Paul Greenberg

Reflecting national trends, the news just keeps getting better for Democrats here in Arkansas.

First they won every statewide office on the ticket. Beginning next year, Arkansas will no longer have a Republican governor - the reform-minded Mike Huckabee is now considering a presidential campaign. (The death earlier this year of Winthrop Rockefeller, the state's promising lieutenant governor and one of the GOP's bright hopes, was a blow to both his party and state.)

Now the GOP's most polarizing figure - a state senator from Arkansas' hilly Northwest who was beaten soundly in the lieutenant governor's race - has announced he's leaving elective politics. He's Jim Holt, who ran a campaign heavy on ideology and light on reform. He did his best to exploit fears about illegal immigration and railed against the Republican governor's plan to improve education. And those were Jim Holt's moderate positions.

After his second defeat in a statewide race, Mr. Holt now plans to form his own little pressure group. That way, he can preach to the converted without fear of contradiction - or rejection by the voters. He'll doubtless be a big hit on the e-mail circuit, where he can rail to his heart's content against the minimum wage, early childhood education, and other Soviet conspiracies he mentioned during the campaign.

Talk about a twofer for the Democrats: Not only did they sweep into every statewide office, but they'll still have Jim Holt to kick around. If he can be portrayed as the face of the Republican Party, its chances of once again appealing to the broad middle of the electorate will be pretty much gone.

But a petty consideration like winning elections needn't trouble the kind of zealots who just want to hear their own views repeated and magnified. As in an echo chamber. What fun - a lot more fun than the real world, where political leaders are expected to enter the public arena, not withdraw from it to organize their own little club.

After the GOP's Neanderthal right had been largely wiped out in the midterm elections of 1958, wise old Whittaker Chambers warned his party about the dangers of such self-indulgence. He knew that, in a practical-minded, results-oriented, can-do society like this one, ideologues tend to wind up sealing themselves off from public opinion instead of leading it.

Writing to a young conservative friend of his named William F. Buckley, the always eloquent Mr. Chambers came up with the perfect metaphor for the danger represented by the party's far-right fringe:

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.