Jewish World Review March 16, 2004 / 23 Adar, 5764
John H. Fund
The Vanishing Center: In both political parties, the defense of moderation is no virtue
Interest groups are making it clear they will punish renegade officeholders if they stray too far from party orthodoxy. In primaries in Texas and California this month, liberals flexed their muscle and defeated several Democrats who had shown an ability to work with Republicans. Next month, liberal Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a liberal Republican, will face what appears to be an increasingly formidable primary challenge from Rep. Pat Toomey, who has the support of antitax advocates and social conservatives.
In California, Ted Lempert, a former state assemblyman, lost the Democratic race for a vacant state Senate seat south of San Francisco. The winner, Assemblyman Joe Simitian, had the backing of unions representing prison guards and teachers. Mr. Lempert had expressed skepticism about generous union contracts, and once worked for a group that promoted charter schools.
Ideological enforcers were even more in evidence in Texas, where trial lawyers are furious at the role some Democratic state legislators played in putting Proposition 12, which capped medical malpractice damages, on the ballot last year. The measure won, 51% to 49%, and one member of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association told me his group's members planned to punish any legislator who embraced further tort reform. That effectively means Democrats, because their effort to defeat state Rep. Joe Nixon in a GOP primary failed by a 3-to-1 margin.
But liberals had more success in last week's Democratic primaries. Five Democrats who stood accused of playing footsie with Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick on various issues were either defeated or forced into runoffs. State Rep. Roberto Gutierrez was forced into a runoff for backing tort reform.
The most prominent scalp was that of state Rep. Ron Wilson of Houston, a 26-year-incumbent and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, who lost outright. Liberals had other grievances against him stemming from his refusal to join fellow Democrats in abandoning the House floor and fleeing to Oklahoma last year in an unsuccessful attempt to block a new GOP congressional gerrymander. Rep. Glenn Lewis, a Fort Worth Democrat who also declined to go to Oklahoma, lost to Marc Veasey, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Martin Frost. Mr. Frost, in turn, is one of the Democrats most vulnerable in November owing to the GOP redistricting plan.
Some of the defeated Democrats were bitter. "I still don't think it was a good idea for Democrats who are in the minority [in the Legislature] to say we reject bipartisanship," Mr. Lewis says. "It's the only way Democrats are going to get anything."
Mr. Wilson, who is black, was even more blunt. "Because I didn't do what the white, liberal, extremist Democratic leaders wanted me to do, they're trying to punish me," he told the Houston Chronicle. "They think they ought to control the minds and hearts of every black in the Democratic Party, and if you don't do what they say, they're going to try to drag you back to the plantation like a runaway slave."
Democratic consultant Marc Campos agrees that minority legislators are held to a tougher standard of party orthodoxy than whites. He notes that former Democratic House Speaker Pete Laney backed George W. Bush for president in 2000. "Nobody punished him, nobody said anything, so it's selective and, in my opinion, it's also racist," Mr. Campos told the Houston Chronicle. "The master wants you to act a certain way, and they particularly want minorities to do it."
Republicans have their own tensions over party orthodoxy. Some moderates describe themselves as a beleaguered minority within their own party. "I don't think conservatives fully appreciate they wouldn't control the House or Senate without moderates from the Northeast," says Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut. Conservatives say they understand electoral realities and point out that they've backed primary challengers to only two House moderates--Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland and Marge Roukema of New Jersey--both of whom held safe GOP seats. Mr. Gilchrest fended off conservative challengers by 3-to-2 margins in both 2002 and 2004. Ms. Roukema narrowly defeated conservative Scott Garrett in 1998 and 2000 and did not seek re-election in 2002.
Stephen Moore, who heads the free-market Club for Growth, says even in defeat conservative primary challenges can make a difference: "Gilchrest voted for the Bush tax cut last year knowing he'd be called to account for his stand, and Roukema gave up and retired in 2002 and was easily replaced by Scott Garrett."
Rep. Toomey's April 27 challenge to Sen. Specter, a 24-year-incumbent, is more controversial because Al Gore carried Pennsylvania in 2000. Republican backers of Mr. Specter, such as the conservative Sen. Rick Santorum, say that Mr. Toomey would find it difficult to replicate Mr. Specter's support in the vote-rich Philadelphia suburbs. Toomey backers, on the other hand, argue that the liberal voting record of Rep. Joe Hoeffel, the likely Democratic candidate, gives their man a real shot at winning in the fall. "Toomey is no more conservative than Rick Santorum, and Hoeffel is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who just voted against a bill to protect children in the womb in murder cases like that of Laci Peterson," says one Republican state legislator.
The White House is backing Mr. Specter, following both a tradition of supporting Senate incumbents and in recognition that Mr. Specter, who is in line to chair the Judiciary Committee, has recently provided help on several of President Bush's judicial nominees. But all of that support plus a $9 million bank account hasn't allowed Mr. Specter to put the race away. Recent polls show Mr. Specter hovering at or below the critical 50% support level that denotes an endangered incumbent, and the Club for Growth has run ads highlighting how many times he has voted with John Kerry, who the Club notes was ranked last month in the National Journal's vote index as the most liberal senator.
Mr. Moore says his group seldom enters GOP primaries and then only when the incumbent violates basic Republican tenets. "Low taxes are the central linchpin of conservatism," he says. "It's possible to disagree about abortion, gay rights or the proper level of military spending, but we can't disagree about our one unifying message as conservatives."
Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, concurs. He notes that since President Bush's defeat in 1992, in part because he abandoned his no-new-taxes pledge, the national GOP has seen opposition to higher taxes as an easy way to brand itself with voters. Since 1990 no Republican congressman has voted to increase federal taxes.
As an incumbent, Mr. Specter remains favored to win next month, but he's clearly worried. Having taken heat for opposing President Bush's first tax cut in 2001, he switched and embraced the even more ambitious 2003 tax cut. But his record is still liberal enough to attract the ire of many conservative groups.
With Congress so evenly divided, the pressure on individual officeholders to back their party's prevailing positions on issues has become more intense. With party primaries increasingly featuring low turnout that is dominated by ideological voters--as this year's Democratic presidential contests were--you can expect more primary challenges against dissenters in the future.
The argument against such primary challenges is that moderate voters in general elections don't want candidates who deviate too much from the mainstream. But that calculation doesn't matter as much anymore, as more and more districts are gerrymandered to eliminate competitive elections. Even in competitive seats, if both parties nominate ideologues, voters who are neither conservative nor liberal may not have much choice but to go either right or left, since the middle is fast disappearing.
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