Ronald Reagan is said to have told his staff that someone who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is an ally, not a 20 percent traitor. Now some conservative activists want to add a corollary to Reagan’s dictum: A 70 percent ally is someone who should be drummed out of the Republican party. These activists have compiled a list of ten conservative positions and want the Republican party to deny funds to any candidate who agrees with fewer than eight of them. It is being called a “purity test.”
The activists’ positions are more compelling than their tactics. It is a mistake for conservatives to spend too much of their time and energy fighting liberal Republicans (often called RINOs, for Republicans in Name Only). The Arlen Specters of the Republican party have been a declining force within it for decades (which helps explain why Specter himself left). They had little to do with the party’s recent decline: They bore no special responsibility for the years of failure in Iraq, or the response to Hurricane Katrina, or the stagnant wages of the last decade, or the financial crisis. Nor are liberal Republicans one of the most important obstacles to the party’s resurgence.
We backed Pat Toomey against Specter in 2004, and the 2010 race gives us a fresh chance to make that improvement in the Senate. When we have backed primary challenges to liberal Republican congressmen, it has been based on a judgment that doing so would pull Congress to the right. It cannot possibly serve that purpose to adopt a blanket rule that the RNC cannot spend a dollar to replace a Democrat who agrees with us 10 percent of the time with a Republican who agrees with us 60 percent of the time.