Calls for party purity misguided

A friend of mine who is a Republican Party officer recently wrote on the popular New York City Republican blog, UrbanElephants.com, to sing the praises of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and urge him to run for Governor or United State Senator next year.

While a few of the comments posted in response to his blog entry were positive, many were vitriolic attacks, which slammed Giuliani as a RINO – Republican in Name Only. So much for Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment, “Thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”

Furthermore, a Republican National Committee official from Indiana recently distributed a nonsensical “National GOP Ten Commandments” litmus test for prospective candidates, who would have to agree with eight of out ten position statements to receive the party endorsement.

Meanwhile, Democrats are also excoriating their own, as Congressmember Bart Stupak and Senators Ben Nelson, Max Baucus and Joe Lieberman have been slammed as traitors to their party during the current health care debate.

Such name-calling and rancor is pointless and counterproductive. Both parties’ crusade for ideological purity has only hurt the chances for common sense compromises and prudent policy formation, in Washington, Albany, and elsewhere.

Edmund Burke, the political philosopher, once wrote of the duties of officeholders. He claimed that one could be either a delegate, who merely acts upon the popular will, or a trustee, one who uses his judgment and experience to do what he believes is in the best interest of the people he represents. Burke believed the latter to be preferable.

Of course, the best leaders are both delegates and trustees. Their policies are a combination of their own judgment as framed by the will of their constituents. Therefore, candidates for office should hold positions in line with their respective electorates.

That is why attacks like those against Nelson and Giuliani are off base. Clearly, a Democrat in conservative Nebraska would not adhere to liberal party orthodoxy, while the Mayor of progressive New York City should not be expected to tow the line on hard-right issues.

The American electoral system, based on constituency districts and the Electoral College, favors the two-party system, to the detriment of third parties. Since third parties are structurally disadvantaged and hence usually unsuccessful, it is important that the two major parties serve as big tents and encompass a diversity of views. Otherwise, the vast plurality of Americans who identify as moderates are disenfranchised when the two parties drift to the ideological extremes.

When parties defy the values and issues that matter to their district’s constituents, residents lose out on choice and popular representation. Republican leaders upstate in the conservative 23rd Congressional District should have rallied around a candidate who stood somewhere in the middle on the ideological spectrum between liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava and Conservative Doug Hoffman. Neither candidate represented the views of most voters in that district. The candidate who did, Democrat Bill Owens, won.

What happened upstate is a cautionary tale to those who want to purge alleged party heretics. Democrats in Connecticut should think twice before jettisoning Joe Lieberman, just as Florida Republicans ought to rally around Governor Charlie Crist, who looks like a sure winner in the general election, instead of dumping him for the supposedly more ideologically pure Marco Rubio.

That’s because Lieberman and Crist agree with their respective parties on most issues and are good fits for their ideologically moderate states. Ed Koch used to say that if you agree with me on seven out of ten issues, vote for me, if you agree on ten out of ten, you should see a psychiatrist. Republicans and Democrats would be well served to heed that advice.

Daniel Egers is Executive Director of the Queens County Republican Party, a Trustee of the Bayside Historical Society and President of the Friends of Oakland Lake, among other affiliations. The views expressed in this column are his own.