To some, the election contest in New York's 23rd Congressional District is a thing of high drama, with the advocates of competing political perspectives engaged in a mighty struggle to shape the outlines of a resurgent Republican Party. It is a battle, we are told, for the very soul of the GOP. The truth is, it's more like a battle for the party's sole, a low-minded race to the political bottom.
The part of that race that has captured the greatest attention is the Republican "primary." One of the candidates in this sad story is running on the Republican Party ticket and the other as the nominee of the "Conservative Party" but that's a technicality: in a real sense, it's an intra-party fight being waged between high-profile Republicans (and, in the grand tradition of a circular firing squad, one that might well result in the election of the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens, who is the likely beneficiary of the Republican blood-letting and would have no prayer of victory without it).
These are the camps. On the one hand, those who support the official Republican Party candidate, Scozzofava, despite her open support of positions anathema to many Republican activists--gay marriage, abortion, eliminating secret ballots for workers pressured to join a labor union. In Scozzofava's corner are a peculiar band of Republicans who seem not to care a whit for who she is or what she believes. Like Newt Gingrich, one of her more prominent supporters, they care nothing about issues, values, philosophy of government, or any other similarly trivial concern. No matter what she believes, they believe she can win. And all they care about in this perpetual war between the political version of the Jets and Sharks is victory, no matter to what purpose. It is triumph, and its attendant spoils, that define the game.
Then there are those who do care about views, values, philosophies, ideas, directions, priorities, and the like. Unlike the Gingrich crowd, which is single-minded in its pursuit of the spoils of political war, these people, supporting the "conservative" alternative to the Republican candidate, are more high-minded. So high-minded, in fact, that they not only believe strongly, they believe others should believe strongly, too, and in exactly the same ways. Whereas the Gingrich crowd is without scruple, the Sarah Palin-Tim Pawlenty crowd which is supporting Doug Hoffman has nothing but scruple, and apparently believes in its scruples so fervently that no departure from them is to be tolerated. To them, a Republican who supports "choice" in abortion or state-sanctioned relationships between gay couples is no Republican at all, despite the fact that the founders of the modern conservative movement were strongly libertarian in their belief that what people did in their private lives was, for the most part, none of the government's, or their neighbors', business.
To be clear, so long as we live with a political system dominated by two rival power-seeking private clubs, it is perfectly acceptable - even appropriate - to battle over the kinds of candidates one's club will put forth. In my own first race for Congress I was endorsed by national conservatives who raised money for my campaign and came to Oklahoma to speak on my behalf during a hotly-contested party primary. But the Republican Party also supported far more liberal candidates in those communities which shared their values (one, Silvio Conte, a liberal from western Massachusetts, became the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee and a de facto member of the party leadership; when Conte walked onto the House floor for votes, Republican whips would point out the party's position but in some cases suggest that he would probably want to vote differently). Where the campaign in New York departs from either of those models is in the extreme positions staked out by the two rival camps: on the one hand, those who, in the tradition of "yellow dog Democrats", who would vote for a dog if it were of the right party, there is the Gingrich band which is committed to party dominance and nothing else; on the other, the Palin brand of Republican with its checklist of "acceptable" positions and its intolerance for diversity.
This, then, is the battle for the GOP's "soul" - a war between "no principle" and "no diversity". If this election is truly a microcosm of the "debates" within the Republican brain, perhaps Joe the Plumber was not as unrepresentative of the party's intellectual center as I had hoped.
UPDATE: Dede Scozzafava is now gone (though sure to remain as the answer to trivia questions) and presumably gone from the Republican Party as well, having apparently decided that her detractors were right all along and that she's more in tune with Democrats than with the GOP. The question is whether local party loyalists, many of whom stuck with her despite misgivings, will follow her across the political aisle and vote for the Democratic candidate, whom she has now endorsed. The race is close enough that if even a few of her small number of supporters decide to cross over, the Democrats may well succeed in picking up another formerly Republican seat. The White House will proclaim it a victory for the Obama-Pelosi agenda; a better read would be to cast it as a weird anomaly (emphasis on "weird") reflecting the struggle by Republicans to decide what face they want to present to a country that has turned its back on them.
This race won't decide that question; it'll be fought out again and again (it's happening now in Florida), just as it has happened for decades as party activists try to decide whether they are Republicans first or conservatives first -- and if they are "conservatives" first, what, exactly, is a conservative? The GOP may not be much for governance, but it makes for great theater!
Photo Credit: Flickr User Robert S. Donovan and wikimedia commons