A Battle for the GOP's Sole

shoe sole.JPGTo 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.

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Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

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