Thursday, September 16, 2010

Mike Castle's loss: When what's good for the Democrats is bad for the country

By now you’ve heard that Mike Castle, the moderate Republican running in his party’s Senate primary in Delaware, was shockingly defeated by Tea Party radical Christine O’Donnell. The consensus in the Beltway is that this is great news for Democrats, as they now get to face off against a tax-evading lunatic instead of a two-time governor. Even Karl Rove was disappointed.

As a Democrat, you’d think I’d be thrilled. But I’m not. Because in this case, what’s good for Democrats is bad for the country. What this country needs isn’t more liberal Democrats—we need more moderate Republicans.

The problem is that as a smaller Republican Party becomes dominated by an increasing percentage of right-wing zealots, those zealots gain increasing power to pressure the few remaining moderates to toe the line on orthodoxy. Just look at John McCain, who as recently as 2008 supported cap-and-trade in his official campaign platform, and now calls it “cap-and-tax.” No Republican can work with Democrats in this climate, even on issues they AGREE on, because they’re afraid of being singled out for extermination.

As the Republican leadership pulls further rightward, it pulls rank-and-file voters with it, as voters change their views on the issues to align with the dominant views of the party they want to vote for. Decades of political science research shows that party identification is by far the number one driver of voting behavior — not issue positions or even liberal-conservative ideology. So as the party becomes more radical, some voters do indeed abandon ship, but the vast majority find themselves voting for more radical candidates, hence radicalizing their own views ex post facto to align with the choices they’ve found themselves making. (Which, incidentally, is why it’s absurd for politicians to change their views willy-nilly to match whatever they think voters want).

The media is no watchdog either, because it too views politics through the lens of party horserace and not ideology. If Republicans don’t support the President’s policies, the media automatically interprets this as a lack of bipartisanship on his part instead of his opponents’ radicalism. So when the Republican leadership opposes bread and butter measures like improvements to roads and bridges, these become “controversial government spending” instead of “common sense investments.” Heck, in this climate, if the President proposed giving little American flags to war widows, it would quickly become controversial.

But if just a few more moderate Republicans could slip in the door, they could form a critical mass that would give others the political cover to work with Democrats on common sense measures to move the country forward. If ten Republicans got together on cap-and-trade, it would no longer be a Democratic proposal—it would be a bipartisan one. But that’s just not possible with so few lonely moderates left.

Who knows, if the chance arose, I might vote for a moderate Republican over a liberal Democrat… if DC residents had a vote, that is.

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