The tea party’s purge of Mike Castle in the Delaware Republican senatorial primary brings to mind a chat I once had with a conservative think tank analyst named Marshall Wittmann. We were sitting in a Washington coffee shop,
shooting the breeze about political trends, when he said this:
“The moderate Republican is an endangered political species. It’s increasingly stifling to be a moderate in that party.”
At the time of our conversation – late May, 2001 – the species was already on life support. Its breathing became increasingly irregular during the ensuing years, and now the tea party has come along to pull the plug. When a seasoned and popular moderate like Castle can’t win a party primary when matched against a far-right neophyte who thinks that God begat the world in six 24-hour increments, you know that the moderate species is virtually as dead as the dodo.
Indeed, Castle is the latest victim on a lengthening list of casualties.
Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania and Charlie Crist in Florida were virtually chased out of the party. Jim Jeffords, a Vermont senator, left on his own nine years ago because he felt unwelcome. Lisa Murkowski lost her Senate primary in Alaska this summer in part because she was tagged as a moderate for supporting abortion rights. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that any of the prominent GOP moderates of yesteryear – including Ed Brooke in Massachusetts, Chuck Mathias in Maryland, Lowell Weicker in Connecticut, Jacob Javitz in New York, Mark Hatfield in Oregon, John and Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island – could draw sufficient grassroots Republican support today.
The purging process actually began 40 years ago. President Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” was successful in wooing white Dixie Democrats who disliked the JFK-LBJ civil rights agenda; fittingly, Strom Thurmond was one of the first to jump parties. As a result, the moderate Republicans were increasingly marginalized. The GOP’s rightward ideological movement accelerated during the Reagan years; as the 1983 chairman of the College Republican declared, conservatives should not “seek peaceful coexistence with the left. Our job is to remove them from powerful permanently.” (Care to guess who that was? Felon-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, current denizen of a halfway house.) Today, the tea party is arguably the purity movement’s final culmination.
Some conservative commentators have been smart enough to spot the absurdity of weeding out the impure; after all, politics is about the art of the possible, and it’s tough to get anything done if everybody is hunkered in an ideological bunker. Nearly a year ago, for instance, the columnist Kathleen Parker (no friend of the Obama administration) argued that the right-wing purists were “pandering to America’s inner simpleton,” that Republican politicians should have the right to take nuanced positions and engage in nuanced thought. Indeed, she wondered, “When did thinking go out of style?”
Of course, the Democrats on occasion have suffered their own ideological paroxysms. They swung sharply leftward in 1972, nominating George McGovern for president, thereby ceding the center. We all know how well that election turned out for them. Eight years later, liberals rose up against centrist president Jimmy Carter, and tried to hand the nomination to Ted Kennedy. They wound up splitting the party and ensuring Ronald Reagan’s comfortable November win. Democrats didn’t recover until ’92, when Bill Clinton took the party back to the middle; indeed, the current (and imperiled) Democratic congressional majority was achieved only because the Democrats eschewed purity in favor of recruiting moderate candidates for swing states and districts.
Now it’s the GOP’s turn to sort out its identity crisis. The hitch, however, is that the refashioned DeMint-Palin-Hannity-Limbaugh party does not see itself in crisis. It views the purging of moderates as a sign of health, soon to be ratified by a midterm electorate that will be older and whiter and more conservative than the broader electorate of a presidential year.
But the giddy high of victory could prove fleeting. Unless gloomy grassroots Democrats wake up and foil the GOP’s November plans (don’t count on it), the more purist Republican roster will face its great test in 2011. They’ll no longer have the luxury of sloganeering and simply saying No. They’ll have to share the responsibility of governing, of actually talking substance with the other party, of getting things done via the art of the possible.
As bad as things look for Democrats at the moment, it’s instructive to note the fine print in today’s New York Times-CBS News poll: Only 19 percent of Americans approve of how the congressional Republicans are handling their jobs – 10 points lower than the rating for Democrats. Just wait until next year (assuming a GOP takeover) when a more right-leaning Republican cadre orchestrates gridlock. It’s impossible to govern from a bunker, buoyed by grassroots anger. The moderate Republicans, once so numerous, always knew that.