in the next with his approach, a libertarian-leaning conservatism that was oriented toward the needs and values of working-class and small-business-class Americans. The Republican Party would never give up on the Reagan approach and return to the politics of the Country Club elite—right?

In our youthful naiveté, we assumed that Jack Kemp would be president after Reagan, and he would be succeeded by President Newt Gingrich, and he would be succeeded by one of our cohort who, by then, would have served as a governor or U.S. senator or Cabinet member and come of age politically. Oh, there might be a bump or two along the way, but we saw the arc of the political universe bending toward Reaganism.

Yet, in election after election, Reaganite candidates haven’t even come close to getting nominated for president. The runner-up to George H.W. Bush in 1992 was Bob Dole. The next time the nomination was available, in 1996, the runner-up to Dole was Lamar Alexander. The runner-up to George W. Bush in 2000 was John McCain, and the next time the nomination was open, in 2008, the runner-up to McCain was Mitt Romney. On that score, there was some improvement in the last nomination contest, when Newt Gingrich, the most Reaganite of the finalists, arguably placed second in 2012. (I would say that Newt came closest to beating Romney, although I recognize that the Santorum folks would give the second-place spot to their man.)

Reaganites outnumber RINOs by a huge margin, three-to-one by most calculations.  In the post-Reagan era, Reaganites could have nominated one of their own at any point along the way, but they didn’t. Why? I think the main problem was that, when a RINO gets nominated, the Reaganites get in line and support him (only “hims” so far, alas). Nominating a Reaganite, on the other hand, carries with it the real risk that RINOs will defect to the other side, as they did at the state level in Virginia’s recent gubernatorial election. So all the pressure comes from the RINO side. They are the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.

I think that some of the willingness of Reaganites and Tea Partiers to go along with RINOs as the GOP’s standard bearers comes from a common misconception of what a RINO is. The term RINO comes from “Republican In Name Only” and isn’t really accurate; many RINOs trace their Republican Party credentials back decades, even generations, and have a much better claim to the identification Republican than many of their adversaries. But there are many terms that have meanings far afield from their literal definitions. For example, a “homophobe” is someone who hates homosexuals, not someone who is afraid of people like himself, and a “progressive” is someone who opposes individual freedom, not someone who is in favor of progress. Likewise, weird as it seems, a so-called “Republican In Name Only” can actually be a Republican in good standing with the party, because the term has evolved far beyond its literal meaning.

Many commentators and activists apply the term RINO to people in the GOP who take so-called moderate views (typically, liberal or progressive views) such as favoring tax increases or allowing the government to spy on people in violation of the 4th Amendment. In fact, one’s status as a RINO is not necessarily related to ideology.

A RINO is not a moderate. Rudy Giuliani is a moderate but not a RINO, while John Boehner is a conservative and a RINO.  A RINO is a Republican who, if he fights the Democrats and the Left at all, does so based on personality and payback rather than issues and ideas. A RINO is unprincipled. To a RINO, politics is a matter of us-versus-them and of skewering one’s enemies. If a RINO sees the Republican Party as superior to the Democrats, it’s because he believes the party has a better class of people. It upsets a RINO when Tea Partiers like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Tim Scott crash their party.

To a RINO, it’s “all about me.” Reagan and Gingrich stood on the steps of the Capitol with the Republican Team, saying “Elect us!” In contrast, Eisenhower, Nixon, and, in New Jersey, Christie all had “lonely landslides” that were of little or no benefit to Republicans down the ticket. (I greatly admire Eisenhower, especially for his stand in favor of civil rights, but he was a lousy politician who left his party so weak that it would take a third of a century to recover. Nixon, who instituted wage-and-price controls and tried to have the government take over energy and healthcare, almost obliterated his party and brought the radical Left to power in Congress for the first time.)

RINOs sometimes win elections, but they rarely accomplish anything of importance— at least, anything good. (Quick! Name the political accomplishments of the five RINOs the Republican Party nominated for president in the post-Reagan era. Well, besides the Iraq War, the Too-Big-to-Fail Bailout, the lightbulb ban, McCain-Feingold, Romneycare, and ultimately, through their incompetence, the election and reelection of Barack Obama.) It’s always the Reagan/Gingrich/Tea Party people—the ones in the mainstream of the party—who do the heavy lifting and get things done, and the RINOs who maneuver to take advantage of the mainstreamers’ accomplishments while denigrating them and ridiculing them.

Sometimes, the enemy of one’s enemy is no friend at all.

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