What do Nancy Johnson, Rob Simmons and Lincoln Chafee have in common? They were -- it now becomes possible to speak of them in the past tense -- all moderate New England Republicans. And they are all gone.
Moderatism (if I can coin a word) has often kept Northeast Republicans in business in a political theatre that is overwhelmingly Democratic. Moderatism – some incorrectly called it pragmatism -- was the Republican’s River Styx; bathed in the waters of moderatism, Northeasten Republicans, afloat in a bitter sea of Democrats, seemed to be, like Achilles, invulnerable to attack.
Until he was unhorsed by Joe Lieberman, Sen. Lowell Weicker was the very epitome of the Republican moderate, a rakish “maverick,” willing to “take on” his party in matters of grave principle, who often seemed to Republicans to be a liberal Democrat in a powdered wig. “Mavericks” are the party turncoats we like.
Weicker was defeated, so it was thought at the time, because his treachery towards other Republicans had alienated even “Jacob Javits” Republicans; and when the moment arrived that Republicans were presented with a choice, they chose the real over the ersatz Democrat.
Other Connecticut in-state Republicans, drawing the proper lesson from Weicker’s folly, were determined not to push the envelope. Chris Shays, the last of the breed after the recent Democrat tsunami washed the rest of the Republican moderates out to sea, is Weicker lite. Shays is the last moderate congressional Republican still standing in New England.
There is no question that the war in Iraq contributed to Republican defeats. But those who believe that support of the war was the principal and only factor in Republican losses in the state must answer two serious objections: 1) The two Connecticut politicians most intimately associated with Bush’s war policy – Shays and Lieberman – both successfully defended their seats in campaigns in which the war figured prominently; and 2) the only office of any importance won by Republicans this year was the governorship.
Some Republicans – prophets, unloved in their own state, crying in the wilderness – have been arguing for some time that a good part of the fault lies in the weakened condition of the state Republican Party, which never really recovered from Weicker’s attentions.
The time may be at hand for Republicans to cross the Rubicon. The path Republicans have traveled so far has only led to a smaller, powerless party and a one party state. Crossing the Rubicon would involve trading in the politics of personality for a politics of ideas. And here is the sticking point: A politics of ideas is necessarily divisive. Once put into practice, ideas are swords that, in the words of one particularly divisive historical character, “set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”
At some point, Republicans in Connecticut must decide what ideas, specifically Republican, are worth the trouble? If Republicans could carry from their burning house a handful of useful ideas that may be used after the conflagration to rebuild the Republican Party in the state, what would they be?
Small, efficient government for example certainly is an idea worth pursuing, because small and efficient governments maximize personal liberty. An efficient government simply would not allow – not for a moment – an educational system in which whole generations of urban school children are written off as uneducable, when quasi and non-public institutions such as successful charter schools and Catholic schools, drawing from the same pool of students, have been far more successful supplying their charges with the skills they need to maximize their personal liberty. Oddly enough, it is Democrat Mayor Eddie Perez who seems to have had his fill of educational incompetence. Perez recently welcomed as Superintendent of Hartford schools Steven Adamowski, an educator who has reorganize school districts rather than to continue to consign students to permanent inefficiencies. In the long run, these ideas may be catchy.
Thus far, Democrats have been selling ideas and programs to people – very expensive programs and ideas. Republicans have contented themselves with screeching at the costs of the programs and preserving the gubernatorial office from assault, which is why the Democrats are a majority party, while Republicans are disappearing from the political landscape except as decorative adornments.