It turns out that extremism in a partisan cause is, in fact, a vice

Dave Durenberger
Former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn.
MPR file photo/Curtis Gilbert

Dave Durenberger, former Republican U.S. senator from Minnesota, is senior health policy fellow at the University of St. Thomas and chairman of the National Institute of Health Policy.

"All across the nation there are mainstream Republicans lamenting how the party has grown more and more insular, more and more rigid ... but where have these party leaders been over the past five years, when all the forces that distort the GOP were metastasizing? ... Leaders of a party are supposed to educate the party, to police against its worst indulgences, to guard against insular information loops. They're supposed to define a creed and define boundaries. Republican leaders haven't done that."

David Brooks, who wrote those words last week, is my kind of Republican conservative. Together with Democrat Mark Shields, the funniest liberal I've ever known, he recently won a prestigious national journalism award for civility in political discourse for their work at the PBS NewsHour.

However, I am taking Brooks' column personally. He accuses Republicans like me of "privately bemoaning where the party is headed and in public doing nothing." There's nothing funny about that.

The cancer that's killing this party has its roots not in the conservative-moderate tussles of the state and national parties in the old days. Rockefeller supporters in 1968 did more for Nixon that year than McCarthy supporters did for Humphrey. And the Ford and Bush supporters went all out for Reagan in 1980. Reagan found success in appealing to conservatives and moderates.

What's killing us is what presidential candidate Barry Goldwater said about extremism in the defense of liberty being no vice.

The Republican Party has made a virtue of extremism. It has done so with plenty of help from the old Confederacy, the religious right, the counter-culture hierarchy of the Catholic Church and Brooks' "Bobos in Paradise", who move to the exurbs seeking a world that looks just like them. The list's a long one.

If every public policy problem is defined in moral terms, and every man claims a divine origin for his political beliefs, there's no way in a representative democracy to find consensus about the right solution. When, as now, every elected representative of one political party can define all the problems facing this country in terms of everything one man has done as president, that's extremism.

When, as now, the conservatives of my day — like Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett of Utah — are threatened with extinction, and moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, gives up 33 years of experience because "nothing is likely to change in the near future," that's extremism.

When, as now, every Republican signs a pledge never to raise any kind of tax, to cut a preferred list of public expenditures but never to touch tax preferences, and to promise never to fund anything that has the word Public or the word Parenthood in it, that's extremism.

And when a generation of Republicans who have joined Democrats in bipartisan efforts to ensure the civil rights of every American, including every woman, have been sent to the sidelines by Republican primaries and caucuses, you know that's extremism.

So I say to my friend David Brooks: We RINOs (Republicans in name only) or Opossum Republicans (who go to sleep at the first sign of trouble) are history. The day we, like Sen. Olympia Snowe last week and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson before her, walk out of long careers as Republican senators, you know that partisan extremism is winning the day, no matter what we may say or do. It's wishful thinking to believe the extremists can be educated or informed — except by the electorate.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.