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Mark Shields - 10/30/09
Politics: A Matter of Addition, Not Subtraction

Some of my more disapproving colleagues in the press corps regularly remind the rest of us that there is only one way to look at any politician: down!

I disagree. Let me state at the outset: I like a lot of politicians and few of them more than I like Tom Davis, the shrewd and savvy Republican who chose, last year, to voluntarily leave the U.S. House after seven terms of representing his suburban Northern Virginia district.

In addition to being good company and even capable of laughing at himself, Davis knows as much about American politics as anybody I talk to. For example, over a recent lunch, he offered as proof that his GOP has lost "the inner suburbs" and increasingly "become a rural party, a Southern Party" the facts that Democrat Barack Obama carried 78 of the 100 U.S. counties with the highest education levels, while Republican John McCain had carried 88 of the nation's 100 counties with the lowest education levels.

While most political coverage in this off-year centers on the New Jersey and Virginia governor's races, Davis devotes his attention and efforts to a Nov. 3 special House election in the 23rd district in northern New York, way up near the U.S.-Canada border. This district has sent only Republicans to Washington for the last 137 years, but Obama handily defeated McCain here. The GOP House nominee, state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, a moderate on gay rights and pro-choice on abortion, has become the target of the national anti-tax group the Club for Growth and prominent social conservatives, including 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. They are backing Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman.

This nasty GOP civil war benefits Democrat Bill Owens, for whom President Obama is raising funds.

Davis is strongly supporting centrist Republican Scozzafava. He knows that a Democratic win would leave the Republicans even less competitive in the Northeastern United States, with only two House members in New York and all six New England states. Davis does not conceal his argument with those "on the far right like (the Family Research Council's) Tony Perkins and Rush Limbaugh (who) want a private club with an admissions test. They don't want a political party which is, by definition, a coalition."

By Davis' lights, 2010 ought to be a good Republican year. There is a natural cycle when after a change-of-party presidential election, the president's congressional party is often punished in the first midterm election for the sins of the new president, whose name is not on the ballot.

Ronald Reagan - two years before he would win re-election carrying 49 states - saw his GOP lose 26 House seats. In 1994, Bill Clinton - two years before he would become the first Democrat since FDR to win a second White House term - was powerless to stop the loss of 52 Democratic House seats.

Davis lists the Democrats' other problems: In 2006 and 2008, Democrats "overperformed" by winning traditionally Republican House seats where GOP voters were discouraged by party scandals and the Bush presidency. "The energy source the Democrats twice used to plug into - George W. Bush - is gone." And midterm reaction votes, he points out, are always stronger against the party "when that same party controls both the Congress and the White House." Witness the Democratic defeats in 1978 and 1994, and the Republicans' thumping in 2006.

But what concerns Davis is "the real disconnect between the Republican Party and the nation," as reflected in the blood feud in the New York special election. Davis knows the country is changing and believes passionately that his party must change, as well, because, in the final analysis, politics is a matter of addition, not of subtraction.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.