Monday, June 12, 2006

The decline of political parties

I've been trying to think of a movie that best describes what happened in last month's Pennsylvania primary, where 17 incumbents, mostly Republicans, were ousted by voters.

The film that sums up the present state of party politics is "Titanic."

The Titanic struck the iceberg on May 16. The ship is going down. The party leaders, especially on the Republican side, are busy re-arranging the deck chairs when they should be manning the lifeboats.

Party bosses, from Capt. John Perzel -- skipper of the Titanic -- on down, have been trying to calm the panicky crew members (the legislators) but the water is chest-high and rising. It's every man for himself. The voters have shown that blind obedience to one party or to party leadership is a thing of the past.

As we get closer to the November election and the rank-and-file Republican legislators figure out that they will soon be swimming with the fishes, you'll see a fight for the few remaining lifeboats the likes of which has never been seen before.

It's painfully clear that House Speaker John Perzel is the Tom Delay of Pennsylvania politics. He is the poster child for everything that is wrong with the ship of state. The sooner the rank-and-file legislators dump Perzel, the sooner they can fight for the remaining lifeboats. Otherwise, the GOP casualty list will be extensive after the Nov. 7 election.

The party bosses, insulated by legions of sycophants, are usually the last to deal with reality. This explains why the Republicans picked an insurance salesman from Cambria County to lead the party after the hapless Eileen Melvin fell on her sword following May 16's disastrous showing by Republican incumbents.

The election of status-quo candidate Robert Gleason shows how out-of-touch the party leadership is with the voters. The people who went to the polls on May 16 -- the serious voters every party depends on -- spoke loud and clear: They want change. They want results. The political establishment responded by blaming the media, the weather and high gas prices for their losses.

I want to share a couple of examples from southeastern Pennsylvania that prove my point that party loyalty is a thing of the past.

In a stunning upset, Democrat Andrew Dinniman defeated Republican Carol Aichele for Pennsylvania's 19th Senatorial District seat on May 16. How historic was Dinniman's victory? Dinniman is the first Democrat to win a state Senate seat from Chester County in 115 years. He took 21,478 votes to Aichele’s 16,733.

Dinniman, who earned more than 55 percent of the vote on May 16, told the West Chester Daily Local news that he knows he could not have won without the support of 35 to 40 percent of the Republicans who came out to vote. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the 19th District by 83,632 to 48,787.

In neighboring Montgomery County, another GOP stronghold, Ken Davis was re-elected county chairman by a 37-vote margin over reformer Robert J. Kerns. The 400-363 vote by Republican committee members shows the divide between the status quo and reform factions in the GOP. In other words, half the foot soldiers who are crucial to getting out the vote in November may not be so enthusiastic about the job ahead with Davis leading the troops. This is happening all over the state.

Another interesting development in Montgomery County that does not bode well for the GOP was recently detailed by columnist Margaret Gibbons in the Norristown Times Herald.

Gibbons studied voter registration numbers and found that 2,272 Montgomery County voters switched their registration from a political party to independent (non-partisan) in the months leading up to the primary. Gibbons’ take on those switches is that both Democratic and Republican voters were fed up with politics as usual and their switch to non-partisan status was their own private protest.

"After all, these folks could simply have remained on the rolls as Democratic or Republican but they made the effort to switch," Gibbons writes.

While there's no way to figure out how many Republicans dropped out of the party to register as independents, the fact that Montgomery County still has a huge GOP advantage in voter registration leads one to conclude that it’s mostly disenchanted Republicans who left the party.

Republicans control both houses of the state legislature, hold both of Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate seats and there are more Republican Congressmen from Pennsylvania than their Democratic counterparts. The only Democrats in power are Gov. Ed Rendell and Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., who wants to be a U.S. Senator.

If Pennsylvania Republicans lose control of the state House, if they are unable to oust a failed governor like Rendell or if they contribute to the loss of the either house in Congress by allowing Democrats to defeat GOP incumbents, look no further than the status quo leadership of the Republican Party for the blame.