The Enablers

Senator Lincoln Chafee, Republican of Rhode Island, is seeking reelection in his heavily Democratic state by insisting he's not really a Republican, or at least not part of the gang responsible for the decade's debacles. He didn't even vote for George W. Bush in 2004, he protests. He cast his vote for George H.W. Bush -- a kinder, gentler, more prudent, less strident Republican.

Big deal.

It matters not a damn whom Lincoln Chafee chose to support for president. His vote was one of roughly 435,000 cast in Rhode Island in the 2004 presidential election, and roughly 122 million cast nationwide. The election in which his vote did matter was that for majority leader of the Senate. There, he was one of just 100 electors, in a Senate nearly evenly divided. After this November's elections, control of the Senate may well hang by a single vote.

And if Chafee truly wished to alter the course of his party and his country in the spirit of his vote for Poppy Bush, he would, if reelected, cast his vote for majority leader when the new Senate convenes for Bob Dole or Howard Baker -- former Republican leaders who showed a decent respect for reality and an interest in doing the nation's business.

Rather than support an administration lapdog such as Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, the Republican whip, whom his party will probably put forth to run the Senate next January, Chafee would vote for some old-school GOP pol. Rather than just announce he's against the war and appalled by torture, he'd vote to put the Senate in the hands of someone with enough gumption and wisdom to stand up to a president who's hellbent on a war that's lost its purpose and who believes America should torture its prisoners either because it makes a nifty wedge issue to use against the Democrats or because he actually believes torture is an acceptable U.S. policy. (Or, to give the president the benefit of the doubt, both.)

Chafee and Maine's Olympia Snowe and such deathbed converts to moderation as Ohio's Mike DeWine are seeking reelection to the Senate by claiming that they represent a Republicanism less rabid than the Bush-Rove strain. They point to individual votes in which they broke with the president and flouted the party line. But those votes have been negated a hundred times over by their votes to make Bill Frist the majority leader, just as they would be negated when the new Senate takes office in 2007 if the moderates backed any Republican unwilling to make a fundamental break with Bush and Bushism.

The issue isn't the individual voting records of Frist and McConnell, which are indistinguishable from each other and define the mainstream of today's gorge-the-rich, drown-the-poor, stay-the-course Republicanism. The issue is that under the control of the Republicans, both the Senate and the House have abandoned their constitutionally mandated obligation to oversee executive branch endeavors, most especially endeavors gone as awry as the war in Iraq. The issue is that under Republican control, both houses have abandoned any effort to address America's real problems.

The House and Senate vote to ban flag-burning and gay marriage but never quite find the time to slow the rising costs of health care or raise the minimum wage or mandate fuel efficiency standards lest the polar ice cap melt. Chafee, Snowe, and DeWine readily admit that a melted polar ice cap would be troublesome; they will fight it tooth and nail. But come time to vote for majority leader, they always vote for a leader of a party in thrall to big oil.

Problem is, Chafee and his moderate band are an ever weaker force in a party whose very essence is extreme, whose electoral strategy is solely to mobilize its base, whose legislative strategy is never to seek votes across party lines. And unless these moderates boldly go where they have not gone before and cast their vote for majority leader (and I don't mean in caucus, I mean on the Senate floor) for someone other than the nominee of their party caucus, they are not moderates at all. They are loyal and indispensable foot soldiers in the Republicans' continuing campaign to drag the nation rightward and backward.

And guess what. The moderates will vote for the extremist. "Moderate," after all, is only an adjective; "Republican" is a noun. Chafee, Snowe, the whole lot of them, are moderate enablers of an extremist party. That leaves those voters in Rhode Island, Maine, Ohio and other states where these self-proclaimed Republican moderates are running only one choice if they seek a Congress to check and balance the president, if they want a more moderate nation: Vote for the Democrat.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect. This column originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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