Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Last Night’s Primaries

Not so long ago, American ideologues gazed longingly at European political parties because they were sufficiently centralized and ideologically unified to serve a principled governing agenda. Here, liberals were trapped within a Democratic Party with a southern conservative wing ready at the drop of a hat to join Republicans in opposing progressive reforms, and conservatives were trapped within a Republican Party with a northeastern liberal wing that refused to question the ideological premises of the New Deal. Neither party could muster up enough collective will to satisfy its ideological purists.

From the purists’ perspective, both parties have changed for the better by becoming more centralized and more ideologically homogeneous. In the old days, the Republican Party leadership couldn’t have prevailed on its northeastern wing to stand in unified opposition to a liberal president, and the Democratic Party couldn’t have persuaded its moderates from conservative districts to walk the plank for ObamaCare. Now that RINOS and DINOS are both endangered species, ideologues are getting to fight the political battles they’ve been preparing for all their political lives.

But yesterday’s primaries demonstrate that increased ideological unity in a political party doesn't necessarily enhance its capacity to act collectively. John Avlon suggests that the net effect of yesterday’s primaries is an increase in ideological polarization between parties at the expense of each party’s capacity to execute coherent political strategies:

“[T]here’s no question that Rand Paul rode the Tea Party tidal wave to victory last night over the Republican establishment—and in the process, he set up the possibility of a Ron Paul-ite libertarian dynasty in Congress. Paul will now face Democrat Attorney General Jack Conway in the fall, and DNC Chairman Tim Kaine lost no time in tipping their general election strategy, firing off a press release calling Paul an “extremist” within minutes of his win.

”In Pennsylvania, the ultimate swing state, the swing senator did not fare so well last night. Arlen Specter, the longest serving senator in the Keystone State’s history, was forcibly retired from his four-decade political career in a closed Democratic primary. It was close for much of the night, but the Democratic union machine could not generate enough grassroots enthusiasm to pull the former Republican senator across the finish line. Instead, Rep. Joe Sestak, a former Naval Admiral representing the Philadelphia suburbs, was able to take on the establishment and win.”
Last night both parties became a little more ideologically homogeneous and a little less capable of keeping insurgents from undermining their collective decisions. Specter’s loss diminished Obama’s control of over the Democratic Party and doomed his efforts to secure crucial senate votes from Republican moderates by showing he could take political care of them. The Republican Party became more conservative at the expense of Mitch McConnell’s capacity to keep Republicans in the Senate on the same page.

Ideologically homogeneous parties needn't be strong parties.

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