The Moose examines the politics of the base and litmus tests.
Senator Frist's apostasy on the stem cell issue has not received the attention it deserves. Frist's move could presage a real donnybrook within the GOP in '08. A significant number of pro-lifers have broken with the party line and the President will be put in a difficult position to veto the legislation liberalizing funding for research. It appears that the social conservative influence over at least part of the party is waning.
In Frist's case, the switch on stem cells appears not to be motivated by positioning for '08 but by conscience. His pandering to the religious right over the past few years seems to be out of character. That was particularly the case in the Schiavo episode when Frist reached his low point with his video diagnosis of the patient. The fact that the good doctor stepped on the President's message of accomplishment with his stem cell announcement prior to the recess is a testimony that Frist wanted to unburden his conscience. However, the break with the religious right is certainly not total - he has recently indicated his support for "intelligent design." But if he thinks he has assuaged the right, he is wrong.
The social conservatives have always been wary of Frist. Now, they have no reason whatsoever to support him. And the Majority Leader's hope to get the '08 nomination was predicated on the hope that he would be the unity, "fusion", establishment candidate that would bring together the various Republican factions.
Perhaps, the Senator is now pondering whether to abandon his hopes to be the Republican nominee in '08. Or, maybe he is making the assessment that he will indeed pursue the nomination as his own man rather than the pandering pol. Then again, he may just be conflicted as his anti-science "intelligent design" comment indicates.
It could be that the front-runners for the Republican nomination will be figures who have challenged the prevailing GOP orthodoxy in at least one fundamental way - McCain, Giuliani and Frist. For us "immoderate centrists" (Fred Siegel's wonderful term), that is a welcome development. If McCain or Giuliani, in particular, gained their party's nomination either one of them would likely attract large number of independent and even Democratic voters.
Will there be donkeys who follow this path of defying the base? The lefties may soon be establishing litmus tests such as signing on to a date for withdrawal from Iraq. There will be immense pressure from the emboldened blogosphere to follow Feingold's lead. That path would be disastrous for the Democrats as it would be portrayed as the "cut and run" party by the Rovians. How will the leading Democratic contenders respond? And how will Democratic candidates appeal to independents and wayward Republicans? Now that wcould be a worthy "litmus test" for the party.
The immoderate centrists will be watching. --