Sunday, June 05, 2011

Lessons from Florida; or, the dangers of ideological purity and forgetting the main thing

Two stories caught my eye in recent days that are, I think, related in a very interesting way. The first was about prospective Republican challengers to Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson as he seeks re-election in 2012. I wrote about this a few days ago.

It seems that GOP candidate State Senator Mike Haridopolos is in trouble with conservatives over mixed messages on his support for the Ryan budget plan, which has given his Republican rival, Adam Hasner, something with which to beat him up. Another Republican seeking the nomination, former U.S. Senator George LeMieux, has also been criticized by Hasner for his lack of ideological purity on the same issue.

Hasner's campaign manager, Rick Wilson, said the following:

It took Mike Haridopolos and Senator George LeMieux more than a week to give a straight answer about the only plan in Washington that would cut spending, reform entitlements and save Medicare.

That's not leadership; it's typical finger-in-the-wind politics that define Washington today. What's worse, after being pushed by the media, Senator Haridopolos chose to side with Bill Nelson and Barack Obama to undercut conservatives on the Ryan plan and defend the status quo in Washington.

For his part, LeMieux said later that he would have voted for the Ryan plan and Haridopolos, without specific mention of the plan itself, provided a rather defensive statement of his conservative bona fides in response to the charges. So, those contesting the Republican senate nomination in Florida are going at each other to prove who is a pure enough conservative using the Ryan plan as the litmus test.

Clearly we are going to see more of this sort of thing in congressional and senate races across the country.

The second story I came upon was about comments made by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour reported by Politico that any requirement for ideological purity in the presidential primaries will put the GOP at risk of losing the general election:

We're going to nominate someone for president who doesn't agree with you on everything and who you don't agree with on everything. But I'll tell you what. You're going to agree with them a whole lot more than you agree with Barack Obama.

Barbour went on to say the following:

Remember, in politics, purity is the enemy of victory. We cannot expect our candidate to be pure. Winning is about unity. Winning is about us sticking together to achieve the main thing.

Whatever Barbour's other failings, he has always been a smart political operative, as truer words about the ins an outs of elections were never spoken.

It is true that Barbour's comments were about the GOP presidential nomination process, but they also apply to senate and house races in an interesting way.

Historically, it is well-known that a Republican politician in Maine is not the same as one in Texas or that a Democratic politician in New York is not the same as one in Arkansas or West Virginia. If your goal is to have as many members of your party in the House or the Senate, then it is generally wise to understand that regional flexibility is important, that national ideological litmus tests do not provide that flexibility.

I don't think it's a stretch to guess that there might be a lot of older voters in Florida who might be rather attached to their Medicare program just as it is. Having one of the Republican senate candidates in the state parsing every statement of his party rivals to ensure that they are in lock step with every nuance of the Ryan plan is a gift to the Democratic incumbent, plain and simple.

Florida Republicans like Haridopolos know that in order to beat a sitting Democratic senator, it will be wise to attempt to square the circle, to indicate support for conservative budgetary principles without necessarily committing, holus bolus, to a plan that is currently and may be even more unpopular by election day.

I am not in the habit of giving advice to Republicans, but they might all want to think about adopting the Barbour mantra: "Purity is the enemy of victory." Say it together now.

Hell, for absolutely no extra charge, I'll offer the same advice to Democrats. Get behind your team with unqualified support no matter how much you may disagree on some particulars because, as Barbour says: "Winning is about sticking together to achieve the main thing."

(Cross-posted at Lippmann's Ghost.)

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