All politics is local, but Sarah Palin never got the memo. This much was made clear by the rather baffling series of events that took place leading up to the recent special election for New York’s 23rd congressional district.
The story began when President Obama appointed Congressman John McHugh, a Republican, to the position of Secretary of the Army. The vacancy generated a special election that was given unusual national attention because it did not have the cover of 434 other races occurring at the same time. This attention brought unwanted interference from outsiders, possibly changing the outcome.
Dierdre Scozzafava was selected by local party leaders as the Republican nominee, facing Democrat Bill Owens. The New York Conservative Party selected Doug Hoffman. Scozzafava, like the man she sought to replace, was a moderate Republican, as is typical in a blue-leaning state such as New York.
Her selection was a pragmatic move on the part of county leaders, hoping to maintain the Republican seat in a district where victory was far from assured. Scozzafava’s support for abortion rights and gay rights drew the ire of national Republican leaders, however, and they wasted no time swooping in and imposing their will. Palin emerged as the most outspoken critic of Scozzafava, openly questioning her conservative credentials and endorsing Hoffman. Scozzafava, clearly distraught by this, left the race and endorsed Owens, effectively handing the Democrats victory.
Palin’s involvement was inappropriate in two ways. First, she has never held national office or ever been a resident of New York. One has to wonder why her opinion was considered so important that she was able to come in and force one of the candidates out of the race. The decisions made at the local level should not be subject to review by a national figure like Palin who currently does not hold any official position.
Legislators, especially those in the House, are chosen locally because they are supposed to represent local interests and should not be bullied by talking heads who might not have those interests at heart. More troubling, however, was Palin’s attempt to purge the Republican party of moderates, a phenomenon that has occurred with increasing frequency in recent years.
Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida is currently seeking the Republican nomination for the state’s open Senate seat in 2010, but he has encountered some resistance from conservative elements of the party because of his support for the stimulus passed by Democrats in Congress. If conservatives do succeed in derailing Crist’s primary campaign, it will seriously jeopardize the GOP’s chances of success in the general election. Florida is in many ways the archetypal swing state, and a moderate like Crist makes more sense as a representative and as a nominee than a more conservative alternative.
Admittedly, in some cases running away from the center is logical. In staunchly conservative states such as South Carolina, it would not make sense to nominate a moderate, just as it made sense three years ago for liberal Democrat Ned Lamont to issue a primary challenge to moderate Joe Lieberman in staunchly liberal Connecticut. In many other cases, however, the removal of a moderate nominee may lead to electoral defeat and reduce the potential for productive debate in the legislature.
Just as swing voters are important for the health of a democracy, the presence of moderates at the national level is necessary to get things done. Look at the health care bill recently passed by the House of Representatives. The Democrats made key compromises on the issue of government funding for abortions, yet they still received only one Republican vote.
The absence of moderate Republicans makes any attempt at compromise meaningless. Political figures often speak highly of bipartisanship insisting that it is necessary for good governance while at the same time intentionally targeting the moderate legislators who are most likely to bring about that bipartisanship.
The so-called purging of moderate Republicans is bad for democracy, and ultimately it is bad for the party. Party leaders allowed the nonsense in New York’s 23rd congressional race to take place and as a result the district is now being represented by a Democrat. Dierdre Scozzafava would probably say that the GOP got what it deserved.
Spink is a Take Five Scholar.