The Lesser of Two Evils Rarely Is

In December, 1976, I was a staff member for Congressman Ron Paul. In November, he had lost his campaign for re-election by fewer than 300 votes out of over 180,000. My days as a Congressional staffer were numbered — thankfully.

The Democrats in that month elected Tip O’Neill the Speaker of the House. O’Neill was unopposed. A battle raged over who would be second in command: House Majority Leader.

There were four candidates. The front-runner was Phil Burton of San Francisco, probably the most far left Congressman in the House, with the possible exception of his brother, John. Then there was Richard Bolling, a Constitutional law expert with a lot of enemies. Jim Wright of Ft. Worth was third. In fourth place was John McFall, who was plagued by a scandal.

The rules were clear: the bottom man was eliminated in each round of voting. First, McFall was eliminated; then Bolling, but just barely. It came down to Burton vs. Wright. Wright won, 148 to 147.

Wright was perceived as a moderate, but his success in pushing liberal legislation, first as Majority Leader and later as Speaker of the House, was the stuff of legend. He went along to get along, to cite another Texas Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn. He knew how to work the legislative system. He was to the House what Lyndon Johnson had been to the Senate.

When one vote determines the outcome of an election, anyone who voted can claim to be the deciding factor. One such claimant was Congressman Larry McDonald. He was the most conservative Democrat in the House in 1976. Arguably, he was the most conservative House Democrat in the twentieth century. He was a member of the John Birch Society, and had he not disappeared, along with the never-located Korean Airlines Flight 007, in 1983, he would have become the head of the JBS.

At the initial meeting of the Council for National Policy in early 1981, he and I discussed old times and new times. He made an observation that has stuck with me ever since.

The worst vote of my career was my vote for Jim Wright for Majority Leader in 1976. I thought Burton was a Communist. But if he had won, House Democrats would not have gone along with him on a lot of disastrous bills that Jim Wright pushed through.

McDonald had made a choice. He looked at the voting record of two politicians and decided that one of them was the lesser of two evils. In terms of their voting records, this assessment was correct, but in terms of their respective abilities to get bills passed and signed into law by the newly elected President, Jimmy Carter, it was incorrect. McDonald recognized this too late.


In 2008, Americans will go to the polls, hold their noses with one hand and with their other hand either punch holes in cards or tap computer screens. They will vote for the lesser of two evils. This unhappy condition is the outcome of decades of campaign reform laws passed by incumbent politicians who wrote the reform laws so that they could remain incumbent, which they generally did. This is the politics of political action committees, huge bankrolls for media ad purchases, and spinmeisters.

Only a terminally naïve voter expects to see much good come out of a Presidential election. He hopes only that the worst outcome will not result.

Hope springs eternal. That’s the problem with hope. It keeps springing because it rarely comes true.

The lesser of two evils, because he or she is not widely perceived as being consistently evil, can gain cooperation from the uncommitted middle. Meanwhile, he or she receives reduced opposition from the ideological hard core on the other side of the issues.


In 1968, millions of Republicans voted for Richard Nixon. They voted for him overwhelmingly in 1972, the year after he had unilaterally severed the dollar from gold. He had run back-to-back deficits of $25 billion — a huge annual deficit in that era. It is unlikely that the ineffective gas bag Hubert Humphrey would have had the courage to destroy the last traces of the international gold standard. Yet Humphrey almost won in 1968. Republican die-hards had kept this from happening.

In the summer of 1972, Richard Whalen’s book, Catch the Falling Flag: A Republican’s Challenge to His Party, documented the story of the takeover of the Administration by Rockefeller operatives. Whalen had been a speechwriter for Nixon during the 1968 campaign. He knew firsthand what had occurred. Republicans paid no attention to his book in November. “Nixon is ours.” They re-elected him in November.

Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, took control over the Nixon Administration early. He had managed his 1968 campaign. He led the massacre of the campaign’s conservative staffers even before Nixon was inaugurated, as Whalen’s book revealed. He once made this observation: “Watch what we do, not what we say.” They did, and he went to jail, but only because the tapes let the prosecution hear what they said.

Mitchell was closely associated with Nelson Rockefeller. Shortly after his inauguration in 1969, Nixon told of a meeting he had with Rockefeller:

I remember in that respect a conversation I had with the Governor, at which your new Attorney General was present, shortly after I had won the nomination of the Republican Party in Miami Beach and the Governor came in to congratulate me. Mr. Mitchell was there. I started to introduce the two and Governor Rockefeller very graciously said, “I know John Mitchell. You know, he is my lawyer. Or, I should say, he was my lawyer.”

Yet anti-Rockefeller Republicans overwhelming re-elected Nixon in 1972, preferring him to liberal George McGovern, an ineffectual politician if there ever was one, as his former Vice Presidential running mate, Thomas Eagleton, had learned earlier in the year. Nixon was perceived as the lesser of two evils.

A replay of this scenario took place with George H. W. Bush in 1988. The ineffective Democratic dork from Massachusetts would have had no power to do much of anything. But Republicans voted for Bush. Bush’s White House was run by James Baker, just as Reagan’s had been whenever Reagan wasn’t paying attention, which was most of the time. Republicans did not notice or else did not care if they did notice.

If Al Gore had been elected in 2000, we would not have the Iraq war today. We would have had an insufferable bore in the White House, but not the Patriot Act.


There is a lesson here: voting for the lesser of two evils generally produces greater evil. The victor is generally a “go along to get along” sort of fellow. He gets along famously with the power brokers who make most of the policy decisions, either Council on Foreign Relations Team A or Council on Foreign Relations Team B.

Decade after decade, generation after generation, die-hard party voters fail to learn this lesson. Larry McDonald learned it. He learned it too late.

No one has to vote for the lesser of two evils. It is sufficient that voters show up to vote against local bond issues. “None of the above” works just fine for everything else. “Don’t tap that screen!”

June8, 2007

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 19-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2007