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On Sept. 11, 1964 -- it was still summer, early in the presidential campaign -- William F. Buckley, whose National Review magazine had given vital assistance to Barry Goldwater's improbable capture of the Republican nomination, addressed the national convention of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom. Buckley told his fervent acolytes that "when we permit ourselves to peek up over the euphoria" of Goldwater's nomination, we see that it occurred "before we had time properly to prepare the ground."

He then sobered his boisterous audience: "I speak of course about the impending defeat of Barry Goldwater." He urged "the necessity of guarding against the utter disarray that sometimes follows a stunning defeat." Goldwater's doomed campaign should, Buckley said, be supported because it plants "seeds of hope, which will flower on a great November day in the future." They did, 16 Novembers later.

Buckley understood the possibility of constructive defeat. He also understood the need to economize conservatism's energies.

Today, conservatives dismayed about the Republican presidential spectacle may write a codicil to what is called the Buckley Rule. He said that in any election, conservatives should vote for the most electable conservative. The codicil might be: Unless the nomination or election of a particular conservative would mean a net long-term subtraction from conservatism's strength.

If nominated, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum might not cause such subtraction. Both are conservatives, although of strikingly different stripes. Neither, however, seems likely to be elected. Neither has demonstrated, or seems likely to develop, an aptitude for energizing a national coalition that translates into 270 electoral votes.

If either is nominated, conservatives should vote for him. But suppose the accumulation of evidence eventually suggests that the nomination of either would subtract from the long-term project of making conservatism intellectually coherent and politically palatable. If so, there would come a point when, taking stock of reality, conservatives turn their energies to a goal much more attainable than, and not much less important than, electing Romney or Santorum president. It is the goal of retaining control of the House and winning control of the Senate.

If Republicans do, their committee majorities will serve as fine-mesh filters, removing President Obama's initiatives from the stream of legislation. Then Republicans can concentrate on what should be the essential conservative project of restoring something like constitutional equipoise between the legislative and executive branches.

Such a restoration would mean that a re-elected Obama -- a lame duck at noon next Jan. 20 -- would have a substantially reduced capacity to do harm.

Beginning next January, 51 or more Republican senators, served by the canny Mitch McConnell's legislative talents, could put sand in the gears of an overbearing and overreaching executive branch. This could restore something resembling the rule of law, as distinct from government by fiats issuing from unaccountable administrative agencies exercising excessive discretion.

From Louisiana's Gov. Bobby Jindal to Wisconsin's Rep. Paul Ryan, Republicans have a rising generation of potential 2016 candidates. This does not mean conservatives should be indifferent to the fate of this year's nominee, and it is perhaps premature to despair of Romney's and Santorum's political aptitudes. Still, the presidency is not everything, and there will be another election in the next year divisible by four.