As a guest on an NPR talk show, discussing the election results in New York's 23d Congressional District, I was asked to offer my perspective on the likely impact of the challenge mounted by "tea party" conservatives against the woman selected by local party leaders to run as the official Republican nominee. A theme ran through the conversation and through the calls from listeners: the Republican nominee was "a moderate"; the Republicans who opposed her were part of a disturbingly right-wing fringe; and the challenge was an ominous portent of a looming intra-party civil war aimed at driving responsible Republicans from the party.
Repeated often, such themes take on a life of their own. Over the past week, I have given speeches on college campuses from South Carolina to New Jersey and heard the same refrain over and over. As one who has been openly critical of the intellectually barren right and its unforgiving litmus tests, I felt a certain affinity with those who feared for what such an insistence on undeviating "purity" might mean. I've worried about that myself.
And yet at some point one must be fair. So three observations:
First, while it is true that many on the right (and on the left, but more on that later) demand conformity to their views, with disdain and hostility toward "moderates," in this case, the uprising was not against a moderate. Dede Scozzafava ain't no Olympia Snowe, she's not a Nancy Johnson, not another Chris Shays. There are party members who catch some grief within the ranks because they are less conservative than many of their Republican colleagues, but Scozzafava is not one of them. She is not a moderate; she's a liberal, well to the left of many members of the House Democratic Caucus. While that is not a knock (being a liberal is not a sin) it's not thoroughly inappropriate for a political party--if we must have them--to draw the line somewhere; otherwise party has no meaning at all. Those who believe parties serve a purpose (something I seriously doubt) are within their rights to believe that while one may differ on several issues, there is, at some point, such a thing as too much. It may be true that Republican conservatives intend to drive out their own moderate voices, but Scozzofava is not a good test case.
Second, while the Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman, was indeed supported by some certifiable loonies--Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck come to mind--they were not the only people who concluded that Hoffman was more representative than Scozzafava of the Republican perspective. Limbaugh, Beck, Sarah Palin, and others drew much of the attention (to this day I know very little of what Hoffman himself stood for; all the news was about comments by his supporters) but Tim Pawlenty, while he is a conservative, is no crazy; he has been a successful and highly-regarded governor; the same is true of Tom Cole, the former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Perhaps if the Palins, Limbaughs, and Becks had kept their distance and kept their mouths shut, and had just let the campaign play out, with Scozzafava's views becoming more apparent over time, the 23d would have elected Hoffman who would today be caucusing with Republicans.