THE BLOG
05/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The GOP: Conservatism's Empty Vessel

Perhaps the best chance for a real third party in American politics lies in a hypothetical union between Blue Dog Democrats and Centrist Republicans -- they certainly share almost the same amount of scrutiny and criticism from either side of the aisle, and sometimes the bullied rally together to defeat rigid ideology. But such a union isn't going to happen, of course; what does have an outside chance is the gravitation of centrist Republicans toward the center, blurring, even further, the line between Centrist Republican and Centrist Democrats.

But such a shift certainly wouldn't be based on the treatment of Blue Dogs. As a Real Clear Politics headline put it, they're "dogged if they do, dogged if they don't." Generally speaking, they don't vote in tandem with the party's platform, provoking backlash ads from the Left; yet at the same time, they continue to get flack from the Right. There's a pretty easy way to understand this. The RCP column, by Froma Harrop, points out that 49 House Democrats come from districts that went for McCain in 2008. That's quite a chunk of votes, and an indication that the Democratic Party, for all its glaring faults, is slightly more pluralist than the Republican Party. That "slightly" is a mile-wide chasm.

Over on the Right, one need not look too far beyond the actions of such figures as of RNC Chairman Michael Steele, radio host Rush Limbaugh and almost every host on FOX News except Shep Smith to see a party dominated by bombast, line-drawing and marginalization. The do-or-die mentality that poisons conservatism's vessel could very well, over the long run, simply drive centrists away from the Republican Party. That, or the nauseous cycle of Limbaugh groveling. Hell, some of those aforementioned figures couldn't be happier if this came to pass.

The Left has its megaphoned ideologues, of course, but none with any sort of clout as Limbaugh and his dozens of imitators -- e.g. Glenn Beck, as insufferable a blowhard as they come. And take a glimpse at this clip; Beck claims we're on our way to fascism. Say it with me: fascism. That easily sits on the same level as claiming the terrorist attacks on September 11 were an "inside job" or any other rumored paranoid left-wing fantasy out there. And yet the former wankery is vastly more pervasive among the Right than the latter is through the Left. Something has to give.

More Harrop:

The Blue Dogs have no ideological objection to government. They support such Obama priorities as health-care reform. They just want them paid for. And Blue Dogs hold undisguised contempt for recent Republican conversions to fiscal rectitude. Ryan's appeal "to help us defeat this unprecedented taxing, borrowing and spending spree" drew a tart response from Louisiana Rep. Charlie Melancon. "These statements come from the same individuals who wrote the president a blank check for eight years, driving spending to the highest levels in our country's history," said Melancon, a co-chair of the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition.

I think it's slightly disingenuous to think the differences Blue Dogs have with the rest of the Party can be boiled down to "pay as you go," but the gist is there. Harrop ends her piece with, "What's a liberal to do? Be very nice to the Blue Dogs."

The Right is doing a lot of legwork promoting the Left. By simply screaming "no" at any given moment, dashing off half-assed budget counter-proposals (plenty of flow charts, little in the way of estimates) and allowing its governors to high-horse their constituents out of the stimulus money they (and their legislatures) support, the Left's image is improving by default. Even the stolid Wall Street Journal is getting a bit catty, first, with a smile-inducing, indignant editorial criticizing Attorney General Eric Holder, and second, a column from Peggy Noonan with even more eye-rolling whining. Noonan writes:

So one wonders why, say, the president does not step in and insist on staffing the top level of his Treasury Department, where besieged Secretary Tim Geithner struggles without deputies through his 15-hour days. Might AIG and the bonus scandals have been stopped or discovered sooner if Treasury had someone to answer the phones? Leadership is needed here. Not talkership, leadership.

One wonders indeed, Ms. Noonan. Though one may find a glimpse of a shadow of an answer here and here, not to mention the Chas Freeman charade. And she goes to spill out a half-assed apology for Dick Cheney's absurd comments about Obama putting the U.S. at risk, something President Bush wouldn't do.

The Republican Party is, more and more, evolving into an empty sheet of talking points, which is all the more shameful because there is so much at stake. The Obama Administration has staked out a dozen paths for our economic recovery. Some will work, some will not, and some would benefit greatly from something even remotely resembling a "loyal opposition." How can you not put that phrase in scare quotes?

In terms of the Left's long-term legislative agenda, there are the oft-mentioned predictions of overreach. I share those, to a degree, and the block of Blue Dog votes may prove to be the Left's ballast as this country hobbles out of this economy. Harrop's last line misleadingly implies that congressional Democrats are made up of Blue Dogs and liberals. The spectrum has a few more layers to it than that, and I take her point to mean, "don't alienate ideological cousins." One hopes that can be accomplished without too much groveling.

The Administration's poll numbers are consistently strong, and the close elections in NY-20 and the Minnesota Senate (remember that?) are grinding to Democratic victories. There will be plenty of battles, in and outside the Democratic Party, in the months and years to come; what is evident now is the very real -- and very uncertain -- shift in American politics toward to left's slightly more pluralistic platform.

Again, that "slightly" is a mile wide.

This column originally appeared at Splice Today.