Dan Balz's Take
Scozzafava contest a bellwether for GOP battle between ideology and electability
By Dan Balz
Is politics about standing for principles and fighting for them? Or is politics about winning elections and passing legislation?
In an ideal world, politics is both of those things, but at the moment, both Republicans and Democrats face internal debates about the true nature of what it means to be a political party. A once-obscure special House election in upstate New York and the high-profile debate over health care illustrate the uncomfortable choices that accompany building stable, governing coalitions.
Start with the Republicans. New York's 23rd congressional district, in the far northern reaches of the Empire State, has been in Republican hands for generations. It is now the scene of a high-stakes struggle between national Republican leaders that could result in a Democratic victory and an embarrassment to the GOP.
The story is simple. The 23rd district was held for years by John McHugh, a moderate who fit the district and who was part of a vanishing species of Republicans nationally. Tapped by President Obama to serve as Army secretary, McHugh has left behind what has turned into a nasty mess for his party.
The Republican nominee, backed by local party leaders, is Dede Scozzafava, a state assemblywoman. Like some other northeastern Republicans, she is generally conservative on many fiscal issues but favors both abortion rights and gay rights. She is, say her supporters, the kind of Republican who can win a race in a district like New York's 23rd.
But Scozzafava hardly represents what the base of the Republican Party believes. She is out of step on core issues and, as a result, has drawn opposition from the right. Doug Hoffman, running on the Conservative Party ballot, is challenging the GOP nominee and his growing strength makes it possible that Democrat Bill Owens could grab the seat away from the Republicans.
The race has badly divided the national Republican hierarchy. The contest has become an early example of the fights likely to play out in the future as Republicans argue among themselves about how best to rebuild their party after two devastating defeats in 2006 and 2008.
Scozzafava enjoys the support of former House speaker Newt Gingrich, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the National Rifle Association. Hoffman has won the backing of two prospective 2012 presidential candidates -- former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and a host of other prominent conservative Republicans.
The arguments over the Hoffman-Scozzafava candidacies were summed up best by Palin and Gingrich.
"Doug Hoffman stands for the principles that all Republicans should share: smaller government, lower taxes, strong national defense and a commitment to individual liberty," Palin wrote in her endorsement. "Political parties must stand for something. When Republicans were in the wilderness in the late 1970s, Ronald Reagan knew that the doctrine of 'blurring the lines' between parties was not an appropriate way to win elections."
Gingrich warned against imposing ideological litmus tests and said the party should not purge all prospective candidates who don't agree with GOP doctrine 100 percent of the time. That, he told Fox News, will guarantee Obama's reelection in 2012 and a continued Democratic majority in the House.
The most recent polls show Scozzafava sliding and Hoffman rising. Some polling suggests Hoffman might actually be able to slip past both the Republican and Democratic nominees in what would be a major upset, although he will have to withstand a vigorous attack from his rivals in the final days of the campaign to manage that feat. As likely is that Scozzafava and Hoffman will divide the Republican vote and allow Owens to win.
For Democrats, the question of principle vs. winning is playing out now in the Senate and House over health care and whether any bill that includes a public option can win approval.
The base of the Democratic Party has made inclusion of the public option its highest priority. But there is resistance among Democratic senators from red states and for House members who won election in 2006 and 2008 from nominally Republican districts, who fear they might not survive their next elections if they back such a measure.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has upped the ante by announcing he will send a bill to the floor that includes a public option (though with an opt-out clause for states). His decision has delighted liberals and progressives, both elected officials and grass-roots activists. But it's not clear he has the votes to pass the bill.
One obstacle comes from Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who when he lost the Democratic nomination in 2006 ran as an independent and won his reelection race in Connecticut. He remains a thorn in the side of the Democrats. But there are other moderate Democrats who may present just as many problems to Reid in the coming weeks.
In both New York's 23rd special election and the debate over health care, the question is the price of purity. How much do political parties demand of their members? What compromises are necessary to build and retain coalitions large enough to win a national majority, whether in a presidential election or in 435 individual races for the House?
It is noteworthy that the engineers of the Republican takeover in 1994 and the Democratic takeover in 2006 are the strongest advocates for matching House candidates with their constituencies and then dealing with the consequences.
That was and remains Gingrich's belief, which is why he sided with Scozzafava. It also is how Rahm Emanuel, the former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and now White House Chief of Staff, brought the Democrats back to power. Emanuel's recruitment of moderate Democrats in swing districts became the template for the 2006 successes.
Both Gingrich and Emanuel were celebrated at the time of their victories,. Now they are feeling heat for maintaining those views. Gingrich is under fire from his conservative friends for what they see as a break with orthodoxy. Emanuel, who long has advocated the importance of passing health care, with or without a public option, has drawn fire from the Democratic base for what they see as being too willing to compromise.
The stakes for Democrats in the health-care battle are enormous. For Republicans, the stakes in New York's 23rd district may not be at that level, but nonetheless reveal a potentially debilitating split within their coalition. No matter the outcome next week in New York and, later, in Congress over health care, the arguments underway in both parties will continue to echo into the future.
Posted at 11:22 AM ET on Oct 28, 2009
Dan Balz's Take
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