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When parties prize purity, the national interest suffers

An editorial I found.

Our view: Specter's defection is latest manifestation of troubling trend.
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's decision to become a Democrat, rather than face likely defeat in a Republican primary dominated by conservatives, has produced two story lines. One is that the GOP is in a kind of death spiral as the defection of moderates pushes it further to the right, causing other moderates to leave or be pushed out. The second is that Specter is a calculating pol whose overarching interest is his re-election.

Both themes ring true. But they miss the larger — and troubling — historical trend of polarization in both parties.

The nation needs lawmakers willing to buck orthodoxy. It needs people who will make tough choices on Social Security, deficit reduction, immigration, health care and more. Since the choices are sure to be unpopular, they cannot be tackled by one party with the other simply lying in wait.

And yet within both parties, ideological conformity is increasingly seen as a virtue. If the parties aren't sharply demarcated, the argument goes, voters will be confused or unsatisfied with the choices.

In reality, the parties and interest groups care more about ideological purity than do voters. About a third of all voters call themselves independents. Many more are willing to cross party lines for the right candidate.

But for the officeholder, the political middle has increasingly become a dangerous place. Factions within each party are able to reward loyalty with contributions, plum committee assignments and more. Those seen as disloyal are ostracized, marginalized and forced into tough primary races.

The result is a two-party system of oil and water. In the House of Representatives, where this trend is most pronounced, just six members out of 435 voted against their party more than 30% of the time in the two-year term ending in January, according to Congressional Quarterly.

Compare this with the 1980s, when the so-called Reagan revolution was made possible in large part by Democratic crossover votes. The Social Security rescue in 1983, and tax reform in 1986, were victories for bipartisanship, as was the 1990 deficit-reduction act.

In recent years, conservatives' efforts to go after Specter and other GOP moderates have been particularly counterproductive. Since 2004, some 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania have become Democrats. And yet an organization called the Club for Growth decided to field and fund an economically conservative candidate to defeat Specter, arguably the only Republican who could have won back these voters in 2010.

The Club for Growth has been particularly aggressive about targeting Republicans deemed insufficiently committed to its anti-tax agenda, but the polarizing trend is not limited to the GOP. In 2006, liberal groups angry at Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman's support of the Iraq war lined up behind a more doctrinaire, anti-war candidate, Ned Lamont. Lamont defeated Lieberman in the Democratic primary. But Connecticut law allowed Lieberman (who, unlike his party's leaders, was right about the Iraq troop surge) to have the last laugh, by running in the general election as an independent, and winning.

Purging centrists is in neither party's interest. More important, it's not in the nation's interest. The lawmaker who displeases the party activists is very often the one of most service to the public.

Click to view image: 'centrist'

Added: Apr-30-2009 Occurred On: Apr-30-2009
By: bardville
Iraq, News
Tags: Specter, centrist, boring, Leiberman, fleshwurst
Views: 7526 | Comments: 4 | Votes: 0 | Favorites: 0 | Shared: 0 | Updates: 0 | Times used in channels: 1
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  • no comments? I guess the divisions are too deep.

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  • The author makes a couple good points, that the partisan atmosphere, or even that the parties themselves, are destructive to the interests of the citizens, and the implied point that the present system of electing representatives is broken.

    Posted Apr-30-2009 By 

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  • And thanks for the post!

    Posted Apr-30-2009 By 

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    • You're welcome. I remember the whole healthcare thing - and the idea of Health Savings Accounts (HSA). When the Democrats introduced it the Republicans hated the idea, and voted it down. Years later the Republicans introduced almost identical legislation, and they passed it.

      They simply wanted their party's name to be attached. The Dems do the same thing.

      Posted Apr-30-2009 By 

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