The End of Rockefeller Republicanism: Dispatch From Putnam County, New York

I live in Putnam County, New York. Although we don't know for sure, my county seems to have provided the inspiration for the hit Broadway musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Certainly, the play's hodgepodge of liberals and conservatives, city folk and farmers, gay dads and workaholic parents, reflects this place well. We are rural and urban, Republican and Democrat, working class and upper crust and everything in between.

Putnam has long been a "purple" part of the country -- neither red nor blue, but somewhere in between. Generally, the county votes Republican, but there are often exceptions, and the Republicans we elect tend to be of the now-endangered, Northeastern variety: heavy on fiscal conservatism, light on hot-button social issues.

Until now.

The Tea Party has taken over the Republican side of Putnam County's upcoming elections, and given the county's overall political proclivities -- and, more importantly -- its continued economic woes -- they might well represent us in Congress and the New York State Senate. This would be a disaster, and out of character for the place I am proud to call home.

In New York's 19th Congressional District race, two-term incumbent John Hall faces a challenge from Tea-Party-anointee (and recent Club for Growth heroine) Nan Hayworth. Hall is a pro-Iraq-war, anti-Ground-Zero-mosque moderate -- he's even earned the ire of many progressives. He embodies the responsible, moderate "sanity" than Jon Stewart's minions are marching for in Washington.

Hayworth, in contrast, is a cookie-cutter Tea Party pseudo-libertarian. Her talking points are straight from the national strategy desk: Glenn Beck's rhetoric of patriotism and limited government, Sarah Palin's homey amateurism, and wild exaggerations of the evils of health care reform and other "nationalized" programs. Her platform is cookie-cutter as well: lowering the "oppressive, enterprise-killing taxation" (translation: lower taxes on the richest Americans -- including, in Hayworth's case, eliminating the Alternative Minimum Tax), "reform" of social security (i.e., mandatory IRA's, which everyone knows are meant to replace, not reform, the existing system), increasing domestic oil production (read: more BP spills in the gulf, more drilling in Alaska), anti-immigration measures, and so on.

For Putnam County, these are truly radical positions. Eliminating the estate tax without any upper limit, replacing social security with IRA's... these play well in the Tea Party's extremist backyards, but they have no place in the land of Rockefeller Republicanism. (It's interesting that Hayworth's website states no positions whatsoever on social issues -- would she let the Spelling Bee's two dads marry, or not?)

Unsurprisingly, the far-right Club for Growth has made Hayworth's election one of their top priorities. They know they've got Southern suburban districts in their pocket -- but here's a chance to have an ultra-libertarian extremist represent a bunch of moderates, people who would just as soon vote Democrat or Republican. C4G, the Tea Party and other pseudo-populist national organizations are capitalizing on voter anger to put a radical into office -- someone my friends and neighbors would never ordinarily elect.

The same thing is happening in my local state senate race. Our longtime state senator, Republican power-broker Vinnie Leibell, is retiring to run for Putnam County Executive, leaving the seat vacant. In the Republican senate primary, Tea Party clone Greg Ball trounced the more establishment candidate, Mary Beth Murphy (whom he ludicrously dubbed "Tax-and-Spend Murphy" and accused of having a "pro-tax, pro-death, pro-illegal alien, and anti-second amendment record"). In the general election, he faces Mike Kaplowitz, a veteran Westchester councilman. Kaplowitz is a Democrat, but you wouldn't know it from his campaign literature, which is positioning him as Tea-Party-lite ("Fiercely Independent. Fiscally Conservative."). This, of course, is the same strategy that has failed every Democrat who's tried it.

As in the congressional race, voters are primed to elect someone far to the right of their usual political leanings. Ball's rhetoric, like Hayworth's, is straight from Fox News. "Quite frankly I will make it my objective to cut the tentacles of government off at every turn," he recently told the Putnam County News and Recorder. "Government is not the solution, it is the problem, and while a transparent and responsive government may be directed to do good things, if left unchecked, it will always result in oppression, tyranny and eventually, societal and economic decline."

This kind of strident Beckism flies in the face of generations of northeastern reasonableness. Yes, Albany really is a broken political machine. But sending a would-be libertarian ideologue there isn't republicanism -- it's a temper tantrum. (The New York State Senate districts have been so hopelessly gerrymandered that no Democrat is likely to win my district unless the Republican professes beliefs in witchcraft and mice with human brains.)

The worst of it is that, as Bill Clinton remarked on This Week, we are in a "fact-free period." Hayworth criticizes John Hall for supporting TARP, even though it was originally a Republican idea, cooked up by free-marketeers. Greg Ball calls Kaplowitz a government insider, even though it's Ball who served in the New York State Assembly. And of course, blaming the Democrats and overblown government for the deregulation-created economic crisis is like blaming the firefighters for the fire. Three decades of letting Wall Street play with matches caused this blaze. And now we're electing more lighters.

I understand the feelings of rage and helplessness that go along with a prolonged recession. Unemployment in Putnam County is actually among the lowest in the region -- but it's still 6.4 percent, up from 3.6 percent in 2008. And that hurts a lot of people. Yet what's happened to my hometown is a disgrace to the moderation that used to mark our entire part of the country. An angry, vengeful fringe has taken over the Republican party, and if the polls are correct, their minions will soon represent me in Albany and Washington. The only silver lining is that they'll probably be just as ineffective as the angry, vengeful Republicans were back in 1994, when Newt Gingrich swept into power and accomplished very little. At least, I hope so.