November 2, 2009 11:46AM

NY 23: A Return to Principle?

At today’s Politico Arena the editors ask:

NY 23 and the GOP: The road to “first principles” or to “internecine ruin?”

My response:

In important respects, the NY 23 congressional race is a microcosm of the Goldwater/​Rockefeller battle of 1964 — a battle for the soul of the Republican Party. For years during the 1950s and ‘60s, “Rockefeller Republicans” were not simply “Democrat Lite” but often to the left of Democrats, giving rise back then to the New York Conservative Party, which nominated Doug Hoffman for the NY 23 seat at stake tomorrow. And the policies those Republicans put in place, starting with taxes, were directly responsible for the relentless decline of the Empire State. As reported in a recent Empire Center study, “New York’s share of the nation’s population declined sharply in the second half of the 20th century, from 19 percent of all Americans in 1950 to less than 7 percent in 2000.”

Goldwater won that intra‐​party battle, of course, then lost an election all but foreordained by the Kennedy assassination. And with Goldwater’s victory for the soul of the Republican Party, the parties were at last distinguished by their principles, even if a remnant of Rockefeller Republicans, like the two Bushes, remained to muddy the waters.

The NY 23 situation captures this perfectly. Nominated not in a primary but by a few party officials, Dede Scozzafava’s indifference to Republican Party principles was no better illustrated than by her decision, when it became clear how badly she was losing, not simply to remove herself from the race but to endorse the Democratic nominee — in an apparent back‐​room deal with state and national Democrats. We’ll doubtless know in time just what promises were made for that endorsement. But it reeks already of the lust for power over principle: Do whatever it takes to stay in the political game.

It’s impossible to predict the outcome of this election, of course. Some of Scozzafava’s loyalists will probably follow her, while others will be moved by a sense of betrayal to go the other way. The larger question, however, is whether we are going to have two significantly different parties in this nation — or simply two parties vying for power, with barely a dime’s worth of difference between them. The Obama administration’s lust for power, making Bush look like a piker, has brought the Goldwater/​Reagan revolution back to life. But the Wall Street Journal’s sober editorial this morning got it exactly right: Whether this revival returns the GOP to first principles or leads to internecine ruin “will depend on how GOP leaders and conservative activists respond.” Both could do worse than look to Ronald Reagan for guidance.