Forty years ago Barry Goldwater triumphed at the Republican convention with his offer to provide "a choice, not an echo." Overall, I'm glad that our two major political parties are more ideologically based than they used to be. (From 1972 to 2002, the average Republican in the House of Representatives jumped from voting 63 percent conservative to 91 percent, according to the American Conservative Union, while the average Democrat's score dropped from 32 percent to 13 percent.)
And yet, be careful what you ask for. The problem with two differentiated parties (although still not as differentiated as some Christian conservatives would like) is that when a governor or president is a scoundrel, voters ideologically aligned with him don't have a good choice. They either have to vote for a person without character or vote for someone personally right but ideologically wrong.
Forty years ago, when parties echoed each other, the key question asked about candidates concerned their character or managerial ability. But today, Democrats concerned about John Kerry's penchant for lying are stuck with him, and Republicans who question the Bush administration's discernment have nowhere else to go, realistically. For that matter, we saw the problems of ideological distinctiveness during the Clinton years: Democrats who disliked presidential tap-dancing around the truth couldn't let those right-wing Republicans win, could they?
Now that I'm living in New Jersey for this next academic year (guest professoring at Princeton before returning to the University of Texas), I see up close and personal the problems of Garden State Democrats who felt they had no choice but to stand by their gubernatorial snake, Jim McGreevey. Said governor, while posing as a dedicated family guy with a young daughter, made his homosexual lover, a public-relations man, his personal adviser on homeland-security matters-this is not a joke-and then appointed him to a $110,000-a-year job without specific responsibilities.
All of this came out when Gov. McGreevey announced on Aug. 12 that he was resigning, thus preempting his now-estranged lover's threat either to blackmail him or file a sexual-harassment suit. For a superb theological analysis, please turn back one page and read Andree Seu's column. But I'm concentrating here on the long cover-up: The Trenton Times noted on Aug. 14 that New Jersey Democratic leaders had long feared that the affair was "a time bomb likely to go off."
Why didn't they speak up and find another candidate? For some, the goal was maintenance of power, but ideologists also thought ideologically: They wanted to minimize the possibility of voter revulsion that could lead to a conservative Republican gaining office. Many Jersey journalists also knew of the guv's proclivities and did not feel secure about the appointment of someone unqualified to the state security position. But they did not raise the issue because they did not want to give aid and comfort to their ideological enemies, or even be considered "homophobic" themselves. (Reporters probably would have inquired had the governor been heterosexual and his appointee curvaceous.)
Their cover-up failed this month, as almost all do eventually: Scandalous behavior offers a "pay me now or pay me later" choice. Still, Gov. McGreevey's artful timing-his resignation goes into effect after this year's election, which means that voters won't get a chance to pick a replacement until November 2005-allows Democrats to hold onto power.
Three political implications of the rule of ideology: First, political conventions like next week's GOP affair will continue to garner generally low viewership. Pundits note the lack of suspense concerning nomination outcomes, and also complain that the top broadcast networks don't show more of the doings, but for the vast number of ideological voters convention coverage is not "news you can use": Their votes are already determined. The presidential election this fall will be decided by which side is better at getting out its vote, because relatively few Americans now huddle in the middle.
Second, the lessened opportunity for voters to make a choice based on character hands more power to those in smoke-filled rooms (and their epigones, now that smokelessness is cool). Behind-the-scenes politicos need to do character checks on prospective nominees and kick out those without self-control. That's in the self-interest of the political class; otherwise, "In McGreevey's fall, we sinned all," and many staffers are out of work because of the self-indulgence of their boss.
Third, when the power-brokers mess up, a free press should be the last refuge for ousting scoundrels-but we journalists can fulfill that function only when we grasp once again that our job is to tell the truth, even when it is politically inconvenient.