I won my first election — to the Delaware State Legislature in 1966 — not because of any inflexible ideological beliefs but by knocking on doors and asking for support.
Through 14 subsequent successful terms as a Republican state senator, lieutenant governor, governor and U.S. representative from Delaware, my voting record and political ideology were fiscally conservative but otherwise moderate. Most importantly, I have believed in strong but civil debate and intelligent compromise as foundations of democratic government.
In 2010 I ran for the U.S. Senate seat previously held by Vice President Joe Biden. That’s when trouble surfaced. I had always received strong support from independents and Democrats as well as Republicans in Delaware, but now, for only the second time ever, I faced a Republican primary. My opponent was Christine O’Donnell, a candidate with far more conservative credentials than mine. She was part of a very conservative and confrontational movement, usually referred to as the Tea Party, which was coming to the fore and challenging moderate Republican officeholders in primaries; a group called the Tea Party Express decided to support O’Donnell, and the primary campaign quickly became a political drama that reached far beyond the boundaries of the small state of Delaware.
Our early polling showed a substantial lead in both the primary and general election. Then the attacks began. Tea Party Express advertising, backed by open fire from Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and other conservative pundits, brought the hammer down. It worked — sort of. They beat me in the primary, but O’Donnell was trounced in the general election by Democrat Chris Coons. Nationally, the Tea Party and its allies seemed at first glance to have a field day in 2010, both taking out Republican moderates in primaries and supporting Republican winners in a number of House and governors’ races. But their support of right-wing candidates also led ultimately to Senate losses in Delaware, Nevada and Colorado, where polling had indicated that more moderate candidates could win.
The two years since then have raised concern about the inflexibility of the movement on a number of issues. For example, the spending-reform plan recently put forth by a national committee on fiscal responsibility headed by former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and former Democratic White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles — which asked for a slight increase in some tax brackets but substantial spending reductions by the federal government — was denounced by the Tea Party and most conservative Republicans because it included tax increases. (In fairness, it was also not em- braced by Democrats because of the spending reductions it contained.) Neither side was willing to negotiate or compromise, and so a plan that offered a first step toward balancing the budget and reducing the deficit was left for dead.
Obviously, this movement toward greater extremism orchestrated by the Tea Party and its ilk not only has nearly paralyzed Congress for the last two years; it has had a fundamental impact on the Republican presidential primaries. Mitt Romney, clearly the most moderate of the Republican presidential seekers, has taken positions somewhat farther right than expected in order to appeal to primary voters. Other Republican officeholders and candidates have made statements on abortion and contraception allowing Democrats to claim Republicans are waging a “war on women.” Conservative positions on immigration issues have also divided the party and led to erosion in Hispanic support.
What does all of this hold for November? It is never easy to defeat an incumbent President, even one with a less-than-stellar record, and the divisions in the Republican Party and the move to the right have made this election even more difficult — but not impossible. It will take a lot of healing after a particularly fractious primary season. Odds may seem to favor the re-election of President Obama at the moment, but in the Senate (now 53 Democrats and 47 Republicans), there are many more Democratic incumbents running this cycle and a few open seats. The next Senate may well be closer to 50-50. The House of Representatives should remain in the hands of Republicans.
Regardless of the outcome, though, it is in America’s best interests that elected officials in both parties vigorously debate the issues, but in the end reach compromises that serve the needs of the people and the nation’s future — not political parties or inflexible ideological beliefs.