- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2001

The time has come to ask: Is there any issue of principle over which either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party is prepared to lose an election? When Democrats decide that they are going to back off on gun control because they are losing votes in the South, as news reports this summer described, and when Republicans find that they can fund stem-cell research provided that the blastocysts creating the stem-cell lines were destroyed outside the federally funded system, meaning the hard-line pro-life position has been jettisoned, then the question is hardly premature.
One must be careful with this question, because answering it in the negative is not the same as saying there are no differences between the two parties. If there really were no difference, we would have to imagine that one party (i.e., two identical parties) could be home to both Rep. Maxine Waters, say, and Rep. Bob Barr. Those who think, as many outside Washington seem to, that the political system has been so corrupted by special-interest money that there is no difference between the parties ought to ask why the Democratic Party runs from all the way left to center-right but not all the way right, and why the GOP runs from all the way right to center-left but not all the way left.
But the critical point, and the thing that is taking U.S. politics into new territory, is that both sides are now fully engaged in reaching to the center. The right wing of the GOP is now, I think, entering a period of declining influence within the party comparable to the decline in the influence of the left wing of the Democratic Party during the Clinton years.
Another way to put this is that neither side has confidence that it can form a national majority around its own mainstream. Take the political spectrum of the Democratic Party running from, say, Maxine Waters at the left pole to Sen. Zell Miller at the right pole. Now plot all Democrats on this curve, and weighting for distribution, find the statistical mean. That is the party mainstream. It is, presumably, the ideological point at which interparty differences are most readily reconciled. Now do the same thing with the GOP, from Bob Barr on the right pole to, say, Sen. Lincoln Chafee on the left.
You now know where the mainstream GOP position is and where the mainstream Democratic position is. Now plot the country as a whole or, for a proxy, plot members of the U.S. Congress from both parties on one chart. (It doesn't especially matter for our purposes here, but I think that when you calculate the statistical political mean of the United States, it passes through the navel of Louisiana Sen. John Breaux.)
So now we have a statistical mean for each party as well as the statistical mean for the country as whole, as well as the gap that separates each party mean from the national mean. The elders of each party, unless they are deluded (for which there is, in fact, ample precedent) know all of this perfectly well. At which time they have a range of choices defined by two limits: They can try to get the people to come to them, i.e., to create an environment around a given election that results in a political majority ratifying their mainstream party position. Or they can go to the people, crafting their election message for maximum appeal to that national statistical mean.
I think that an ideological party - that is, a party that seeks election in order to vindicate and pursue a set of ideas- would in general incline toward the first approach, because it would not see winning an election as worthwhile if the fact of winning did not vindicate a set of ideas. In other words, to return to the question I put at the beginning, such a party would be prepared to lose an election over an issue of principle.
Nowadays, or so it seems to me, the Democratic Party of the Clinton-Gore period and the Bush II Republican Party have a very different way of looking at things. I think the distance between their respective party means and the national mean is the source of an emotion that borders on fear and loathing. The fear is the fear of losing. The loathing is of the abject, and the abject in each case (and this is especially visible in the GOP at the moment) is the wing of one's own party that is dragging one away from the center.
To expunge fear, the abject must be shunned made taboo. Hence the headlong flight to the middle in which each party is currently fully engaged, and at which each has gotten pretty good (witness the tie election in 2000). Again, this is not to say that the end product would be the same regardless of who wins. The solution involving the defanging of Ms. Walters by Democrats is different from the solution involving the defanging of Mr. Barr by Republicans.
But put it this way: We are a gun-totin', fetus-abortin' nation, and no matter how you feel about it, is it really worth losing an election over?
E-mail: lindberg@hoover.stanford.edu

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