Wall Street Journal
Review and Outlook
A Small GOP
Litmus tests are for minority parties.
Scott Brown's Massachusetts upset shows that Americans want an alternative to a liberal Democratic majority, but some Republicans are still intent on reminding voters what they don't like about the GOP.
The Republican National Committee holds its winter meeting in Hawaii this week, and party activists may offer a resolution imposing a litmus test on GOP candidates. The brainchild of Indiana lawyer James Bopp Jr.—who has done yeoman work fighting campaign-finance limits—the resolution would bar RNC support or cash to any candidate who agrees with fewer than eight of 10 conservative principles.
The litmus list includes: support for smaller government and lower taxes, troop surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense of Marriage Act, containing Iran and North Korea, and gun rights; as well as opposition to ObamaCare, cap-and-trade legislation, "amnesty" for immigrants, union card check and government-funded abortion. We're not sure Mr. Brown would have made this cut.
Supporters call this "Reagan's Unity Principle," but that's unfair to the Gipper. If the elections in Massachusetts and 2006 and 2008 showed anything, it's that Republicans can't win with their base alone. They need independent voters. Those independents don't want to be told that every GOP candidate must first bow to big-shot party vetters.
President Obama's agenda has alienated enough independents that Republicans have the opportunity to compete again in New England, the Upper Midwest and even parts of the Pacific Coast. The National Republican Congressional Committee is vowing to field a candidate in all 435 House districts. Yet the party will be wasting money and credibility if it intends to make candidates in Illinois or Oregon meet a test crafted by Republicans who can win in South Carolina.
The better route is the pragmatism the GOP showed in uniting behind Mr. Brown. The Massachusetts Republican is a fiscal conservative, but his more moderate cultural views made it difficult for Democrats to define him as out of step with most Bay State voters. Mr. Brown's promise to be an independent voice for his state was crucial to giving Republicans their 41st Senate vote.
The purity resolution got rolling last fall, amid tea-party activism and discontent over the GOP's handling of an upstate New York special Congressional election. The party's mistake in that case was its backroom nomination of the liberal Dede Scozzafava without holding a primary.
Any party needs principles, and the failure to live up to those principles cost the GOP control of Congress in 2006. But imposing a litmus test is itself an act of elitism that will make it harder for candidates to forge a winning coalition. Let the candidates sort out their disputes in vigorous primary campaigns.
For example, GOP Representative Mark Kirk's vote last year for cap and trade may hurt him with some voters in the looming Illinois Senate primary, but other voters may put a higher priority on taxes or health care. A 10-point list gives no room for such priority setting or the electoral context. It also reminds voters of the unattractive cast-the-first-stone side of the party's personality.
RNC Chairman Michael Steele has remained publicly neutral on the litmus list, though it clashes with his promise to "listen" to voters and to court independents and Democrats. The 168 RNC members should keep in mind that litmus tests are for losers.