This is a post about a novel idea that the Republican party has thought up to boost their fortunes. Before I discuss it, I'd like to quick review the biggest challenges the two parties face going into the next election.
The first problem for Democrats is the current anti-incumbent mood of the public. People aren't happy about the state of the economy, and they're bound to take it out on current office-holders if things don't improve. That means trouble for the party in power. The second problem is apathy among Democrats. Democratic voters mostly stayed home in the 2009 election; in 2008 they represented 39% of the electorate, but only 33% of the electorate in this November's races. Furthermore there's indication that Democrats may stay home again in 2010.
The biggest problem the Republican Party has (now that people are starting to forget the scorched-earth policies of George W. Bush) is that not many Americans want to be card-carrying members. While nearly 30% of voters called themselves Republicans at the time of the 2008 elections, only 22.7% do so now. The party hasn't seen numbers this poor since its post-Watergate nadir in the 1970s. Other difficulties for the GOP include problems raising cash, the fact that it is increasingly identified as a regional party of the American south, and the fact that its leadership is increasingly made up of its nuttiest and least-informed members (Sarah Palin is clearly the party's most popular spokesperson).
So putting aside the Democrats problems for another day, here's what the GOP has come up with to get their party moving again: a "purity" test for candidates. I'll let the New York Times fill you in: "Republican leaders are circulating a resolution listing 10 positions Republican candidates should support to demonstrate that they “espouse conservative principles and public policies” that are in opposition to “Obama’s socialist agenda.” According to the resolution, any Republican candidate who broke with the party on three or more of these issues– in votes cast, public statements made or answering a questionnaire – would be penalized by being denied party funds or the party endorsement."
For the record, the resolution would force Republicans to toe the line on at least 8 of these 10 issues:
(1) Smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits and lower taxes by opposing bills like Obama's "stimulus" bill
(2) Market-based health care reform and oppose Obama-style government run healthcare;
(3) Market-based energy reforms by opposing cap and trade legislation;
(4) Workers' right to secret ballot by opposing card check
(5) Legal immigration and assimilation into American society by opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants;
(6) Victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges;
(7) Containment of Iran and North Korea, particularly effective action to eliminate their nuclear weapons threat
(8) Retention of the Defense of Marriage Act;
(9) Protecting the lives of vulnerable persons by opposing health care rationing and denial of health care and government funding of abortion; and
(10) The right to keep and bear arms by opposing government restrictions on gun ownership
Also from the Times,"the chief sponsor of the proposal, James Bopp Jr., defended the use of a 10-point list on key positions like fiscal conservatism, gun rights and abortion. He found it predictable that Democrats would be critical, saying they “relish criticizing the Republican Party for not being true to our conservative principles, which was unfortunately true with regard to support for spending, deficits and bailouts during the Bush administration, which I publicly criticized at the time. They will attack any effort to reassure voters that we are serious about restoring our conservative bona fides.”
I actually find it refreshing to hear a Republican admit that while the party talks a good game on keeping spending under control, the reality has been very different. So to pass a resolution saying in essence, "if you say one thing and do another, you'll be called to account for it," I think that's just fine.
The thing is, this proposal isn't meant to threaten politicians who don't keep their promises, it's a strong-arm tactic that attempts to force all of the party's candidates to hold identical viewpoints on the issues. I fail to understand how this actually helps Republicans to build their party and regain the majority in Congress.
Contrast the Republican strategy with the Democratic game plan. The Democratic Party supports liberal candidates everywhere it's possible to elect a liberal, and more conservative candidates in conservative districts. I support the Democratic strategy for a couple of reasons. First of all, it works. We have a large majority in Congress, and one reason for that is that we've managed to elect a Democrat in a lot of conservative districts. Some people believe these "blue dog" conservative Democrats are more trouble than their worth, but I don't. Although some of the blue dogs have made themselves pretty annoying, a Democrat who votes with us 60% of the time and who helps us raise money and build our party is preferable to a Republican who never votes with us. The second reason why I don't favor forcing Democrats to adhere to a narrow range of opinion on the issues is that is makes us the "big tent" party. We welcome people with different points of view.
The GOP purity test is nothing new of course, Republican Senator Jim DeMint offered essentially the same idea earlier this year when he said that he "would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don’t have a set of beliefs." And I still like what conservative columnist Peggy Noonan had to say about DeMint's remarks, "Good luck stopping an agenda you call socialist with 30 hardy votes. "Shrink to win": I've never heard of that as a political slogan."
So, is the GOP leadership so deluded that it really thinks that the purity test will help them? Honestly I don't think they believe that this sort of thing will help them build their party. Rather, I think James Bopp Jr. and his friends believe that the purity test resolution will help them build their own power within the party. The Republican leadership has noticed that the party has lost most of its moderate voices, which means that what remains of the base has become far more conservative. By throwing some red meat to the grassroots, Mr. Bopp is assuring his own prosperity, whether his organization prospers or not.