Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Political Prudence

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 31, 2008

I have just returned from the Virginia State Republican Convention, at which delegates selected the Republican candidate for the seat in the U.S. Senate currently held by Republican John Warner, who will not run again. The two candidates for the nomination were the semi-pro-life former Governor of Virginia, Jim Gilmore, and a completely pro-life member of the Virginia House of Delegates (and a personal friend), Bob Marshall. The campaign for the Marshall nomination was a lesson in Catholic politics.

Bob Marshall decided to seek to become the Republican nominee for the Senate seat when he realized that Jim Gilmore supported abortion during the first eight to twelve weeks after conception. Marshall began campaigning late (just five months ago), and he was outspent by the well-known Gilmore fourteen to one. Yet, to tell the end of the story first, out of nearly 11,000 convention votes, Marshall fell just 34 votes short of beating Gilmore and emerging as the Republican nominee for an important national office.

Knowing What’s Possible

Given the results, it is clear that a victory for Bob Marshall was eminently possible, as he claimed from the first. But a large number of experienced Republican politicians, including some who are as pro-life as Bob, adopted the conventional thinking (reflected in the media) that Marshall, who was not as well-known outside his own district as the former governor, could neither win the nomination nor win in a head-to-head run for the Senate against the pro-abortion Democrat Mark Warner, who will also be seeking the Senate seat. If just a few Virginia political leaders, those who in their hearts preferred Marshall’s candidacy, had endorsed Marshall rather than Gilmore, Marshall clearly would have won the nomination. It is at least an open question whether the highly-principled, extremely witty and very engaging Marshall would have made a better opponent for Mark Warner than the better-known but decidedly vanilla Gilmore. But unquestionably, at the first level of this campaign, the fear of the political analysts became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Candidates, and the citizens who support them, face this problem all the time. It is especially a staple of Catholic, pro-life politics. If we support a little-known but highly-principled candidate, can he win? Do we have to back the most mainstream candidate in order to avoid an even worse outcome in the final race? This question can be answered only through prudence – through knowing what is possible and figuring out the steps that can lead to the best possible result. Consider Bob Marshall: In addition to being a strong Catholic with the deepest possible moral principles, he is a savvy politician who understands both party procedures and grass-roots organization. He knew it was reasonable for him to try to get the nomination and, although he failed, he proved he was right. In his concession speech he pointed out what he had almost accomplished in less than half the time and with only a fourteenth of the funding of his better-known opponent. His point? The Republican Party will be far stronger when it is unified not just for unity’s sake, but unified behind clear principles, especially pro-life principles.

When Part-Time Activists Control Results

Many aspects of politics depend on relatively arcane procedures. Knowing those procedures enables you to figure out what will work. In Virginia’s case, any registered voter can become a delegate to the Republican nominating convention. The State is divided into eleven districts, and each district is assigned a certain number of votes based on its number of registered Republicans. Rules vary slightly from district to district, but in general any registered voter can send in a form and show up at a scheduled meeting for his district in order to be selected as a delegate. If the number of potential delegates for a particular district is the same or less than the number of assigned votes, all will become delegates. If the number is greater, there may be some wrangling about who gets to go to the convention, but usually all will go and the votes will simply be fractionalized.

This means that if four hundred delegates are appointed for a district with two hundred votes, each delegate will get the equivalent of half of a vote. Thus, if three hundred delegates vote for Candidate A and one hundred for Candidate B, that district will cast a corresponding percentage of its allotted votes for each candidate: 150 for Candidate A and 50 for Candidate B. The same thing happens if only 50 delegates appear for a district with 800 votes. The delegates vote, and then the allotted votes are cast according to the percentage each candidate receives among the delegates. The voting occurs at the State Republican Convention in Richmond. The total of the votes from all the districts determines the winner. Thus did Bob Marshall receive (in round numbers) 5157 votes and Jim Gilmore 5223 votes, a difference of 66 votes. Had thirty-four votes shifted from one candidate to the other (representing whatever number of actual delegates), Jim Gilmore would have made a concession speech rather than showing a party-unity video highlighting his accomplishments.

My point is that in the process of choosing the Republican Senatorial candidate for Virginia—as in many other political processes in the United States—it is committed part-time activists who determine the outcome. The result doesn’t depend on the mass media, on widespread public perceptions, on enormous financial resources, or on full-time political manipulators. A candidate can win if he can generate intense loyalty, if he knows how to organize for this particular system, and if he can turn out a very finite number of people from the State’s various districts who are willing to sacrifice a little time and energy to serve as delegates. The lesson here is that you have to know the system. When evaluating the feasibility of some political alternative, you have to know what it takes to win in the particular kind of political battle that must be waged. If the battleground is something rather like the Republican Senatorial nomination system in Virginia, there is tremendous hope for the committed few.

Political Prudence

On the other hand, some other kinds of things simply won’t work at all. For example, American political culture has devolved into a very strong two-party system. Although it is theoretically possible for a new party to arise, in practice it is extremely rare. Americans simply don’t know how to “do politics” outside of their party system. For this reason, the effort to field a third-party candidate as an electable alternative is almost certainly doomed to abysmal failure. There may be other reasons to form, support or even run for a third party; to suggest just one possibility, there may be a particular issue to be highlighted in this way. But it is not a way to win elections, and it is more likely to tip a close election between the two major parties to the party which least shares the principles of the third party.

Figuring such things out is, again, an exercise of prudence. Too often prudence has a bad reputation, as if it can be reduced to mere caution, restraint or reticence. On the contrary, prudence is the dynamic virtue by which we correctly determine what actions will be both legitimate and effective in bringing about a desired end. In my own case, I have never been very politically active, and this was my first service as a delegate to a convention of any kind. It would be hard for me to imagine myself doing it for anything less than the pro-life cause. The enthusiasm, quasi-religious fervor, and party spirit of conventions are all utterly foreign to my personality. But there are some people who have a knack for understanding how politics works, and for choosing the proper means to achieve political ends. They have political prudence, and the rest of us have political prudence if we are sensible enough to follow their lead.

The Marshall campaign was a ground-floor exercise in political feasibility, and its lesson should not be lost, not even on a non-political homebody like me. The lesson is that we need to learn how all our various systems work. Based on this knowledge, we need to choose the battles that can actually be won. Once involved, we need to become activists at exactly the right time, in exactly the right way, for exactly the right reason. And we must never underestimate either the power of deep moral commitment to attract support, or the power of prayer to find help in unexpected places. Granted, few of us are called to the daily grind of full-time political activism. But all of us are called to political prudence, which is a very basic virtue indeed. Political prudence is all about Goliath the giant, all about God, and all about David the stripling, who chose the right stone for his sling.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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