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Old Dominion Death Wish

In Virginia earlier this week, U.S. Rep. Tom Davis, who's has been carefully planning for years to run to succeed Sen. John Warner, announced with some visible bitterness that he would not run for the Senate now that Warner has finally retired.

The bitterness flows from the immediate cause of his abandonment of that long-cherished dream: a decision by the Virginia Republican Party to hold a convention rather than a primary to choose the candidate to face Democrat Mark Warner next November. A convention, as everyone in the state understands, will be dominated by conservative activists who are almost certain to spurn the relatively moderate Davis in favor of former Gov. Jim Gilmore, who's already announced for the gubernatorial contest.

Davis, mind you, is a prodigious vote-getter and fundraiser from Northern Virginia, the area where recent Democratic statewide victories have been based, while Gilmore is a failed governor, failed RNC chair, and most recently, a failed presidential candidate, who will not have a prayer against Mark Warner. Moreover, Gilmore represents the hard-core culturally rigid, fanatically anti-tax wing of the state GOP, which has now lost two straight gubernatorial bids and a Senate contest, and whose primary challenges to moderate GOP state senators this year are endangering a GOP majority of that chamber previously thought to be impregnable.

This deliberate decision to hand Gilmore the Senate nomination can only be understood as an act of self-deception, under the bizarre theory that Virginia Republicans have been losing because they are insufficiently conservative, or as the expression of a death wish, reflecting a determination to hold onto intraparty power at the expense of real governing power.

Virginia is only the latest example of this phenomenon, as explained by Ron Brownstein in a column today. What he calls an "ideological inquisition" in the GOP is reflected in other primary challenges of party heretics, and indeed, in the behavior of the GOP presidential field (with the arguable exception of Rudy Giuliani).

The CW on this subject remains that both parties are under the control of their activist "bases," and that moderates in both parties are being hunted to extinction. But as Kevin Drum accurately suggests in his commentary on Brownstein's column, this equivalency argument is just wrong:

Every two years the losing party has this exact same conversation: (a) move to the center to appeal more to swing voters, or (b) move left (right) in order to stay true to the party's liberal (conservative) heritage? My sense is that (b) is almost always the choice after the first loss or two, after which (a) finally wins out.

This year, though, we're in a historically odd position. The Republican Party is still in stage (b), but to a smaller extent, the Democrats are back there too. The Democratic Party spent so long in stage (a) during the 90s, moving aggressively to the center after years in the wilderness, and the GOP moved so far to the right under Gingrich and Bush, that Democrats have the luxury of being able to move modestly to the left and yet still be moving relatively closer to the center than the Republican Party. On a scale of 1 to 10, it's like the GOP is moving right from 8 to 9 while the Democratic party is moving left from 4 to 3.5. The lunacy of the conservative base is providing a huge amount of cover for liberals to make some modest progress this year.

And Virginia offers a good illustration of the relative moderation of Democrats, even those on the intense Left. After all, there are plenty of Democrats, in Virginia and elsewhere, who probably think Mark Warner is an unprincipled Clintonian triangulator whose constant talk of bipartisanship makes him a sell-out (viz, Matt Stoller's description at OpenLeft of Warner's announcement statement for the Senate as "disgusting" and "Liebermanesque"). But you don't see anyone trying to deny him the nomination, at the cost of a precious Senate seat.