GOP litmus test road map to oblivion

Dede Scozzafava was the Republican candidate in last year’s special election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, but she truly was a Republican for convenience. She had voted for nearly 200 tax increases in the New York Legislature. She was far from the conservative mainstream on economic, defense and social issues. But she had substantial name recognition, a formidable pile of money and a willingness to say or do whatever it took to get elected. She even signed the Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) pledge not to vote for tax increases if elected to Congress.

We all know how it ended. A true conservative, running as an independent, passed her in the polls. So she quit the race, threw her support to the Democrat and caused the loss of a seat that had been in Republican hands for more than 100 years.

The lesson is simple: When choosing candidates, look at their records, not at vague promises they are willing to make for the nomination.

Even a cursory look at Mrs. Scozzafava’s record – as opposed to her other electoral assets and willingness to pose as a conservative – would have, should have told Republicans to find someone better. Signing the ATR pledge enabled her to claim a conservative mantle her record did not merit.

Yes, it’s frustrating when candidates claim to be conservatives only to betray conservative principles once in office. Worse still are those who betray those principles, then claim to see the light, then fall back into spendthrift ways.

The Republican National Committee’s (RNC) leadership met last week and rejected the most strident calls for a litmus test for candidates seeking the Republican banner in the fall. As RedState’s Erick Erickson pointed out,the test would not have told us what we want to know – candidates can say one thing to get the nomination, then do another once in office.

Even if candidates don’t “forget” their promises once in office, such tests are problematic. Governing is a conversation, a debate that never ends over how to govern a society that is never perfected. To codify the scope of debate and the prescribed response is to limit both the imagination of those who would represent us and our expectation of meaningful solutions from them. Such tests bind us to yesterday, and governing is about tomorrow.

The test, presumably, would have been constructed out of a proposed resolution on unity principles and policy positions the Republican National Committee leaders expect to discuss at their meeting. As proposed, this litmus test would have denied Republican support to any candidate who disagreed with more than two of its planks.

But conservatives don’t even agree on the principles, let alone the questions, which makes it doubly unproductive to impose a generic litmus test on candidates across the country. How does such squabbling and confusion build the party? How does it provide for the future? How does it articulate the timeless principles that will draw others to our cause?

Americans have had enough of leaders who don’t lead. If conservatives agree on one thing, it’s that there are no shortcuts to success. A litmus test can’t replace the hard work of candidate selection or development. We don’t need a scorecard on candidates; we need a contextual understanding of their fitness for office – an understanding assembled through examination of their voting records, public statements and sentiments expressed to those who would choose these candidates. Take the measure of the man or woman. That’s what we ask voters to do.

We can’t farm out the work of finding and training good candidates. We must recruit candidates who are involved in their community, who have served at the local and state levels and learned what it takes to truly apply conservative principles to governance. We can’t rely on celebrities or millionaire candidates whose primary qualification is to relieve the party of the burden of providing financial support.

As Republicans who seek to have a hand in governing our society, we can’t simply rely on platitudes codified in 10 policy positions, nine principles, 12 values or any other list that lulls us into mindless head-nodding. It won’t be the questions on a litmus test that bring success or failure to conservatives in 2010. It will be, as always, the strength of the character of our candidates.

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