Thursday, May 6, 2010
Passing the Litmus Test With apologies to Reed Smoot - the Smoot of the Smoot-Hawley tariff - a once powerful U.S. Senator from Utah, by the weekend an even more powerful U.S. Senator from Utah may join Smoot in the history books. If the tea leaves are correct, three-term Senator Bob Bennett is close to being history. He's having trouble passing the litmus test. The popular Republican governor of Florida is no longer a Republican. The leading candidate for governor in Rhode Island is an independent. Idaho's lone Democratic office holder is too conservative for some of the puny band that call themselves Idaho Democrats. What's going on here? Think of it as the further polarization of American politics. The far right dominates the GOP, the far left the Democratic Party and the broad middle ground is increasingly becoming no candidate land. What do Republicans like Bennett, Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida and former Senator Lincoln Chafee have in common? Each is apparently too liberal for the GOP in their states. Calling Bennett a liberal is a little like calling Babe Ruth a good singles hitter. The label doesn't fit the man, yet Bennett may well not survive this weekend's Republican convention in Utah where the party insiders pick the candidates. Polls indicate Bennett's standing is OK with most Utahans, but not the very conservative majority that will attend the convention this weekend. The Salt Lake Tribune recently quoted a delegate, Kristina Talbott, as saying: "We need some new blood. Most of it is anger toward Washington and the Republican Party ... because people think our party has been letting us down lately. And a lot of people think Bob Bennett is back there and he's not stepping up to the plate like he should be." Crist has abandoned the Republican Party in Florida and will seek the senate seat there as an independent. Chafee is taking the same path in Rhode Island. Litmus tests go down the ballot, too. In Idaho's most populous county, the Republican Central Committee recently took the unprecedented step of endorsing candidates in a contested primary for, of all things, two county commission seats. The challengers to two incumbents were not deemed Republican enough even though current Boise City Council member Vern Bisterfeldt and former GOP commissioner Roger Simmons have been elected in the past as Republicans. Simmons even served in an appointed position in Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's administration. Bisterfeldt and Simmons sin, apparently, was that they have had the independence a time or two to actually support Democrats, thereby failing the litmus test. Oh, and they haven't shown up for Central Committee meetings. Some of this reminds me of the storm kicked off in 1986 when my old boss, Cecil Andrus, rolled out a list of "Republicans for Andrus," including the then-GOP Senator from Washington State Dan Evans. Andrus' GOP supporters also included, among others, Harry Magnuson of Wallace, often referred to by the press as a "mining magnate," wood products operator Dick Bennett of Princeton and former GOP legislator and gubernatorial candidate Larry Jackson of Boise. Some may remember Jackson from his 14-year Major League baseball pitching career with the Cardinals, Cubs and Phillies. He had an impressive career in politics, too, including serving as Chairman of the Idaho House Appropriations Committee and seeking the governorship in 1978. Andrus won that election only because he was able to appeal to moderate Republicans and independents who, I still believe, appreciated the fact that he, too, was an independent spirit often at odds with his national party. Former Sen. Steve Symms walked into my office in the Statehouse in 1991 and remarked upon seeing the framed newspaper ad of the Republicans for Cecil hanging on the wall, that the "ad elected him governor." Republicans certainly smarted from the fact that some of their own had abandoned the party's candidate in 1986 and the GOP-controlled State Senate subsequently refused to confirm Jackson to the state tax commission or several other of the GOP turncoats to other state boards or commissions. There is an old saying in politics: Don't get mad, get even. But, in this case the "getting even" only served to cement the Andrus reputation as a Democrat who could attract Republican support. The Republicans who publicly supported him were denied some jobs, but that hardly hurt the governor who continued to enjoy a lot of Republican support. In any event, it's clear that both parties are finding it harder and harder to put up with anything other than political orthodoxy as defined by the extremes on the Republican right and the Democratic left. The broad middle is up for grabs, but few dare venture there - its a political minefield these days. And we wonder why there is so little bipartisanship.