On Civil War

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.

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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.

Finally, and most disturbing in retrospect, is the way in which a battle between Republicans over a party nomination was considered a sign of malignancy and impending party dissolution.  Such struggles are not new within the GOP (conservative Jeff Bell knocked off incumbent Republican Senator Clifford Case in a primary; Republican Senator Charles Goodell was knocked off by conservative James Buckley; Senator Barry Goldwater's nomination for President came after a furious intraparty struggle between Goldwater conservatives and the more liberal Rockefeller-Romney-Scranton wing of the party) and the GOP survived each of those confrontations, just as it later survived the 1976 convention showdown between Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. It happens. (Full disclosure: when I was first elected to Congress, it was after a hotly-contested Republican primary between one side that was considered more conservative and one that was thought to be less so, and both sides, mine and my opponent's, brought in noted speakers from outside the state in support of our candidacies; in the years that followed, the party grew stronger, not weaker).

But that lack of historical perspective is not what most bothers me.  It is that many of the voices who have used the Hoffman-Scozzafava race as a hook to accuse the Republican Party of intolerance for dissent are likely the same people who cheered on Ned Lamont when he ran against, and defeated, fellow Democrat Joe Lieberman in Connecticut and howled in anger when Lieberman chose to continue running, as an independent, rather than simply disappearing as they hoped.  Some were probably among those Democrats who refused to allow Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey to speak at a national convention because he was pro-life, or who cheered this year when MoveOn.Org raised more than $3.5 million to run primary challenges against Democrats who blocked passage of a health care publc option, and threatened campaigns to remove Democrats in Congress from their committee chairmanships if they didn't play the game.  Perhaps these assaults against the GOP come from liberals who loved MoveOn's attacks on Democratic Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mary Landrieu, or FireDogLake.Com's campaign to unseat Harry Reid if Reid did not come through as they hoped in the health care debates.  Like Howard Dean who insisted that he alone represented the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, Democrats have shown the same capacity for demanding a toe-the-line conformity they now find so appalling among Republicans.

Let there be no accusations that I embrace the anti-Scozzafava campaign; as I have written on this site before, there is plenty to criticize in Scozzava's selection, in her campaign, and in the effort by outsiders to overturn the decision of local party officials, and probably in many other aspects of the Battle of the 23d.  But it is important to treat the issues raised more objectively than has been the case to date. Perhaps that is a conclusion with which Joe Lieberman might have cause to concur.

Photo Credit: Flickr User clarkmackey