Republicans are in a debate pitting ideological purity versus big-tent inclusiveness. The dust-up between Rush Limbaugh and Colin L. Powell over whether Powell is still a Republican is more than the political equivalent of a show-business feud. It reflects the perennial -- but for Republicans in 2009, painfully pertinent -- question of whether it's good for a major political party to be a big tent or whether too much inclusiveness turns it into a three-ring circus.
To the delight of Democrats, Limbaugh -- described by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger the other day as the 650-pound gorilla in the Republican Party -- has become the leader of the party's purity police.
The number of Americans who identify as Republicans is on a steep decline, and the party's demographics are increasingly unreflective of the nation's. Republicans are an endangered species in the congressional delegations of the Northeastern states and have suffered reverses even in traditionally Republican strongholds. (Virginia now has two Democratic senators.) Whatever the lessons of 1994, Democrats have been successful in recent years by recruiting candidates for the House and Senate who didn't pass liberal litmus tests on abortion or gun control.
In politics, like in religion, there is a problem in trying to compete to be the most pure. Because you can always be more pure, and there is always someone who thinks they can get ahead by pointing out your impurities, so you have to respond be being even more pure. So it never ends, until everyone is driven mad by trying to be the purest of all.
Examples can be found in revolutionary France and Russia, the Puritans, some Muslims today, the McCarthy era, the environmental and animal-rights movements, and the impulse behind "political correctness."
The Republicans are the latest to succumb to this impulse. In the 1980s, it was the Democrats who were caught in the purity trap, until Clinton with his "triangulation" broke free of the litmus tests of the progressive left.