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April 09, 2012 4:49 PM Don’t Weep For Connie Morella

By Ed Kilgore

At TNR, Geoffrey Kabaservice, who’s written a much-touted book on the demise of moderate Republicanism, has penned a stimulating column arguing that Democrats are complicit in making the GOP the instrument of a “war on women” because they worked hard to kill off Republicans who resisted the takeover of that party by anti-feminists.

Kabaservice’s main example of this alleged phenomenon was the successful Democratic drive in 2002 to rid Congress of Connie Morella, who representative a district in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. Here’s his argument in a nutshell:

Morella, a former English professor and state legislator who also managed to raise nine children, was one of the leading feminists in Congress and among the most liberal House Republicans. She sponsored important legislation on domestic violence and women’s health, while opposing conservatives on gun control, gay rights, conservation, and abortion. She was also one of only six Republicans to vote against authorizing George W. Bush’s military action in Iraq. Her ability to work across the aisle made her a key player in bipartisan reform coalitions. But after Republicans took control of the House in 1994, Morella’s representation of some of Washington D.C.’s most affluent and liberal suburbs made her one of the Democrats’ leading targets. The Democratic-controlled Maryland legislature redrew her district to ensure that, as the state senate president gloated, “If she runs, she loses.”

And she did, even though national Republicans backed her to the hilt and party conservatives either supported her or left her alone. Kabaservice is particularly struck by the ultimately self-defeating actions of feminist groups like NOW:

NOW’s actions at that time were intensely partisan, which was perhaps understandable, since most of the organization’s funds and support came from Democrats. But the organization, by turning its back on Morella, in effect declared that feminism was no longer a bipartisan cause and that Republican women almost by definition could not be good feminists. The blowup over the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s defunding of Planned Parenthood earlier this year provided further confirmation that women’s organizations caught up in partisan quarrels will have to side with the Democrats. The unfortunate upshot is that, as feminism ceases to be advocated by at least some people in both parties, it becomes a narrower cause and loses force in American life.

This is an argument that is attractive at first glance, until you focus on the fact that Connie Morella wasn’t a regular Republican who happened to dissent from her party on issues involving women’s rights, but a moderate-to-liberal pol undermined by a general ideological sorting-out of the two parties. The big blow to feminism was not its loss of bipartisan support, but its loss of trans-ideological support. Until the 1970s, all of the Republican Party factions (with the exception of a conservative fringe) supported an Equal Rights Amendment. For a brief period of time, as hard-core culturally conservative southern Democrats began to die out, support for feminism, at least at the most basic level, was a non-controversial consensus issue. Once “women’s issues” became ideologically polarized, in the successful 1970s fight to prevent state ratification of the ERA, it was strictly a matter of time before they became subject to partisan polarization as well. If NOW or DC-area liberals had decided to let Connie Morella linger on as a sort of living political museum-piece, that would not have kept an increasingly conservative GOP from being increasingly anti-feminist—it would have simply provided the GOP “cover,” which is precisely why conservatives did not “primary” her in 2002 (though they might well have done so more recently, as their domination of the party was consummated).

Kabaservice’s lament for Morella is like a lot of the recent nostalgic literature about the bygone era of bipartisanship. Much of it had to with a party system built around factors other than ideology, or ideological divisions that had become obsolete. Sure, the ideological diversity of the two major parties made it possible for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to be enacted with strong bipartisan support. But that same diversity kept both parties from addressing civil rights for decades, just as the ideological diversity of the antebellum Second Party System kept slavery from being dealt with, and the ideological diversity of the Third Party System gave unregulated monopoly capitalism a very long time in the saddle.

I, too, wish that Republicans had not become so uniformly anti-feminist. But a make-believe bipartisanship based on phony diversity would not have prevented that from happening.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • thebewilderness on April 09, 2012 5:05 PM:

    It never gets old, does it. The evol feminists at NOW control the Democratic Party and so it is all their fault that a lefty Republican lost their seat because partisanship in the Democratic Party is bad for Republicans and Democrats and women.
    Criminy!

  • Maryland 8th on April 09, 2012 5:37 PM:

    I live in this district, MD-8th, and voted in the elections culminating in Morella's loss. Kabaservices's just-so storey neglects to mention that the voters of the 8th are quite possibly the most politically sophisticated in the entire country. A huge number of us work in government or politics, and we follow it like others follow their NFL team.

    What did Connie in was the Republican takeover of the House. Full stop.

    Everyone here knew that after the Gingrich revolution, a vote for Connie was a vote to give Conservative Republicans control of the House, and thus to consign everything we cared about to the dustbin. Before Gingrich it was fun to vote for Connie to burnish our self-important sense of being political sophisticates. After Gingrich getting rid of her became a matter of life and death for a Democratic policy agenda, and we all knew it.

    If Connie would have gone independent and voted with the Dems to organize the House, she would be in office today.

    Nice try, Mr. Kabaservice, but no cigar.

  • Mark-NC on April 09, 2012 5:47 PM:

    This reminds me of the phoney ALEC arguments that the group is bipartisan because there are a few Dems on the group.

    A few tokens doesn't change the rotten core - just gives them cover behind a few idiots.

  • Deech56 on April 09, 2012 6:09 PM:

    MD-8th has it exactly correct. I lived in her district from 1991 until 1997 (moving to MD-6 - LOL) and probably voted for her in 1992, but could not in 1994 and thereafter. As the GOP has gone loco, my votes for Republican candidates (for local seats, mainly) have become fewer and fewer.

  • tt on April 09, 2012 6:42 PM:

    why dont we just blame women for the failure of republicans to be reasonable

  • jomo on April 09, 2012 6:48 PM:

    And you know what - they do the same to ours. A moderate congressperson - of either party is more likely to be in a swing state - and therefore easier to knock off in a wave election. In 2010 - the blue dogs fell like flies.

  • Eric k on April 09, 2012 7:05 PM:

    If NOW had supported by pro life Dem vs her he might have had a point, but they supported a solid progressive who won the seat and us a rising star in the party.

    His bigger problem is not recognizing how the Reps (in the House, especially and the Senate on most issues) act basically like a parliament now so a vote for anyone is actually a vote for the national party agenda.

  • Rich on April 09, 2012 9:25 PM:

    Morella's last few terms were marked by Snowe/Collins-like cowardice on big votes. Getting rid of her was the best thing her district could do.

  • Mimikatz on April 09, 2012 10:19 PM:

    My recollection is that what did Morella in was some votes that were against the interests of federal workers, who then took their revenge on her. Consistent with MD-08 and Deech56 but a little more specific.

  • Ron Mexico on April 10, 2012 7:38 AM:

    It's true that liberals are to blame for everything.

    Aside from that truism, the point about Morella and her ilk is utterly without merit. She was part of a tiny minority that was allowed to cast meaningless votes in order to ensure that a big-tent party could command a majority. That party's agenda was anti-feminist.

  • MattF on April 10, 2012 9:02 AM:

    I'm also an MD08 resident-- the reason I didn't vote for Morella was Tom Delay. Is that so complicated?

  • wvmcl on April 10, 2012 9:03 AM:

    To echo some of the others, the point these days is simple: individuals don't matter. All that matters is how many Rs and how many Ds there are. Morella may have been on the right side of many issues, but she still had that R.

  • Sue Tubbs on April 10, 2012 9:07 AM:

    I also live in Maryland's 8th district, I voted for Connie until the ultimatum. I have often thought of her fondly but then have considered not having Chris Van Hollen in there fighting for our ideas. I did vote her out because of the take over. Now the 8th has been redrawn into a Republican district of Roscoe Bartlet. Let see what happens in November between Roscoe Bartlet and John Delaney as we are no longer in Van Hollen's district.

  • Genevieve on April 10, 2012 11:08 AM:

    This is condescending drivel. I also live in MD-08. I liked Connie and voted for her a couple of times before the Republican party's hard lurch to the right. That last campaign, I saw her all alone at our 4th of July parade (which she faithfully attended) and told her I was genuinely sorry I could no longer vote for her. She was a lover person and a thoroughly decent human being. That didn't change one iota the reality that Republicans were using her as cover and treating her (and us) with contempt. At the end she had no power whatsoever. They trotted her out for cynical ends, but wouldn't allow her anywhere near actual power.

  • howie on April 10, 2012 11:40 AM:

    Those above have it right. Connie COULDN'T vote with the left on anything truly important anymore and, therefore, was useless except as cover for the GOP.