Politically Uncorrected: The Toomey Matter
No one yet has called him “Benedict Toomey” but make no mistake: many conservatives view his recent effort to broker a gun compromise as a stunning act of perfidy.
These critics see compelling evidence that Toomey’s flirtation with compromise has damaged seriously his reelection chances while disappointing his conservative supporters that expect him to hew to ideological rigidity on guns as well as other issues.
Already invidious comparisons are being made between Toomey and the late Senator Arlen Specter–long the reigning bogeyman of conservatives. We hear that Toomey’s gun compromise reveals him as just “another” Specter, lacking core principles or consistent policies. In fact, already a Facebook page has appeared called “Arlen Toomey,” drawing unflattering similarities between Toomey and Specter.
Or if the Specter analogy doesn’t appeal to you, others charge that Toomey is going down the same failed path tread by Santorum, talking like a true conservative but doing deals with the senate liberals and moderates that are destroying the country.
In short, Toomey just isn’t being ideological enough. His offense: he actually tried to reach compromise in Congress on a bill favored in Pennsylvania by a stunning 94% of voters.
Equally damming, Toomey did something similar in 2011 when serving on the infamous congressional “super” committee, tasked to fashion reasonable legislation to address America’s looming deficit. On that committee, he actually offered some serious compromise proposals to help breech the chasm between the two parties.
The alleged sins of Pat Toomey only get worse. On gay rights even before taking office, he had broken from right wing orthodoxy by openly advocating repel of the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. On Judicial appointments he initially backed the nomination of Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, arguing that judicial qualifications should trump political calculus.
But few of these charges hurled at Toomey are fair or even factual. For example, the much maligned gun bill he promoted in Congress is actually very similar to current Pennsylvania law, passed in the 1990’s, including instant background checks. This Pennsylvania law, now more than two decades old, was adopted by a Republican controlled legislature, and signed by Republican governor Tom Ridge. How radical is that?
Nor do the aspersions cast on Toomey that he is becoming another Specter or Santorum merit serious thought. Specter could be unpredictable and Santorum was polarizing. Toomey is neither. Whether one agrees with Toomey or not, in practice he has been a principled fiscal conservative who consistently promotes and votes his beliefs. Indeed, the National Journal found him to be the fourth most conservative senator in 2012. Just because he avoids shrillness or demagoguery on issues, whether fiscal or social, does not mean he has not been true to his core beliefs.
Moreover, reaching across the aisle to find compromise with political opponents is not apostasy. It’s what Americans expect their representatives to do to solve the nation’s greatest problems.
In reality, Toomey’s approach might well make some Republicans angry, but he could be showing the way for his party to maintain its principles while speaking to voters in a way that prevents the party from slipping into permanent minority status in the years ahead.
Toomey seems to understand what many of his political allies do not. As Pennsylvania increasingly becomes a blue state, it is going to become more difficult for the GOP to win state wide elections unless they figure out how to reach out to moderates and independents.
Fortunately for Republicans, there is no arcane mystery about how that could be accomplished. Generations of Republicans won statewide in Pennsylvania back to the 1960’s and earlier– despite often crushing voter registration deficits. And here we are talking about Republicans with last names such as Scranton, Scott, Heinz, Schweiker, Specter, Thornburgh and Ridge.
Throughout this period, the state GOP was not greatly different than now in terms of having a voter base with clear conservative leanings. But it also had plenty of moderate voters, especially in the suburbs and urban parts of the state. Republican success required a tacit modus vivendi between GOP moderates and conservatives. The arrangement was almost formulaic: to win elections consistently, Republicans had to maintain party unity, avoid nasty ideological splits, and share the fruits of electoral success.
That consensus, maintained throughout most of the 20th century, is now broken. Without it, the GOP seems likely to remain divided; a split rendered even more threatening by the steady gains Democrats are making in the cities and eastern suburbs.
It may now become Pat Toomey’s role to rebuild that consensus. Many movement conservatives won’t be happy if he does it. But they will like it more than its alternative–a future in which the GOP becomes a permanent minority party, unable consistently to win statewide elections or maintain their traditional role in Pennsylvania’s two party system.
If Toomey fails, Republicans may well look back upon this period as their last best chance to keep Pennsylvania from turning completely blue.
Madonna is Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Young is a former Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University and Managing Partner of Michael Young Strategic Research. Madonna and Young encourage responses to the column and can be reached, respectively, at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.