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Republicans shouldn't rejoice if the Democrats go mad

By W. James Antle III
web posted January 19, 2004

It's no longer about polls and pundits' political prognostications; the votes that will determine the Democratic presidential nominee will soon be cast. Will it be Howard Dean? Or will second thoughts brought on by recent Dean gaffes -- e.g., his refusal to "prejudge" Osama bin Laden -- lead to a Wesley Clark boom or revive the fortunes of such Washington Democrats as John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, John Edward or Joe Lieberman?

Many conservative Republicans have been hoping that the Democrats will nominate the looniest, most left-wing Democrat possible to pave the way for an easy reelection victory for President George W. Bush. Early on, many joked about supporting Al Sharpton. As he exploded from insurgent to front-runner, many have similarly focused on Dean.

Popular conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg is an example. In a recent syndicated column, he laid out the "conservative's case for Dean" even while conceding that the former Vermont governor would be the most damaging to the republic of any viable Democrat running, with the possible exception, in his opinion, of Kerry. Some of this "endorsement" was of course tongue-in-cheek -- he referred to the Dean presidential campaign as "the unofficial Conservative Pundit Full-Employment Act" -- it does reflect a sentiment genuinely shared by many Republicans.

Yet it is a mistake for conservative Republicans to root for Dean or otherwise derive pleasure from the spectacle of the Democratic Party going mad. The result will likely be short-term GOP electoral gain at the price of long-term damage to the country.

For starters, as Enter Stage Right editor Steve Martinovich noted in a recent editorial, a sane Democratic Party is necessary to keep the Republicans honest. Pushing national politics leftward may quite possibly push the GOP to the left as well. Consider the immigration-liberalization proposal President Bush recently unveiled. The Democrats have drifted so far into left field that the administration could feel confident -- once most of the deadlines for Republican presidential primary opponents had passed -- that it could introduce a plan that would offer another amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants along with a temporary workers' program that essentially globalizes the entire U.S. labor market during an election year without any serious consequences from a GOP base certain to bitterly oppose such an initiative. Although some conservatives have talked about withholding support from Bush based on the immigration issue, most are likely to conclude that any Democrat likely to win the nomination will be even worse while being horrible on countless issues where the president has been fairly conservative.

Nor is amnesty the only policy area where this is the case. Opposed to the recent expansion of Medicare, the biggest new entitlement in 40 years? Disgusted by rapid increases in discretionary spending? Interested in seeing bloated transportation, education and farm-subsidies bills vetoed? Bush doesn't need to risk political capital with swing voters to satisfy conservative concerns on any of these issues. Why? Because conservatives have nowhere else to go. Although some are hopeful that a Democratic president checked by a Republican Congress would slow down the increase in federal spending, most conservatives are likely to swallow hard and conclude that they are a worthwhile price to pay to avoid a Dean administration.

But it isn't just a matter of the impact a radicalized Democratic Party will surely have on Republicans. There will also be consequences for the country. America cannot afford to have an irresponsible major political party, especially in the context of a looming international terrorist threat that was brought home with terrifying brutality on 9/11.

Today's renegade campaign that goes down to defeat can provide a training ground for tomorrow's leadership. As outside of the mainstream as some of Dean's pronouncements have been, he has energized many voters like no one else in this race has. He has brought in new political involvement, recruited large numbers of volunteers and won support from middle-class, educated people who will vote and make political contributions. Even if the 2004 presidential race is a complete debacle for the Democrats and he goes down to defeat by an embarrassing margin, the Dean campaign of today is a harbinger of the Democrats of tomorrow.

Conservatives remember how Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat in 1964 nevertheless helped reshape the GOP into a force for conservative principles, laying the groundwork for Ronald Reagan's election in 1980. More recently, Pat Robertson's failed 1988 presidential bid sowed the seeds of the Christian Coalition and a new, more politically professional religious right that has made Christian and other socially conservative voters an integral part of today's GOP at all levels. Among the Democrats, Jesse Jackson's two presidential bids during the 1980s raised the political profile of many minority activists within that party's nominating process and made it possible for someone like Al Sharpton to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate today.

It's foolish to think that even if he loses to Bush by a wide margin that Dean could not have the same impact on the Democrats. Ideas that today are being articulated by fringe candidates like Dennis Kucinich or Sharpton might one day be defended by White House or major congressional leadership positions.

This is because of the unavoidable fact that one day, no matter how popular President Bush is now or becomes at any point in this election cycle, the Democrats will regain national power. They will retake one or both houses of Congress. They will win the presidency and sit in the Oval Office. What kind of party do we want them to be when that day comes?

As it stands now, they are a party that views the values of those dismissively called "Red State Americans" with contempt, that believes increasing marginal tax rates on middle-class families will somehow help them and that wants to return to the failed policy of treating terror as a criminal-justice issue. This is by no means true of all Democrats. But if some of the most enthusiastic activists get their way, it will accurately reflect the positions of those leading the party.

Republicans who in their zeal for President Bush's reelection are also cheering on the zanier elements of the opposing party ought to think carefully about the ramifications of them getting their wish.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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