A perfect illustration of this dichotomy comes in this AP story about freshman senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina. He's become something of a kingmaker in Republican politics, throwing his influence (and money from his PAC) at candidates who he thinks embody his particular brand of conservatism. Here's a money quote from him:
I don't know that I'm always going to be right, but I do know this: I'm not going to sit on the sidelines again. When we tell people we're the conservative party ... I want to make sure we have people sitting in those seats who really mean it.
And here's one from Texas Senator John Cornyn, a Washington veteran:
My goal is simply to build our numbers so we can provide checks and balances to single-party power here in Washington. I think [DeMint] has a different goal, which is to try to move the Republican conference in a more conservative direction. If that were possible and we were able to win elections all around the country I would be all for it, but I think as a pragmatic matter we've got to nominate Republicans who can get elected in their states.
Now, I'm not going to lump Cornyn in with moderate Republicans, since he's been a clear obstacle to all things Democratic for a long time. In fact, to some degree, "moderate conservative" is an oxymoron. His words reveal clearly that the Republicans' sole objective is to regain power, to win elections. DeMint wants that too, but he wants party purity. (I suppose that's commendable, given that their other attempts to demand purity have failed so miserably.)
The really sad part of this is that debate about the issues has disappeared. I can have and have had discussions with reasonable people about hot issues, and we have disagreed strongly at times. But one thing that no one ever says is that the other person hates America, or is a communist/socialist Nazi. That kind of heated rhetoric gets us nowhere. I don't laugh it off because I realize how impressionable people can be, so those words are powerful and dangerous. Anything that cuts off healthy debate is bad for this country. I have been watching what's going on in the U.K. Their parliamentary system is at a stalemate, and there are some pretty stark differences between the three leading parties. One thing that is common among all three, however, is a demonstrated commitment to civility. You don't see Brits with placards calling any of the candidates Nazis, drawing pictures of them looking like Hitler or any other reviled figure. And the transition to the next government is going to go off without a major hitch, and that country, despite its obvious financial woes, will continue to thrive and grow. Of course, that's not to say that we're not growing, but it certainly hasn't been with the cooperation of both sides. The opposition currently has plans to undo all that Obama has done to move this country forward into the 21st century.