What follows is a fail-safe test on whether membership in a political party is growing or shrinking: Is that party spending time, energy and effort courting and welcoming converts, or is the party hunting down heretics within its ranks to banish them for lack of purity?
In 1980, make no mistake about it: Republican Ronald Reagan was openly — and successfully — seeking converts who even got their own designation as “Reagan Democrats.” More recently, Barack Obama did exactly the same as he told the nation: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America.”
But the smashing campaign victories both Reagan and Obama won have not inhibited today’s “purists” in either party from equating dissent with disloyalty and demanding that these infidels be purged from elected office. The Republicans brand the heretic who deviates from the Party line a “RINO,” for a Republican in Name Only. You almost expect some conservative court martial cross-examination of an allegedly independent Republican politician with the damning indictment: Are you now or have you ever been … a maverick?
Make way for the new guys in town, the DINOs — the Democrats in Name Only. Ignoring that the Democrats largely by backing moderate (often pro-life and pro-gun) nominees captured 52 House seats from the Republicans in the last two elections, the witch-hunters forget the first rule of elections: Politics is a matter of addition, not subtraction.
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Consider this real-life House Democrat whose culturally conservative, blue-collar district George W. Bush twice handily carried. This Democrat voted in the House against the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, against the Bush tax cuts, against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, against a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. He earned the enmity and the campaign opposition of the National Rifle Association by voting for tighter background checks on weapons buyers at gun shows.
He was for dropping the economic embargo against Cuba and providing debt relief for beleaguered Third World countries, and against the Patriot Act and warrantless wiretapping.
Yes, he voted with his party over the past decade, according to the authoritative Congressional Quarterly, 90 percent of the time. But Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., also voted to outlaw the late-term procedure he and other opponents called “partial birth abortion” and which the late New York liberal Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “infanticide.”
But the heresy that brought down upon him the all-out opposition of Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America (formerly the National Abortion Rights Action League) and the National Organization for Women (NOW) was Stupak’s successful sponsorship of the amendment to the health care bill in the House that reinforced the prohibition of government funds to pay for abortions.
What the unequivocally pro-choice House Speaker Nancy Pelosi understood was that without the Stupak amendment (which won the votes of 64 House Democrats), health care reform would never have passed the House.
Bart Stupak committed the sin of crafting a legislative compromise that eventually enabled the U.S. Congress to extend health coverage to 32 million fellow Americans. But he departed from the Democratic orthodoxy.
The purist Democrats have gotten their wish. Bart Stupak will not run for a 10th House term. The chances are good that the Democratic nominee in the enormous First District of Michigan, which includes the Upper Peninsula (the UP) and almost half the land area of the state, will be a Connie Saltonstall, a pro-choice former county commissioner. Republicans are openly giddy about “flipping the seat “ to the GOP.
Stupak’s predecessor in the House was a seven-term Republican. If Republicans do win the UP seat in 2010, then the House Democratic caucus will have lost a dependable and effective ally. But the Democratic purists will have proved their purity and that hunting down heretics can be more emotionally satisfying than seeking converts.