Our opinion: Radicalism doesn't fly

Sunday November 18, 2012

Washington’s Republican Party establishment was confident that the tea party would cost Demo crats dearly in 2012 but tea partiers sabotaged the GOP instead. They did so primarily by reigniting culture wars that Americans have no interest in fighting again, but the greater long-term damage they have done is to chase moderates out of the party or make it all but impossible for them to get elected in a primary. Even if Republicans end their suicidal wars over abortion, gay rights and the "legitimacy" of rape, it may take years for them to regain the moderates capable of winning Democratic, and more importantly, independent voters.

Pittsfield’s Silvio O. Conte was one of those moderate Republicans for 32 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, and he surely never expected the day would come when there would not be one New England Republican in the House. This month’s election did not change that reality, however, and in January 19 Democrats will be sworn in for the 19 New England House positions. (Massachusetts lost one seat, reducing the total from 20.) The only two New England Republicans left in Washington are Senators Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Susan Collins of Maine, who were not up for re-election.

Maine had two popular Republican women in the Senate, but the moderate Olympia Snowe was fed up with Washington’s ugliness and didn’t run for re-election this year. She is succeeded by independent former Maine governor Angus King, who to the surprise of no one announced Wednesday that he will caucus with the majority Democrats. A moderate Republican felt unwelcome and the GOP parted with a Senate seat in Maine.

Primary elections tend to be dominated by extremists, and in Indiana voters dispatched Senator Richard Lugar, a veteran moderate and foreign policy expert, in favor of Richard Mourdock, a goofball who asserted pregnancy as a result of rape constituted God’s will. In Missouri, Republican voters chose Todd Akin, another tea party radical with unique theories about rape, to run for Senate. Both Indiana and Missouri backed Mitt Rom ney, but voters split their tickets to re-elect Democrat Claire Mc Caskill in Missouri and elect Democrat Joe Donnelly in Indiana. Moderate Republi cans could have kept one seat and potentially won another.

Massachusetts voters didn’t buy Senator Scott Brown’s claim to be a moderate Republican, but had he been he still would have had difficulty being re-elected because of Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren’s ability to play the leadership card. With control of the Senate at stake, a vote for any Republican no matter how reasonable could have made the rigidly partisan Mitch McConnell the majority leader and put a variety of climate-change deniers, culture warriors and minority bashers in charge of key committees. It is for this reason that Silvio Conte would have trouble winning election today to the Republican House of Michelle Bachman and Paul Ryan.

For these reasons it will be difficult for Republican reform to percolate up from the bottom. Change must come from the leadership, which must cut its ties to the know-nothings who mock science and education and make a virtue of ignorance. Republican leaders can no longer wink at "birthers" and other unhinged conspiracy theorists as their mean-spirited nonsense hurts Republicans by uniting Democrats and offending independents.

When Republican "elder statesmen" like Newt Gingrich and John Sununu Sr. play the race card in demeaning Mr. Obama and by extension his supporters, the GOP leadership has to call them on their bigotry. The same goes for the hate-mongers of the right-wing talk media like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, as well as all of the white men of the Republican Party and media who arrogantly think they know what is best for women.

The United States is a basically moderate nation that distrusts radicals of the left and right. The Democratic Party learned this and the Republican Party must as well. But is the Republican leadership capable of being educated?


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