A pure problem

The dust-up between Rush Limbaugh and Colin L. Powell over whether Powell is still a Republican is more than the political equivalent of a show-business feud. It reflects the perennial -- but for Republicans in 2009, painfully pertinent -- question of whether it’s good for a major political party to be a big tent or whether too much inclusiveness turns it into a three-ring circus.

It’s not our place to advise Republicans or Democrats about how far to stretch the canvas in the hope of selling more tickets, but it is clear that ideological diversity in both parties promotes political participation and good governance.

To the delight of Democrats, Limbaugh -- described by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger the other day as the 650-pound gorilla in the Republican Party -- has become the leader of the party’s purity police. It was former Vice President Dick Cheney who sneeringly said that he assumed Powell, his colleague in the Bush administration, had left the party when he endorsed President Obama’s election last year. But it was Limbaugh who invited Powell to “close the loop and become a Democrat.” In the course of denouncing Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as a racist, Limbaugh excoriated moderate Republicans, including Powell and former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, for failing to stop the “danger” of Sotomayor’s nomination. “I’m the one doing the heavy lifting,” Limbaugh said.

Rebuking Limbaugh and other purists, Schwarzenegger, Ridge and Powell (who says he won’t be driven from the party) have championed big-tent Republicanism on grounds of self-preservation. “I think the Republican Party has to take a hard look at itself and decide, what kind of party are we?” Powell said. “Are we simply moving farther to the right and by so doing simply opening up the right of center and the center to be taken over by independents and to be taken over by the Democrats?” Adopting a more conciliatory tone, Schwarzenegger acknowledged that the right wing has “a very, very strong place” in the party, but added: “I think that the bigger our tent is, the better it is.”


Not every Republican -- or Democrat -- agrees that inclusiveness is the ticket to electoral success. One of the hoariest debates in both parties is whether majorities are built by uncompromising allegiance to principle or a willingness to abide and even encourage diversity within the ranks. For some conservative Republicans, Powell, Ridge and Schwarzenegger are RINOs -- Republicans In Name Only. From that perspective, the RINOs let both the nation and the party down by acquiescing in President George W. Bush’s overspending.

It wasn’t so long ago that the Democratic tent seemed too small to hold its disparate elements. Through the early 20th century, Southern segregationists and Northern liberals met uncomfortably at the party’s quadrennial conventions; during the Vietnam War, Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s hawks and Sen. George S. McGovern’s doves similarly elbowed one another for position. Those tensions were refashioned but not eliminated at the century’s end.

During the 1980 primary contest between President Carter and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Kennedy supporters worried that Carter had moved too far to the center to energize the party base; Carter supporters blamed the president’s loss to Ronald Reagan on Kennedy’s more-liberal-than-thou insurgency. Moderate and liberal Democrats are still arguing about whether Al Gore went too far in 2000 in abandoning Bill Clinton-style triangulation for a more populist pitch -- or whether he didn’t go far enough. Limbaugh and like-minded, if less strident, Republicans can make the case for purity by citing the party’s capture of Congress in 1994 under the banner of Rep. Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America.

This debate will never end, and probably will never be resolved. It’s easy to understand, however, why Schwarzenegger, Ridge and Powell might not be willing to trade their party’s sorry state in 2009 for some future ideologically-driven renaissance. It isn’t just that Republicans have lost the White House and are a minority in both houses of Congress. The number of Americans who identify as Republicans is on a steep decline, and the party’s demographics are increasingly unreflective of the nation’s. Republicans are an endangered species in the congressional delegations of the Northeastern states and have suffered reverses even in traditionally Republican strongholds. (Virginia now has two Democratic senators.) Whatever the lessons of 1994, Democrats have been successful in recent years by recruiting candidates for the House and Senate who didn’t pass liberal litmus tests on abortion or gun control.


So Republicans interested in self-preservation would seem wiser to heed the appeal for inclusiveness. But big-tent politics by both parties serves an interest larger than membership; it’s good for the polity as a whole. Parties that must rely on voters with a range of views will be less in thrall to ideological interest groups. A diversity of opinion in both parties also encourages compromise and bipartisanship. Like the so-called Blue Dog Democrats, the shrinking cohort of moderate Republicans who once moved their party to the center are now less able to forge those compromises. Obviously, inclusiveness can be pushed to the point of incoherence. In general, however, political parties that aspire only to represent true believers run the risk of marginalizing themselves even if they benefit temporarily from the politics of polarization.

Not all of the barriers to broader-based parties are psychological. As Californians know too well, redistricting practices that result in predictably Republican or Democratic congressional or legislative districts remove the incentive for candidates to campaign or govern from the center. Interest groups, whether or not they control campaign contributions, also push the parties in the direction of ideological rigidity. The results can be ugly.

Indeed, Schwarzenegger has a unique perspective on the consequences of parties opting for ideological purity over practical compromise. As he knows better than anyone, polarization and rigidity are at the core of California’s governance crisis, and the state has a $24-billion shortfall to show for it.