Which party will be hurt more by its extremes?

Ross Mackenzie
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Posted: May 03, 2002 12:00 AM
The press hive has begun to buzz about - if you can stand it - "conservative" disaffection from President Bush. And even now the hive is humming with advice to Democrats on how to win. One news story discusses "sustained criticism (of Bush) by conservative leaders." These New Rightists and Religious Rightists are generally the same types who have frittered on the Republican periphery for years. They are not leaders of anything but miniscule minorities within minorities within the Republican Party. They are, primarily, ideologized purists and single-issue hangers-on. They are reported to be upset with the president for leaning too hard on Israel. What's more, according to the same news story: "(They) complain that Bush has increasingly chosen political expedience over principle: supporting campaign finance reform after promising to veto it, imposing tariffs on imported steel despite his free-trading rhetoric, expanding federal power in response to the threat of terrorism, and choosing moderates over conservatives in a few Republican congressional primaries.) It's important to keep several things straight. This is a good man and a good president - the most conservative since Ronald Reagan. He is doing the best he can with a small Republican majority in the House and a one-vote Republican minority in the Senate. Any conservatives carping about him now will support him in 2004 when the choice may well be Gore-Lieberman again - or Lieberman-Gore. These are people who vote, and they are not people who lie awake nights wishing they had voted for Al Gore. Over on the Democratic side the wannabes are jockeying. Gray Davis and John Edwards are long shots, with John Kerry and Joe Biden almost as long. Neither Richard Gephardt nor Tom Daschle can win the nomination if either Gore or Lieberman wants it. Which leaves, heading into the first turn, a pack as extreme on the left side as those "conservative leaders" are extreme on the right. Gore tried out some themes in Nashville on April 22. He said the president is giving "policy payoffs to polluters" - and - appealing to the Nader voters who gave the election to Bush: "Our environment is under siege. The Bush administration has chosen to serve the special interests instead of the public interests and subsidize the obsolete failed approaches of the past instead of the exciting new solutions of the future. Instead of ensuring that our water is clean to drink, they thought that maybe there wasn't enough arsenic in the drinking water." The national electorate is closely divided - as the 2000 presidential result and the near-balances in the two congressional houses attest. Until 9/11 it looked as though President Bush would have a tough time winning re-election. Now both the presidential and congressional pictures are improved for the Republicans. Conservative single-issuists could hurt Republican prospects if they wander off the reservation - which is precisely the message they seek to deliver to Bush with their throat-clearings: "Purify your policies or we just might take a hike." With an electorate in near-balance, both parties can be wagged by their extremists. Currently, a key difference between the two parties is this: In the Republican Party, the extremists tend to be those puristic "conservative leaders." In the Democratic Party the extremists tend to be the likes of the presidential wannabes themselves. New York Times insider Bill Keller has written a long op/ed proposing a whack-left Democratic agenda - "four populist thoughts harvested from a single week of news, opportunities for Democrats to steal political advantage where the (schizoid) Bush administration is blinkered and vulnerable." The four: (1) "Disavow the death penalty as a barbaric practice." (2) Embrace "radically simplifying the tax system" - but, oh horrors, not the ultimate simplification of a flat tax. (3) "Dust off Dr. Strangelove": Rule out putting nuclear tips on our ballistic missile interceptors, so that Strangelovians who wanted even to discuss the subject could be dismissed as "out of their minds." And (4) lift the travel ban to Cuba and the trade embargo against it so Democrats no longer will "muffle themselves out of fear of the right-wing Miami Cuban minority that wags the dog of Florida's 25 electoral votes." You get the goofy picture. Both parties have their loons, but the Democratic candidates are more likely to listen to them. Already their agenda is taking shape: (a) Opposition to oil drilling in one one-hundredth of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and thereby continuing our reliance for oil on foreign despots. (b) Opposition to making the phase-out of the federal death tax permanent. (c) Opposition to practically every survival-based action of Israel's government as mean-spirited and wrong. (Notes William Safire: "Most of the leadership of the Democratic Party and its liberal media voices distanced themselves from Israel in the midst of its defense against Arafat's war." Why is it, he asks, that "eight out of 10 American voters who are Jewish have been voting for candidates of a Democratic Party that now only offers tepid supports the government overwhelmingly chosen by Israelis"?) And: (d) Opposition absolute and unalterable to any nominee for the federal courts who is a moderate or moderately conservative - i.e., any nominee who is not a child of the left. The fall elections for the House and the Senate, and the 2004 presidential and congressional elections, could be - likely will be - very close. Yet the Democrats face a far gloomier prospect because of the extremism of their own ideologized leftist leaders than the Republicans do from those carpers on the rightist fringe.