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Get Off the Sidelines

Mar 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 25 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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“No one can or should sit on the sidelines.”

—Hillary Clinton, at the University of Miami,
February 26, 2014

Hillary Clinton is right. Well, partly right. Her characteristic disregard for personal freedom and her instinctive love of the nanny state lead her to say that no one can sit on the sidelines. That’s wrong. In a liberal society that respects the private sphere, citizens can choose to stay off the playing field of politics. Indeed, some should do so. Many of our great national achievements come from individuals staying far from the madding political crowd, and deciding instead to engage in business enterprises, or to strive for manifold forms of intellectual or artistic greatness, or to engage in an array of nonpolitical activities that manifest human decency and even nobility.

But Clinton is right in this respect. If you’re already engaged in public life—in particular, if you’re a conservative, if you care about the Constitution and about your country—you shouldn’t be on the sidelines at this moment of national crisis. In this year’s election control of the Senate is at stake, and with it the ability of Congress to mitigate the further damage the Obama administration will seek to do in its final two years. 

Of course, 2016 is the true time for choosing. Another four years of a Democratic president would mean that Obamacare survives, the Supreme Court is lost, and American world leadership is gone. Another four years of contemporary liberalism in power would leave conservatives able only to mutter a sad “so long” to limited government, to wave goodbye to the original Constitution, and to say a fond farewell to American greatness.

So conservatives need to step up. The Weekly Standard spent much of 2011 imploring men whom we judged would be superior candidates and better presidents than those already running to join the race for the 2012 Republican nomination. For various reasons, Mike Pence and Mitch Daniels and Paul Ryan and Chris Christie resisted the call. Perhaps they were right to do so. 

This time we do not intend to do any imploring. Those who don’t want to run shouldn’t. We will assume that if good men and women hesitate, there’s a good reason.

But we will honor those who take the plunge. A couple of weeks ago, our friend and frequent Weekly Standard contributor Jeffrey Bell announced his intention to seek the Republican nomination for Senate in New Jersey. Bell won that nomination as a young man in 1978. An unknown, he engineered a historic defeat of the incumbent liberal Republican, Clifford Case. Even though Bell lost the general election to Bill Bradley, his upset played a role in changing the character of the Republican party and in paving the way for Ronald Reagan in 1980. 

Bell has had a fruitful career since then as a conservative activist and thinker. He didn’t have to choose to once again subject himself to the rigors of elective politics. But he did. As it happens, we suspect, contrary to conventional wisdom, that Bell has a chance—an outside chance—to defeat the overrated incumbent, Cory Booker. We think he has a good chance to help the overall conservative cause by running. The fact is, despite the long odds, Bell is back in the arena, trying to perform yet another service for his cause and for his country.

Good for him. Other conservatives should be inspired by his example. They should also be inspired by these words of Thomas Paine—who, though, not much of a conservative, was a patriot of the first order:

“The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. .  .  . We have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.”

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