Purity, defeat in the little tent

Some moderate Republicans, the few still existing, long for Tom Ridge to save them in Pennsylvania, indeed to rescue their very party.

John McCain wanted Ridge, too, as his running mate. You see what he ended up forced to endure instead.

There's your modern Republican Party in two short paragraphs.

Ridge is a Vietnam War hero. He was twice elected Republican governor of the vital presidential swing state of Pennsylvania, the second time by a wide margin. Then he became the first head of the federal Department of Homeland Security. He is popular, personable, competent, decorated, if a tad mealy mouthed.

But he is -- gasp -- moderate, even agreeable to a woman's right to decide about her own body.

McCain was told by what passed for his campaign brain trust that he couldn't afford to alienate the extremely conservative Republican base by running with a pro-choicer like Ridge. So he ran instead with Sarah Palin of Alaska, whom he barely knew and who was last seen looking on her lawn for Russians, shopping for clothes and not reading any newspaper.

Not only was Palin firmly anti-choice in her uncompromising rhetoric, but she had just herself given birth to a baby with Down syndrome.

That's what those in the dominant Republican base wanted, even demanded -- screaming conservative bona fides, transparently genuine, reinforced by deed. They had less regard, or none at all, for credentials, competence and electability.

We see how that turned out for them. They may as well have voted for Barack Obama directly.

McCain wasn't going to win, anyway, not after pulling that campaign-suspension stunt to go to Washington to fix the economy and not after letting Obama tie and/or best him in the debates.

But it was Palin who rendered him desperate enough to try the stunt. She fired up the fiery base, yes. She solidified the clique. She delivered red meat to the wolves. But any vote that she brought from the soft and decisive center of American politics was surely cast via a mishandled chad.

Now that Arlen Specter has bolted from the Republican Party to run for a sixth U.S. Senate term from Pennsylvania as a Democrat, Republicans are debating whether to try to cajole Ridge into running against the extreme right-winger, Pat Toomey, in the Republican primary.

It was Toomey's primary challenge to Specter in a shrinking and increasingly polarizing Pennsylvania Republican Party that sent Specter into Obama's arms.

This is all about that vital American political metaphor, the one of tents. The one with the bigger tent wins. The big tent is the one that lets different kinds of people in. The little tent is the ideologically pure one.

Ridge is a big-tent Republican. So is, or once was, McCain. So was Specter.

Ronald Reagan won because of what they called "Reagan Democrats," meaning conservative and blue-collar Democrats who were welcomed into a big tent.

Palin was a little-tent politician. She kept things cozy, even soap opera-interesting, in that little tent. But she kept McCain from escaping to a bigger one.

So now Obama threatens to transform American politics, much as Reagan did, by building a tent big enough for Specter to come over for shelter and join Joe Lieberman, welcomed back after turning independent and having the audacity to endorse and campaign with McCain.

In this tent there are conservative Blue Dog Democrats, traditional liberals, even Bernie Sanders, a Vermont socialist who affiliates with Senate Democrats.

Here is what Republicans should fear most: A Democratic president welcoming Specter with that smooth, effortless segue of last week.

Here is what Democrats ought to cheer most: Republicans who say "good riddance" to Specter and "no, thank you" to Ridge.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. His e-mail address is jbrummett@arkansasnews.com.