Sunday, May 18, 2008

Moderate opportunity?

Linking a study of the voting records of Hillary, Obama and McCain, Ed Morrisey says:
In 1968, McCain would have been on the right wing of the Republican Party, and both Obama and Clinton would have been significantly on the left side of the Democrats. By 1988, McCain exists squarely in the GOP’s mainstream, and both Obama and Clinton remain on the left wing of the Democrats. Now, McCain’s fixed 2008 position puts him on the moderate side of the party, while the mainstream of Democrats have just barely reached Obama and Clinton’s position. . . .
What does this mean? It shows that RINOs and DINOs exist largely as mythology. Congress has become a place where party-line votes prevail on an almost-exclusive basis. . . .
Much has been made of independent runs from Bob Barr, Ron Paul, and Ralph Nader, but this shows that they also miss the point. The opportunity for political traction doesn’t come from the extremes of the Left and Right, but from the center.
Ed's analysis is wrong, but I don't know that I have the time or energy right now to fully explain why he's wrong. Just briefly:
  • Ed mistakes party-line voting for a real ideological divergence. To those of us who are conservatives, this ignores the fundamental question of the size, scope and expense of government. The conservative complaint is that, since 1997, congressional Republicans have abandoned any effort to shrink and limit the federal government. Where are the roll-call votes on abolishing the National Endowment for the Arts and zeroing out the Department of Education? These things don't show up in the charts Ed references, so he's scoring a game that's being played between the 40-yard lines.
  • Ed ignores the fact that party leadership controls the legislative agenda. The leadership can pick fights or avoid fights. If enough House Republicans don't want to take a stand on a controversial issue, John Boehner & Co. can use the process to ensure that there is no roll-call vote that would put them on one side or the other of the issue. As a result, policy may drift uncharted by the metric employed by Ed's source.
  • To advocate a middle-of-the-road strategy is to assume that Left and Right are morally equivalent, and that there is thus some virtue to steering between those two "extremes." Is there a defensible middle ground between truth and error? Can we compromise between good and evil? If conservatives believe our ideas are true and good, then we should advance those ideas fearlessly. To be compelled into legislative compromise on occasion is inevitable, but we should never confuse compromise with success.
  • The "moderate opportunity" scenario ignores the actual history of our politics. Political change -- new initiatives that reshape the landscape -- always begins at the margins of acceptable discourse. In 1960, how many candidates would have run on a platform endorsing legalized abortion? Yet the militance of the pro-choice movement was such that by 1973, the Supreme Court struck down the abortion laws of 49 states, and opposition to this ruling was (at least in the immediate aftermath) weak and disorganized.
Many issues that we take for granted today as part of the public discourse were once "fringe" issues of interest only to "extremists." Less than 15 years ago, for example, Clinton was able to ram the so-called "assault weapons" ban through Congress, and only "gun nuts" spoke out. Yet the ban quietly expired in 2004, and not even hard-core liberal Democrats have shown any real interest in reviving it. The political landscape changes, and the force for change begins at the margins.

In general, I would say beware of liberal academics decrying "polarization" in politics. Liberals certainly do not advocate unilateral disarmament by liberals, so their criticism of "polarization" is actually a demand for the unconditional surrender by conservatives.

Like McAuliffe at Bastogne, I answer, "Nuts."

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