A base that punishes cooperation

A BASE THAT PUNISHES COOPERATION…. Time will tell what the outcome is in Alaska’s Republican Senate primary. Tea Partier Joe Miller appears to have the edge, but given the margin, incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski may yet prevail.

But if the upset occurs, and pundits are looking for the larger meaning, they should start with Jonathan Bernstein’s insights today.

[N]o matter what the final result, but especially if Miller wins: these primaries are sending a very strong message to GOP pols about the dangers of ever allowing any space to develop between themselves and movement conservatives. And that’s true whether or not that’s a message that Alaska’s primary voters are intending to send (it may be, as I said last night, that the explanation for this election has more to do with the reputation of the Murkowski name in Alaska along with general voter discontent with the economy than it has to do with her actual actions in the Senate): the interpretation everyone’s going to hear and believe is that ideological deviation, even very mild deviation, is extremely dangerous to one’s electoral health.

Whether it’s the New START treaty, or a compromise deal on the budget if the GOP controls at least one House of Congress next year, or any other issue, you can be sure that Republican pols who have to cast tough votes are going to remember Bob Bennett and Lisa Murkowski (and Arlen Specter, for that matter).

Agreed. For all the talk about endangered incumbents, alienated establishment types, and gender advantages in the Republican primaries this year, it seems the most meaningful takeaway of 2010 so far is the willingness of the Republican base — everywhere — to punish those open to compromise and constructive policymaking.

Sen. Bob Bennett (R) lost in Utah, in large part because his willingness to work with a Democrat on health care policy was deemed unacceptable to the party’s base. Rep. Bob Inglis (R) was trounced in South Carolina because he expressed a willingness to work with people he disagreed with. Florida’s Charlie Crist and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter were driven out of the party altogether because they considered it part of their responsibilities to play a constructive role in policymaking.

Also note the inverse. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was growing increasingly unpopular with his party’s base, but he cruised to an easy primary win after assuring Republicans he would not cooperate with anyone who doesn’t agree entirely with everything he already believes.

I might quibble a little with Jonathan’s specifics — I don’t think the GOP base cares enough about New START to punish Republicans over it — but the larger point seems entirely accurate. Murkowski wasn’t a moderate, but she was one of a handful of Senate Republicans who Democrats considered at least somewhat approachable. And now, her career may very well be over.

The message from the base to Republican lawmakers who might consider constructive lawmaking: don’t do it. Party activists don’t want responsible leaders who’ll try to solve problems; they want hard-right ideologues. No exceptions.