How About Some Questions for the Inquisitors?

The set-up for Sunday’s “Face the Nation” was pretty irresistible – Dede Scozzafava appearing live with Dick Armey, the prickly Texan who helped sabotage her upstate congressional campaign this fall.

Alas, the follow-through was lacking.

Scozzafava and Armey were invited for a segment pegged to last week’s news that the national G.O.P. may adopt a sort-of litmus test for future Republican candidates, requiring them to support eight of ten agenda items to receive official party backing.

They were the perfect guests for this topic, with the Armey-assisted destruction of Scozzafava’s campaign in the 23rd District serving as a preview of the implications of such a purity test.

An extended back-and-forth between them would have vividly illustrated the purity vs. pragmatism debate that is now gripping the G.O.P. – and that Armey’s side is clearly winning. It also would have been fun to watch. Too bad the format didn’t allow for any direct interaction between them.

Scozzafava, for instance, told host Harry Smith that she would have scored seven out of ten on the proposed purity test.

“I had the opportunity to review the list this past week,” she said. “And I would’ve been at seven out of ten. If people looked at my record and understood how I felt about a lot of the federal issues, I think they could see that I was for lower taxes, lower government spending.”

Here, a response from Armey – followed by a rebuttal from Scozzafava – would have been useful. Does he agree that Scozzafava would have scored seven out of ten (the threshold that, at least according to Armey, a candidate would need to reach to qualify for party support)? If so, then why was he so adamant about opposing Scozzafava (and, thus, jeopardizing the G.O.P.’s chances of hanging on to the 23rd District seat)? And if not, then which agenda items does he think she is inaccurately claiming to support?

Such an exchange might have revealed something about the substance and psychology of Armey’s movement, which could claim more “moderate” Republican scalps in the months ahead. Most of the other supposed heretics being targeted by the right offer the same basic defense that Scozzafava pursued on Sunday, claiming that their views actually overlap with the right on most issues.

There is some quantitative evidence to back this up. For instance, Lindsey Graham, whom many on the right view as another Scozzafava, actually boasts a lifetime rating of 90 from the American Conservative Union. But Graham was recently censured by Republicans in his own state for being insufficiently conservative.

The right’s hostility toward Graham, Scozzafava and other perceived sell-outs (like Florida’s Charlie Crist) seems disproportionate when you consider their overall bodies of work. This suggests that emotion plays a strong role in the purity movement – that the willingness of any Republican to show public flexibility on an emotionally-resonant issue (like Graham working for an immigration compromise or Scozzafava supporting abortion and gay rights) is by itself enough for the right to declare that Republican a traitor to the cause.

But after Scozzafava made her seven-out-of-ten assertion, Smith asked a new question of Armey, about whether the right’s efforts in the 23rd could be considered a success. A reasonable question, no doubt, but one that left Armey painting in broad strokes. Scozzafava, he said, had always been a “bad fit” for the race and that she’d been “dropping like a brick” even before Doug Hoffman decided to run on the Conservative Party line.

“The fact of the matter was even the Democrat was running against her as a big

spender,” Armey offered. “She was a bad fit for that race. Had there been an electoral primary process, she wouldn’t have won the primary, she wouldn’t have been the candidate, and the Republican would win that race.”

It wasn’t until several minutes later, after Smith bantered with the segment’s other guest, former R.N.C. Chairman Ed Gillespie, that Scozzafava was able to speak up again. She’d actually been ahead by seven points in mid-October, Scozzafava asserted, when “all of a sudden” national conservatives “flooded the market, distorted my record.” On what specific issues her record was distorted wasn’t discussed, and the segment ended moments later.

Casual viewers were left with only a vague sense of why Armey and his allies were so vehemently opposed to Scozzafava – and why, by extension, ideological discipline has suddenly become the G.O.P. base’s driving cause.

But this is a phenomenon that will play a major role in next year’s elections. By inducing a dialogue between Scozzafava and Armey, “Face the Nation” could have explored how much of it is rational and how much of it is emotional. Instead, we got more principled-sounding rhetoric that doesn’t really tell us much of anything.