Chris Mooney expresses concern at his blog and in Seed magazine about the possibility that Scientists and Engineers for Change (SEforA) will be too partisan. The races they expect to target include (according to the Times) “Senate race in Virginia between George Allen, the incumbent Republican, and James Webb, a Democrat; a stem cell ballot issue in Missouri; the question of intelligent design in Ohio; and Congressional races in Washington State.”
On the conference call announcing the group’s kick-off, retiring Republican Representative Sherwood Boehlert was the only politician mentioned by name as the kind of person the group wants to support. And given that the The Republican War on Science is in full swing, it isn’t surprising that pro-science Republicans are hard to find.
The other side of this is that it isn’t necessarily the best thing for this group to back pro-science Republicans (perhaps excluding genuine leaders like Boehlert). As Kos and Jerome Armstrong argue in Crashing the Gate, we are moving past the era when interest groups can work successfully independent of party interests. The example they give in the book is the decision by NARAL and the League of Conservation Voters to endorse Republican Lincoln Chafee very early in Rhode Island’s Senate election. Chafee reportedly only remains a Republican out of respect for his father (also a prominent Rhode Island politician). He has views much closer to Democrats on key issues, including conservation and abortion.
But when push comes to shove, he votes for Bill Frist as majority leader, and that means that bills to authorize torture come to the floor, as do bills limiting women’s rights and stem cell research languishes. In an earlier era, a Senator like Chafee had the freedom to break ranks from his party more often. The modern Congress affords less freedom. That means it’s better to oppose the party of Frist and Inhofe in every race than to back friendly Republicans.
I’m not even clear on what is gained by keeping this group seen as non-partisan. Groups like Cato and Heritage don’t worry that they are seen as partisan. They argue for a particular position. And recognizing the importance of a movement, they back people not just who support their particular policy preferences, but people who will back the people who support their policies. They create an environment where it’s easier to go along with those policies.
That wouldn’t be a bad thing for this group to do. Rather than responding to the existing partisan divide, put out clear statements about what should be, and support anyone who backs them even if they all happen to be Democrats.