Specter and Crist: Has the GOP establishment learned its lesson? 

An easy dichotomy for political journalists to follow is the “purists” versus “pragmatists” or ideologues versus long-term strategists. The idea, on the right side of the political spectrum, is that conservatives who grumble about RINOs or squishes don’t understand what’s needed to win. The establishment guys — tell the movement guys off the record, hey, I’m as conservative as you, but we just need to be realistic. You journalists/activists have the luxury of demanding the perfect — we doers need to deal with reality.

I’m generally with the “purists” in these fights. My problem with the establishment is not so much their squishiness or liberalness as their hubris. Party bigwigs — and I believe this applies to both parties — believe they know what the long-term consequences of their actions will be.

This, of course, is very relevant today, as we learn that Charlie Crist — whom the NRSC backed early over Marco Rubio — will run as an independent because he is polling so poorly as a Republican. Today is also the anniversary of Arlen Specter’s switch to the Democratic Party, while yesterday was the sixth anniversary of Specter edging Toomey in the GOP primary, thanks to Bush and Santorum.

They establishment sometimes sets up complex Rube Goldberg machines – if we go to the mat for  Specter, he’ll help Bush up-ballot in Pennsylvania, and then in 2006, Specter will save Santorum in a tough race. Other times they see things as much too simple, as my colleague Michael Barone put it to me just now, they practice static analysis in dynamic races — Crist has high approval ratings and a large base of donors while Rubio is a no-name.

In both of these cases, the establishment pushes the liberal on us, and the net result is practical harm to the GOP.

So here’s the lesson GOP bigwigs should take from Specter and Crist: you’re not as smart as you think. Put more politely, Socrates was right: wisdom is knowing the limits of your knowledge. Hopefully Crist’s defection will help the folks at the NRSC get wise.

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Doug Graham

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