With Tuesday night’s results in, and Democratic candidate Bill Owens defeating conservative Republican candidate Doug Hoffman in New York’s 23rd congressional district, I thought about the civil war within the Republican Party that preceded the election and will be further accelerated by the experience in this upstate New York conservative Republican district.
I was also reminded of a historic expression, “La révolution dévore ses enfants” ("The revolution devours its own children").
This is the expression made famous by the French revolutionary leader Danton, who was subsequently tried for being too moderate by the “Committee on Public Safety” of the French Assembly, led by Robespierre. Danton shortly thereafter lost his head to Madame Guillotine. And in 1794, voilà! So did Robespierre.
Danton was the victim of what seems to be a universal and seemingly unavoidable political reality of the purist ideological base of most political movements throughout history. This is the phenomenon whereby today’s radicals become tomorrow’s moderates, and tomorrow’s radicals view yesterday’s radicals as too moderate and impure.
Robespierre at one point justified terror as both virtuous and necessary in the name of fulfilling the political aims of a revolutionary movement. He wrote: “If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent.”
Now what does Robespierre have to do with Bill Owens’s victory in New York-23 — or, for that matter, with Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and their acolytes? I report. You decide.
But I am suggesting that what we saw done to Dede Scozzafava, the Republican political moderate whom local party leaders nominated for the congressional special election, is part of a familiar pattern of higher and higher standards of purity demanded by the extreme wing of the base of both parties — the right for the Republicans and the left for the Democrats.
The result: abandoning the center to the other party. And the result of that — duh — is almost always losing the general election, as occurred in New York-23 on Tuesday night in a district that has been held by Republicans for more than a century and that even Franklin D. Roosevelt lost during his two successful campaigns for governor in 1928 and 1930.
The post-election headlines of Wednesday's newspapers and Internet sites could well have been — regarding both the GOP wins in New Jersey and Virginia and the Democratic win in New York-23 — "The Revolt of the Center."
But the Democrats need to beware, too. They historically have shown the same self-defeating pattern of demanding ideological purity, pushing moderates to go left or get taken down, and continue to this day.
Remember the enthusiasm, indeed smugness, that the left blogosphere and netroots exhibited when they helped defeat incumbent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary in September 2006 because he was a supporter of the Iraq war?
Rarely do they mention that their anointed candidate, Ned Lamont, who won the primary (albeit by a narrow margin of 4 percent) lost to now-Independent Sen. Lieberman by a substantial margin in the general election.
Recently we have seen and heard the threats by the left of the Democratic Party to run primaries against the fiscally conservative, moderate “Blue Dog” Democrats, especially those who remain opposed to the “public option” in the national healthcare bill. Some national liberal organizations, egged on by certain liberal talk show hosts, have run TV attack ads against these Blue Dogs in their congressional districts.
It doesn’t seem to matter that by doing so and weakening or defeating some Blue Dogs in marginal districts, the purist Democratic left could contribute to losing the Democratic majority in the House in the 2010 congressional elections; nor that it would mean a conservative Republican speaker and conservative Republican House leadership to thwart the progressive agenda they purportedly hold so dear.
Even the popular President Barack Obama is not immune. I have read on the blogosphere and seen on the liberal cable shows that Obama is actually being threatened with a loss of support on a variety of issues — for his failure to close Gitmo, to end “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” to allow criminal prosecution of Bush-Cheney senior officials for torture and “war crimes” and, most recently, his apparent willingness to accept a compromise on healthcare legislation that might not include a public option.
Indeed, many on the left are now openly talking about abandoning support of Obama unless he withdraws completely from Afghanistan and Iraq by a date certain.
One liberal New York Times columnist, George M. Blow, wrote an op-ed a few weeks ago that began:
“When, Mr. President? When will your deeds catch up to your words? The people who worked tirelessly to get you elected are tired of waiting.”
And he closed the column menacingly by comparing President Obama to President George W. Bush: “At the town hall in New Orleans, Obama appealed for patience. He said, ‘Change is hard, and big change is harder.’ Now where have I heard that before? Oh, yeah. From George Bush.”
C’est la vie for both Republican and Democratic purists: “La révolution dévore ses enfants.”
Lanny J. Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton, served as a member of President George W. Bush's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. He is the author of "Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics is Destroying America."
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