The Cleansing

The purification process -- hard-core and uncompromising partisans driving heretics from their ranks -- has been going on for a long time.  Saturday's Republican convention in Utah, the one in which conservative Senator Robert Bennett was defeated for being not conservative enough (despite an 84 percent approval rating from the American Conservative Union), is just one more step in a decades-long effort to drive independent thought from the political decisionmaking process.

This year, of course, attention has been focused primarily on Marco Rubio's success in driving Florida Governor Charlie Crist out of the Republican Party (he's now running for the Senate as an Independent) and former Congressman Pat Toomey's success in converting Republican Senator Arlen Specter into a Democrat.  But in both of those cases one can argue that the targeted incumbent was simply too far out of step with his own party.  The same ACU ratings index on which Bennett scored an 84 gave Specter a 40.  The ratings only measure members of Congress but Crist had more than once angered party members with his support of initiatives that were fiercely opposed by most Republicans.  But given Bennett's long embrace of conservative positions, with relatively few departures from the party-line script over a period of nearly two decades, what happened in Utah was something of a very different and disturbing nature.  It was checklist politics, a demand for suspension of judgment and lockstep adherence to an ideological instruction manual that would brook no deviation.

That is important in assessing what is happening in the political wars.  When Jeff Bell, a member of the American Conservative Union's board of directors, took on and defeated incumbent Republican Senator Clifford Case in a party primary in 1978, it was because Bell's views were, in Republican terms, more mainstream than those of the liberal Case.  It was not a matter of the extremes knocking off the middle but of a traditional conservative ousting a Republican who was, for all practical purposes, not a Republican at all.  Similarly, two years later, Alfonse D'Amato knocked off incumbent Republican Senator Jacob Javits, another liberal, in a New York primary.

When Ned Lamont defeated incumbent Senator Joseph Lieberman in Connecticut's Democratic Senate primary -- after Lieberman had been his party's vice presidential nominee -- it was because one overriding issue -- war -- was of sufficient weight to overshadow the rest of Lieberman's record and his Democratic credentials.  War is a trump card; absent Lieberman's support for the invasion of Iraq, it is unlikely that he would have been challenged by a fellow Democrat, much less be defeated, even though he had long been known for speaking his own mind (as witnessed by his forceful condemnation of Bill Clinton in the wake of the Lewinsky affair).

To be clear, Bennett's defeat in Utah was not an unprecedented challenge of an incumbent who was just not as conservative as his opponent.  Ronald Reagan almost defeated the generally conservative Gerald Ford in 1976 when Ford was seeking the Republican nomination to succeed himself in the White House.  But for the most part, parties have been willing to allow some departure from the party line if a legislator's overall record has been sufficiently on key.

Signs that this is changing were seen recently within the governing ranks of the GOP, with local party leaders attempting to force National Chairman Michael Steele to adopt a "purity" test to determine which Republican candidates would receive the party's financial support.  Steele refused to go along but it is the same sentiment that has now ended Robert Bennett's Senate career.

When the voters send a man or woman to write the laws, in Washington or a state capitol, that legislator is obligated to weigh seriously the views of his or her constituents, to examine thoroughly the important issues of the day and the proposals to deal with them, and to consult the relevant constitution (federal or state) and then act accordingly.  Increasingly, the last two items on that list -- intelligent assessment and constitutional constraint -- are being driven from the process.  One is expected to listen -- and to obey -- the preferences, indeed the demands, not of "constituents" but of that small band of constituents who dominate party primaries and party conventions.

Ironically, those who demand such mindless conformity cry out a demand for adherence to the Constitution, even as they undermine the most important principles of rational constitutional self-government.