It’s a contest of one extreme, not two

IT’S A CONTEST OF ONE EXTREME, NOT TWO…. David Broder’s column today reports from Pennsylvania, home to a tough Senate race pitting Rep. Joe Sestak, who defeated Sen. Arlen Specter in a Democratic primary this year, against former Rep. Pat Toomey (R). Broder, as is his wont, wants the candidates to be centrists.

…Toomey and Sestak are squaring off for a showdown that presents the clearest of choices but leaves thousands of independent-minded voters wondering where to go. […]

Sestak and Toomey are on opposite sides on most big issues. Sestak campaigned against the war in Iraq; supported Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination; voted with President Obama on the stimulus bill, health care and the cap-and-trade energy bill; and has perfect voting score from the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Toomey argues for extending all the Bush tax cuts; opposes the three main Obama initiatives; is pro-life and against gay marriage; and wants to eliminate the estate tax and reduce several business levies. He has a lifetime approval rating of 97 percent from the American Conservative Union.

Pennsylvanians, Broder concludes, can expect “two months of ads arguing that the other guy is the extremist.” Perhaps. Call me old fashioned, but I think it matters whether one, both, or neither are correct when making the allegation.

To hear Broder tell it, Sestak, a decorated Navy veteran, is a liberal, while Toomey, a veteran of Wall Street and the right-wing Club for Growth, is a conservative. For those in “the middle” who don’t consider themselves ideologues, the two candidates are appealing exclusively to the party bases.

But that’s a deeply flawed look at these candidates. Toomey, for example, is extremely conservative. One recent statistical analysis found that Toomey, based on his voting record, is “considerably” more conservative than Rick Santorum was during his tenure, and had a record in Congress more ideologically in tune with notorious North Carolinian Jesse Helms. One of the more important issues in the campaign is Toomey’s desire to privatize Social Security, an idea that isn’t exactly mainstream.

Is Sestak the mirror image, as liberal as Toomey is conservative? Not even close. According to the VoteView scores, Sestak’s voting record puts him about in the middle of the House Democratic caucus. There’s a House Progressive Caucus for the chamber’s most liberal lawmakers, and Sestak isn’t a member. On the campaign trail recently, Sestak has boasted of his endorsements, not from liberal Dems, but from NYC’s independent mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

“Independent-minded voters” are left “wondering where to go”? This is a race that leaves “the middle” feeling left out?

I find this line of analysis deeply odd. Given Broder’s general inclinations, it seems he should be going out of his way to praise Sestak for running a mainstream campaign in a diverse state against a knee-jerk ideologue. Instead, Broder is more inclined to put a pox on both houses, when only one deserves it.