To the mainstream media, the fight in New York State’s 23rd congressional district over the nomination of Dede Scozzafava, leading to her weekend announcement that she would “suspend” her candidacy, was about nothing more than right wingers screwing everything up. A conservative “rebellion,” the Los Angeles Times reported, fueled by “anger.” Conservatives are trying to “purge” those who disagree with them, the Washington Post frowned, in the interest of “ideological purity.”
Funny, but that’s not what most members of the media said a few years ago when Democratic leaders tried to bounce Joe Lieberman from office because he supported the war in Iraq. I don’t remember Chris Dodd being called “angry” for standing against his colleague from his own state. I didn’t hear Howard Dean being accused of a “purge” mentality for trying to remove from office his own party’s former vice presidential candidate. No, back then, liberals were acting strictly on principle.
In fact, the mainstream media’s entire storyline about supposedly intolerant conservatives is demonstrably untrue. Many times, conservatives have obliged when GOP leaders asked them to swallow hard and support unappealing moderates to further the Republican cause. It was almost a year ago exactly that conservatives who knew better cast their ballots for John McCain in the interests of party unity. Shortly after the election, McCain repaid conservatives by allowing his aides to trash his conservative running mate and then offering to “redefine” the party in his (media-favored) image. And let’s not forget his partner in crime, Lindsey Graham, who right now is working on an anti- global warming bill with John Kerry.
No, the special election in New York’s 23rd district is not about conservatives getting mad because they weren’t getting their way. It may be about something far more important. And the elites in the Republican Party better take note.
For the first time in recent memory, conservatives at the heart of the Republican Party’s political base — led by Fred Thompson, Sarah Palin, Steve Forbes, Jim DeMint, Dick Armey among others — openly defied the GOP leadership by supporting third-party candidate Doug Hoffman. Also putting principles first, the National Conservative Campaign Fund, spearheaded by some of the premier figures of the conservative movement, issued an endorsement as well. And Tea Partiers, according to reports, planned to put their grassroots muscles behind Hoffman by going door to door.
Make no mistake: the New York race was not a fight within the GOP — another Reagan versus Ford — but a fight against the GOP. What should most terrify the strategists and consultants ruling the Republican Party in Washington is that what happened in New York State may just be the beginning. With their support of Hoffman, conservatives may finally be on the cusp of deploying the political equivalent of the “nuclear option.” I like to call it “the Canada Option.”
Canadians aren’t especially well known for innovative ideas in governance (government-run health care, anyone?) Yet not that long ago, Canadian conservatives hit upon an idea that was quite creative, indeed even drastic. Fed up with a party that no longer represented their beliefs, they voted Canada’s version of the Republican Party, the oddly-named Progressive Conservatives, completely out of existence.
The Progressive Conservatives had been a major force in Canada since the 1860s — coincidentally, right about the time the Republican Party was formed in the States. Over time the Progressive Conservatives became overrun by consultants fixated on short-term tactics over a long-term strategy. Party leaders who had grown comfortable with power were entangled in corruption scandals. The party developed a reputation for mismanagement and oversaw an economic disaster said to be on a par with the Great Depression. It experienced a steady drift away from conservative principles, in favor of an ever expansive federal government, until ultimately it reached an all-time low in public opinion polls. Any of that sound familiar?
When parliamentary elections were called in 1993, Canadian conservatives, long turned off by the party, finally turned away altogether. When the election was over, the party that had ruled Canada off and on since the days of Lincoln lost every seat in parliament except for two, not even enough to qualify as a legitimate opposition group. The Progressive Conservatives, in effect, ceased to exist. In its place rose a new political organization — then called The Reform Party — that eventually became the dominant conservative force in the country. It’s doing quite well, thank you. Their current leader is now Canada’s prime minister.
The parallels are not perfect, of course. But is it finally time for American conservatives to follow the neighbors’ example — and throw all of the bums out?
Like Canada’s former ruling party, the Republicans are now being run by consultants and strategists focused on short-term political tactics — on vote margins and polling numbers rather than principles and ideas. While conservatives were pushed aside, these strategists reversed the party’s positions on illegal immigration, on climate change, on restraining spending, on a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq, on an accord with North Korea. The party of lower taxes, smaller government and a strong defense became incoherent — and unrecognizable. There is a reason why people self-identifying with the GOP reached an all-time low.
Rather than acknowledge their mistakes, instead our consultant class has looked for scapegoats. And the MSM has provided them with the usual bogeymen — those crazy conservatives. So, recently in Politico, the folks who managed the GOP’s loss of Congress and the White House blasted “conservative activists” such as the tea partiers and “flamboyant talk show hosts” like Beck and Rush for endangering a GOP resurgence. Instead, the strategists claim, we need to listen to them to regain power and find candidates who appeal to the center. It’s all about “electability” not ideology.
We’ve heard this argument before, of course. Electability was the reason why we were all supposed to back Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania over an actual conservative challenging him in the GOP primary. (Senator Specter sure knows how to express his gratitude.) It’s why party leaders are backing a disappointing “moderate” like Charlie Crist over conservative Mario Rubio in Florida. I suppose that’s also why the more media-friendly Kay Bailey Hutchison, supported by GOP elites, is now trying to unseat the more conservative Governor Rick Perry in Texas. (Is the sitting governor of Texas suddenly unelectable?) And electability was the reason we were urged to support a Congressional candidate in New York State more liberal than the Democrat in the race, until conservatives stood up en masse and finally said, “Enough.”
Even National Review, once the flagship of conservatism, is on the “electability” bandwagon. It recently published an article applauding Virginia’s gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell for “soft pedaling” his conservative beliefs and running a “non-ideological” campaign to attract moderates and independents. The article encouraged other Republicans to do the same. When did National Review decide conservatives can’t get elected?
Well, I don’t buy the “electability” argument. I never did. But even those who do buy it need to ask themselves this question. What are we electing these people for? To fill seats on the Republican side of the aisle so the leaders who disappointed us can reclaim power? Or is it more important to elect candidates who will advance the principles we believe in?
Since I mentioned National Review, I think I know how its deeply missed founder, William F. Buckley, would answer. He was wise about politics and pragmatic when he had a reason. But he didn’t wake up every morning asking himself what was the best way to advance the Republican Party. Instead his interest was how best to advance the conservative movement. As the New York race makes clear, unless our party leaders wake up those may be two very different things.
Cartoon by Brett Noel.