Don’t Weep For Connie Morella

At TNR, Geoffrey Kabaservice, who’s written a much-touted book on the demise of moderate Republicanism, has penned a stimulating column arguing that Democrats are complicit in making the GOP the instrument of a “war on women” because they worked hard to kill off Republicans who resisted the takeover of that party by anti-feminists.

Kabaservice’s main example of this alleged phenomenon was the successful Democratic drive in 2002 to rid Congress of Connie Morella, who representative a district in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. Here’s his argument in a nutshell:

Morella, a former English professor and state legislator who also managed to raise nine children, was one of the leading feminists in Congress and among the most liberal House Republicans. She sponsored important legislation on domestic violence and women’s health, while opposing conservatives on gun control, gay rights, conservation, and abortion. She was also one of only six Republicans to vote against authorizing George W. Bush’s military action in Iraq. Her ability to work across the aisle made her a key player in bipartisan reform coalitions. But after Republicans took control of the House in 1994, Morella’s representation of some of Washington D.C.’s most affluent and liberal suburbs made her one of the Democrats’ leading targets. The Democratic-controlled Maryland legislature redrew her district to ensure that, as the state senate president gloated, “If she runs, she loses.”

And she did, even though national Republicans backed her to the hilt and party conservatives either supported her or left her alone. Kabaservice is particularly struck by the ultimately self-defeating actions of feminist groups like NOW:

NOW’s actions at that time were intensely partisan, which was perhaps understandable, since most of the organization’s funds and support came from Democrats. But the organization, by turning its back on Morella, in effect declared that feminism was no longer a bipartisan cause and that Republican women almost by definition could not be good feminists. The blowup over the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s defunding of Planned Parenthood earlier this year provided further confirmation that women’s organizations caught up in partisan quarrels will have to side with the Democrats. The unfortunate upshot is that, as feminism ceases to be advocated by at least some people in both parties, it becomes a narrower cause and loses force in American life.

This is an argument that is attractive at first glance, until you focus on the fact that Connie Morella wasn’t a regular Republican who happened to dissent from her party on issues involving women’s rights, but a moderate-to-liberal pol undermined by a general ideological sorting-out of the two parties. The big blow to feminism was not its loss of bipartisan support, but its loss of trans-ideological support. Until the 1970s, all of the Republican Party factions (with the exception of a conservative fringe) supported an Equal Rights Amendment. For a brief period of time, as hard-core culturally conservative southern Democrats began to die out, support for feminism, at least at the most basic level, was a non-controversial consensus issue. Once “women’s issues” became ideologically polarized, in the successful 1970s fight to prevent state ratification of the ERA, it was strictly a matter of time before they became subject to partisan polarization as well. If NOW or DC-area liberals had decided to let Connie Morella linger on as a sort of living political museum-piece, that would not have kept an increasingly conservative GOP from being increasingly anti-feminist–it would have simply provided the GOP “cover,” which is precisely why conservatives did not “primary” her in 2002 (though they might well have done so more recently, as their domination of the party was consummated).

Kabaservice’s lament for Morella is like a lot of the recent nostalgic literature about the bygone era of bipartisanship. Much of it had to with a party system built around factors other than ideology, or ideological divisions that had become obsolete. Sure, the ideological diversity of the two major parties made it possible for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to be enacted with strong bipartisan support. But that same diversity kept both parties from addressing civil rights for decades, just as the ideological diversity of the antebellum Second Party System kept slavery from being dealt with, and the ideological diversity of the Third Party System gave unregulated monopoly capitalism a very long time in the saddle.

I, too, wish that Republicans had not become so uniformly anti-feminist. But a make-believe bipartisanship based on phony diversity would not have prevented that from happening.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.