Ideological Purity Kills Political Parties

A less purified party, more open to internal dissent, is better.

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Edward Gresser is president of the Democratic Leadership Council, which promotes centrist, pragmatic policy solutions.

I watched with some interest Chris Chocola's address to the Conservative Political Action Committee in February. He mixed a suggestion of bright prospects for Republicans this fall with an attack on the GOP of last fall and blamed the party's 2006 and 2008 defeats not on the record of conservatives in government at the time but on a supposed drift away from conservatism. His solution was a purified party.

It sounds awfully familiar. Back in 1982, Democrats were unhappy with an energetic president but gaining polling ground in a period of high unemployment. Lots of Democrats believed then, as many Republicans seem to now, that if we preached the true faith more often, repeated it more loudly, and denounced the president more angrily, we'd restore our fortunes. But the Democratic problem wasn't lack of ideological purity. It was too much ideology and too few new ideas. The public concluded that, dominated by interest groups and unwilling to rethink our policies after the Little Depression of 1974 to 1982, we weren't ready to govern. Neither purity nor loudness nor anger could solve that problem.

A couple of years later, the Democratic Leadership Council was created to revive intraparty debate, critique policies that weren't working, and find new ones. Earned income tax credits, federal support for police, trade liberalization, welfare reform, public-school choice and charter schools, emissions-trading to reduce acid rain, and other ideas followed. Each rested on enduring progressive principles like help for the poor, environmental quality, top-quality public education. Each also required us to redesign and sometimes scrap old policies to meet changed times. Some of the new agenda, trade in particular, remains controversial. But Democrats began winning again.

President Clinton presided over steady growth and record job creation in the 1990s. President Obama, taking on the gigantic task of turning around the battered economy and lopsided budgets he inherited from his predecessor, is drawing on an eclectic mix of ideas. The healthcare reform bill rests on progressive principles of universal coverage but also draws from experience with individual mandates in Mitt Romney's Massachusetts health reform. The DLC's Bruce Reed, directing the White House's deficit-reduction commission for the next six months, is working with a bipartisan cast of budget thinkers to get consensus on the revenue, spending, and efficiency policies we need to restore fiscal stability.

Hit list. Democrats are more puzzled than flattered to see Republicans not just copying but outdoing our old model. Having really won only one presidential election since the 1980s, Republicans are fading in California, the Pacific Northwest, and the Northeast. Moderate Republicans are leaving or being driven out. With few left to purge, conservative crusaders have begun expunging deceased GOP leaders: Dwight Eisenhower for highway spending, embrace of Social Security, and maybe water fluoridation; Theodore Roosevelt for environmentalism and antitrust law. If Chocola's attack on the Republicans of the last decade is a guide, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Tom Delay look next in line for the guillotine.

This isn't the solution to the GOP's problems. Their root is not in ideological drift but in the record conservatives built in power. At home, the period of slow growth and weak job creation that followed the Bush administration's economic plan was capped by the worst financial disaster since the 1930s and matched by the Hurricane Katrina fiasco. Overseas, we launched a war on a mistaken premise. This was the consequence of unreflective governance, stuffed with unexamined ideas and convinced of its innate virtue. A less purified party, more open to internal dissent, would have done better.

Republicans should be frankly admitting the problem and starting a rethink. Instead, they're shutting down debate and repeating mistakes we made a generation ago. Bad move. Republicans don't need ideological purity. They need self-criticism and new thinking. It's a bit painful, but they'll be better off. Believe me. We've been there.