Ideological purges of Republicans like Specter ignore the most salient question about today's politics: Will the American people trust Republicans to be their governing majority party?
For most of America's history, over cycles of 50 years and more, the country's major decisions have been brokered and decided within its majority parties. Minority parties have of course won important elections, but their primary function has been to keep governing majority parties on their toes and honest while awaiting their 50-year turns at the wheel.
American majority party status is now up for grabs, and the Republican Party is on the verge of assuming the governing role Democrats played until the excesses of political liberalism and the Clinton administration ended an era that began with Franklin Roosevelt.
On the verge, perhaps, but perhaps also on the verge of never quite getting there.
Americans are more inclined to cut taxes than increase the size of government; more sympathetic to private enterprise than its would-be regulators; more committed to a foreign policy based on American exceptionalism than to acceptance of the international status quo. Americans rightly trust Republicans to wage the war against terrorism. As such, Democrats won't recapture their majority status for the foreseeable future.
But America's determinedly moderate and non-ideological voters will never be governed by an ideologically uniform Republican Party unleavened by input from moderate and independent voices. They won't cede majority status to a Republican Party unable to accommodate senior incumbents like Specter.
The alternative to a governing, big-tent Republican Party will not be conservative hegemony. Rather, it will be the continuation of today, when neither party is trusted to govern. It will involve bitterly partisan, race-to-the-bottom politics with big spending and big tax cuts, judicial confirmation gridlock, rampant incivility, elusive consensus.
To be sure, Specter's votes have often disappointed conservatives like me, sometimes greatly. But he's a Republican - independent, but also loyal to his party and often conservative. He also has been a strong advocate of human rights and the promotion of democracy - the centerpieces of Bush's foreign policy - and a tough defender of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Conservatives are right to seek the Republican candidates least likely to break their hearts. But it's wrong, and destructive of conservative interests, when senior senators like Specter are made purge targets because some or even many of their votes do not meet conservative standards.
A Specter renomination will send a powerful signal that today's Republican Party has big-tent qualities like those of FDR's Democratic Party. If the Roosevelt coalition could include Southern segregationists and urban liberals, the Republican Party can - make that must - include senior and distinguished members like Specter, even if, to conservative thinking, they are occasionally or even often mistaken.
The Hatfield-McCoy party system that Specter's absence will help ensure will make for a less conservative American politics. It will lead to an America less likely to be well led in the coming war against terrorism, less likely to reduce the size of government, less likely in 2004 to elect a Pennsylvania Senate Republican, and less likely to elect Republicans elsewhere, conservative or otherwise.
Michael Horowitz was general counsel for the Office of Management and Budget during the Reagan administration
Contact Michael Horowitz at DevraM@aol.com.