Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Why Shays Lost: The Way Up

It has now become possible to speak of former Rep. Chris Shays in the past tense. The last “moderate” Republican in New England, Shays is no longer in office for a number of reasons.

There was, of course, the President-elect Obama phenom. One of the reasons Obama had coattails was that he had managed to sweep newly registered voters into his party; Jim Himes rode the wave into office.

But tactically Shays was bound to lose this one. He’s danced cautiously on the Republican-Democrat balance beam in Connecticut for 21 years in office, not a bad run. But the danger for Republocrats in New England always has been that, asked to vote for a real Democrat or a pretend Democrat, voters would see through the mask and choose authenticity.

If someone offers a hungry man the choice between a real apple and a wax apple, the hungry man will choose the real apple every time. Wax apples are useful as decorative elements on a mantelpiece, or curiosities in a museum. It should come as no surprise that over time real Republicans began to loose interests in faux Republicans; this deterioration began with former Sen. Lowell Weicker, who once famously described himself as “the turd in the Republican Party Punchbowl,” and it is entirely appropriate that it should have ended with Shays, whose tactics, in many ways, resembled those of Weicker.

Weicker’s long career in the senate was brought to an end when conservative Republicans shifted their allegiance to then Democrat senatorial nominee Joe Lieberman. They wanted untainted punch. Lieberman, a programmatic Democrat, had yet to arouse the fury of progressive anti-war harridans.

This year, Himes was able to push Shays over with a feather. Shays was light as air because he had no content, no message of deliverance. Pitifully, as the Obama wave crested, Shays pleaded that he could work with Obama. Voters did their calculations and figured – so could Himes, whose economic positions were a little less rough hewn than those of Obama.

Moderate Republicanism is a vortex that now has consumed the careers of every moderate Republican in New England.

Is there a way up?

To vary a successful campaign rallying cry: Yes, there is.

The way up is the way that points in a direction opposite to the way down.

Get content. Have meaning. Oppose the status quo. Eschew moderation as a political position.

As a political position, moderation is the kind of cowardly pragmatism that St. Thomas More condemned in Robert Bolts’ play “A man for All Seasons.” Speaking of the arch trimmer of principles Thomas Cromwell, who later is to be More’s real executioner, More says to his son-in-law Roper, “What, Cromwell? Pooh, he's a pragmatist-and that's the only resemblance he has to the Devil, son Roper; a pragmatist, the merest plumber.”

Of course, moderation and compromise will always be necessary in government. But you cannot even begin to compromise or moderate what you have not owned with your blood and your mind and your heart. And the problem with the Republican Party in Connecticut, especially under the baleful influence of Weicker, is this: It has been a half-hearted party.

It was remarkable that Shays got 20 percent of Bridgeport’s vote running in a field with Obama, who is not a pragmatist, running in a field with Obama, who is not a pragmatist. A Republican Party half of which is Democrat as a matter of intension and policy does not deserve to win a single vote.

It may be some solace to Shays that at the end of his political career he got a doff of the cap from ardent Obama supporters over at the Hartford Courant’s editorial page: “It is not clear whether Mr. Shays will seek public office again; we hope he does. A social progressive and fiscal conservative, he developed an excellent record on environmental issues, housing, health care and transportation. He was a leader in campaign finance reform and ethics reform,” said the Courant.

Campaign finance reform, it is needless to say, played a significant part in the undoing of both Shays and McCain, who was outspent by the non-pragmatist Obama eight to one.

A Republican Party half of which is Democrat as a matter of intension and policy does not deserve to win a single vote.
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