New York embarrassment

Congress’s approval rating has fallen through the floor over the last year, and the so-called “generic ballot,” a historically dependable predictor of a party’s prospects at the House level, hasn’t looked better since 1994. What’s more, many Democratic incumbents seem reluctant even to visit their districts for fear they might run into a constituent opposed to how their leaders and the president want them to vote.

One even suspects that John Boehner may be dreaming of a future Speakership.

Still, with elections more than a year off, anything could happen. The political world could be as different from today as today is from the landscape on the day of President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Republicans have to hope that public outrage directed not only against the president and his party’s hapless congressional leaders, but against Washington, Congress and an out-of-touch political establishment, generally will morph into an anti-Democratic tide next year.

That’s what happened in mid-1994, and it could happen again, but the sad fact is that the GOP then seemed to better understand what was needed to turn public opposition to the other party’s positions and antics into a broad electoral GOP victory. By nationalizing the election around Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America,” Republicans drew a stark contrast between themselves and their Democratic opponents.

Back then, however, few voters suspected that Republicans would fail to live up to their own promises so quickly or become so enamored with power itself that they would do just about anything, up to and including abandoning core principles, in an effort to hold on to it. That is baggage they now carry, and it means that simply being non-Democrats isn’t going to cut it this time around. It’s pretty hard to fool the American people twice.

This is particularly true when national party leaders work overtly or covertly to recruit candidates who share virtually none of their own values just because they assume that an R after one’s name can hold the right. This is happening as various races shape up around the country, but nowhere as brazenly as in New York’s 23rd congressional district, recently vacated by Republican John McHugh.

When New York Republicans face a special election, party leaders meet in what we used to call “a smoke-filled room,” select a nominee and shove their choice down the throats of the faithful. In this traditionally Republican district, that means Republicans are today being told to rally ’round Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava — who favors card-check, abortion, gay marriage and higher taxes and thinks Congress ought to be authorizing more rather than less spending. She ran in 2004 with the support of the so-called “Working Families Party,” little more than an ACORN front group. The New York State Conservative Party rates her the third most liberal member of the State Assembly in a state where the most conservative member would be considered a liberal anywhere else. The Weekly Standard recently suggested that she might well be the “most liberal Republican congressional candidate in memory.”

Fortunately for district Republicans, the Conservative Party has its own candidate. He’s Doug Hoffman, a lifelong Republican who has never sought office, is well-known in the district and was shocked by the Scozzafava selection. Many district Republicans share that shock. A recent poll has Hoffman, Scozzafava and the Democratic nominee locked in a statistical tie. Hoffman could win and send a real message to the New York and Washington GOP establishments.

A week or so ago, the DCCC issued a release condemning Scozzafava for failing to pay her own taxes, but noted that she has voted 190 times to extend or raise taxes on her constituents. A party dedicated to smaller government, lower taxes and traditional values should not be asking its members to support this sort of candidate, but Republicans in Congress are being asked to dig into their own campaign coffers and send her money.

House Republicans should be embarrassed that their leaders have the chutzpah to ask them to contribute money raised largely from conservatives to a candidate who, if elected, would vote with the other side on most issues. If House Republicans want to walk the walk as well as talk the conservative talk, they would be better advised to cut a check to Hoffman.

Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm.