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Tuesday, May 11, 2010  

Unforced Errors

For reasons that normal people are finding totally mystifying, Utah's GOP activists have booted three-term senator Bob Bennett from the party's primary ballot, bringing his quiet but apparently dignified Senate career to a humiliating conclusion. Unlike their recent self-inflicted amateur amputations in Pennsylvania, New York, and Florida, this one won't cost them a member in the whip count, Utah being so solidly conservative that the strongest imaginable Democrat would have a tough time this year against whatever irritable novice makes the final cut--and said Democrat isn't available anyway. But interestingly, it has cost Utah and the Republican Party something harder to measure but likewise important: a person who is capable of legislating.

Consider Tom Coburn. He's engaged in a lot of procedural monkeyshines, a lot of hot rhetoric, and a few small-scale legislative skirmishes. He tickles Movement amydgalae with singular delicacy. But he's pretty much a non-presence when it comes the actual business of the nation. Contrast him with the unquestionably conservative Bob Corker (R-TN), two years Coburn's junior in the Senate, and you get a sense of a trade-offs between making a lot of speeches that endear you to obsessives on one hand and actually trying to do stuff on the other.

On some level, Bennett's actual ouster makes sense. If you decide to hand over your nominating process to a bunch of ticked-off weirdos, you're going to get some viscerally satisfying but amateurish decisions. What is harder to fathom is the way that some of the more established voices on the right are cheering this debacle on. National Review is happy to see Bennett's head on a pike, which is roughly equivalent to my cheering on the overthrow of Ron Wyden. Wyden's not the most liberal Senator out there, but he's a solid vote and very, very far from being anything like a constraint on the agenda. Ross takes his old employer to task on this, but he's left having to specify his point rather precisely:

A successful political party can live without lawmakers who are obsessed with compromise for compromise’s sake, trimmers who constantly shift leftward and rightward depending on the political winds, and politicians who by rights belong in the opposition party. (Hence my lack of sympathy for Charlie Crist, Arlen Specter, and Dede Scozzafava.) But it needs to accommodate intelligent deviations and disagreements, and well-intentioned efforts at bipartisanship from politicians who line up with their party 80 or 90 percent of the time.

The best that can be said for that particular distinction--between the trimmers and those given to "intelligent deviations"--is that it is in the eye of the beholder. It is clearly not a distinction that holds much interest for the tea party tail that is wagging the GOP dog these days. But at least Ross is describing the kind of politician a party really, truly can't do with out, simply because you aren't ever going to govern this country with a coalition of the mainstream right and the extreme right. You need to bring people on board some way, somehow, and I highly doubt that Bob Bennett's successor will be well-positioned to do that.

And it underscores how profoundly self-defeating the whole purgative impulse on the right has been so far. They lost Specter to Harry Reid, and now the table is set for Toomey to lose to Sestak in November. Charlie Crist has opened up a seemingly robust lead in Florida and is getting calls from Harry Reid. It's entirely plausible that Rubio is near his upper bound for a three-way race, given the adulation that has accompanied his candidacy. Bill Owens, up in NY-23, is rated by Cook as out of the toss-up category.

Consider further that each of these races have divided the GOP while leaving the Democrats able to make a deal or patch up differences. If Crist wins, as seems not unlikely, Reid will make an appeal to him. Mitch McConnell will be afraid to. If Sestak beats Specter, as seems not unlikely, the Democratic establishment--which prematurely backed Arlen--will close ranks around the nominee and create a good environment for holding a key seat against an ideologically unsuited opponent. In a tidal wave year, such as some sanguine conservatives are predicting, these things won't matter so much. But in the likelier scenario of, say, a five-seat net pickup in the Senate, with Rubio and Toomey out in the cold, the Republicans will miss the trimming time-servers Crist and Specter.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 1:41 AM
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