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Posted by on May 5, 2009 in Politics | 12 comments

Why Moderate Republicans Matter

What are Moderate,Centrist, Progressive, Rockefeller or whatever they are called Republicans good for?

That’s the question that is on my mind this morning and it has probably been the question many in the GOP are asking. In many cases, the answer is that we are good for nothing and that we should join Arlen Specter in leaving the GOP.

By now, I am familiar with the epithets lobbed at us: we are RINO’s (Republicans in Name Only), wishy-washy and willing to leave the GOP for the cozy confines of the Democrats when things get rough.

In today’s column Ross Douthat, excoriates moderate Republicans saying that these are not the type of centrists that the GOP needs. He offers this portrait of Arlen Specter and other moderates:

The larger species to which he belonged — Republicanus Rockefellus, the endangered Northeastern moderate — likewise has little to offer a party in distress. Indeed, if you listen carefully to high-profile Yankee moderates like Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Lincoln Chafee, who fanned out across op-ed pages and TV shows last week to bemoan their marginalization, it seems as though they don’t even understand their own political situation, let alone the Republican Party’s.

The Northeastern moderates tend to style themselves as fiscal conservatives, spinning a narrative in which they’re the victims of a doctrinaire social conservatism and its litmus tests. But many of them are just instinctive liberals who happen to have ancestral ties to the Grand Old Party. Chafee fit that bill; so did former Senator James Jeffords of Vermont, who amassed a distinctly left-wing record after he bolted the Republican Party in 2001 to become an “independent.” For that matter, so does the retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter, a New England native and Republican appointee who often gets described as a moderate, but boasts the jurisprudence of a reliable liberal.

Others, like Collins and Snowe and (until last week) Specter, are simply horse-traders and deal-cutters, whose willingness to cross party lines last month to vote for $800 billion dollars in deficit spending tells you most of what you need to know about their supposed fiscal conservatism. They’re politically savvy but intellectually vacuous. Their highest allegiance isn’t to limited government. It’s to meeting the party in power halfway, while making sure that the dollars keep flowing to their constituents back home.

Can’t you just feel the love?

While I really like Douthat’s thinking on many issues, I think he is dead wrong here. He has not taken the time to truly understand moderate Republicans, instead relying on the old caricthure that we are basically in Democrats in sheeps clothing. The reality though is much more nuanced.

Take outgoing Supreme Court justice David Souter. The usual complaint against him is that he was a stealth liberal and not a true conservative. However, this complaint says a lot more about those who make than it does about the person the complaint is directed at. While Souter did side with the liberal wing of the Sumpreme Court on social issues, he tended to be pretty business friendly. As Kermit Roosevelt, who clerked with Souter notes, he was the classic New England Republican of 30 years ago. On several occasions he made more business friendly rulings, something that wouldn’t please most Democrats and something that probably won’t happen with Obama’s replacement.

Douthat seems to not like the fact that moderates tend to be horsetraders, people that try to make a deal and in Douthat’s view sell out their ideals in the process. He cites the three GOP Senators who voted for the bloated stimulus package as testament that these moderates are hardly fiscally conservative.

Hmmm. While I didn’t support the stimulus package because it was too big and too spendy, it’s kind of hard to start pillorying Snowe, Specter and Collins for selling out their fiscal conservatism when Republicans of all stripes did that with ease during the years that they controlled Congress and the White House. I don’t see Douthat condemning the more conservative lawmakers that voted for tax cuts and then spent like crazy.

The other problem is that I thought deal making was part of American politics. I thought democracy was about dealing with competing interests. This isn’t a parlimentary democracy where the opposition doesn’t have any say in the making of law. The minority can work with the majority to change legislation that is more suited to their tastes or block the legislation. Maybe Douthat needs to re-read his civics lessons.

Douthat seems to have trouble defining what a centrist could be. Yes, they can be vacous, but they can also have a very solid ideology. He touts the late Jack Kemp as a centrist, but as much as I count Kemp as someone that brought me into the Republican fold, he was not a moderate Republican. It could be that Douthat only sees moderate Republicans as nothing more than wishy washy liberals, which is his right, but because we have lost one of those RINOs, the GOP has effectively lost the Senate.

Douthat and others have always had good time defining who moderates are, but we moderates have done a bad job defining who we are and why we matter to the GOP.

It is a task that we must take up, lest we be defined. That said, there are those that have taken up that task. In today’s column, David Brooks talks about a long-lost conservatism that is more civic minded than what currently passes as conservatism:

Today, if Republicans had learned the right lessons from the Westerns, or at least John Ford Westerns, they would not be the party of untrammeled freedom and maximum individual choice. They would once again be the party of community and civic order.

They would begin every day by reminding themselves of the concrete ways people build orderly neighborhoods, and how those neighborhoods bind a nation. They would ask: What threatens Americans’ efforts to build orderly places to raise their kids? The answers would produce an agenda: the disruption caused by a boom and bust economy; the fragility of the American family; the explosion of public and private debt; the wild swings in energy costs; the fraying of the health care system; the segmentation of society and the way the ladders of social mobility seem to be dissolving.

But the Republican Party has mis-learned that history. The party sometimes seems cut off from the concrete relationships of neighborhood life. Republicans are so much the party of individualism and freedom these days that they are no longer the party of community and order. This puts them out of touch with the young, who are exceptionally community-oriented. It gives them nothing to say to the lower middle class, who fear that capitalism has gone haywire. It gives them little to say to the upper middle class, who are interested in the environment and other common concerns.

The Republicans talk more about the market than about society, more about income than quality of life. They celebrate capitalism, which is a means, and are inarticulate about the good life, which is the end. They take things like tax cuts, which are tactics that are good in some circumstances, and elevate them to holy principle, to be pursued in all circumstances.

I don’t think this was Brooks’ intention, but what he is describing is moderate Republicanism in a nutshell. Like their more conservative brethern they were interested in individual liberty, but that was a means to a civic end. If you look back over the history of moderate Republicans, they were not simply Republicans in Name Only, but interested in building up and maintaining American society. They were interested in fiscal responsibility and in low taxes, but they also knew that taxes were needed to maintain an orderly society. Writer Geoffrey Kabaservice has written an excellent series on moderates in the GOP. In writing about people such as Thomas Dewey, Arthur Larson, and Bill Frenzel we see people concerned with what kind of society we wanted to live in, not just lower taxes.

Brooks notes later in his column that many who share this type of civic-minded conservatism are no longer in the GOP, but now in the Democratic Party. It’s not a shock that we see Arlen Specter now among Democrats. When he first switched in the 1960s the GOP still had a community minded conservative tradition in the party- but not so anymore.

Moderate Republicans matter because we embody this civic conservative approach, and I think this is key in this era where Americans do expect more from their government to address issues like health care, but may not be so inclinded to accept the Democratic agenda which tends to see government as the solution to everything. Despite all the noise coming from the Tea Parties last month, I don’t think most Americans are going to take part of the movement. Most people don’t want a Euro-style social democracy, but they do want an effective government that spends within its means. They want answers to some big questions, and the GOP tends to be giving them angry protests.

What I love about conservatism is that it does honor the uniqueness of the indvidual. But I think conservatism has in the past thought that individual liberty had to be for something, that are individuality, was not just an end but a means to a better society. There is a need for a civic minded conservatism, now more than ever. It is up to moderates to uphold and grow that tradition in the GOP.

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  • albion223

    The more the republican party leans right the more irrelevant they become…

    They’ve already started to voice their opposition to Pres. Obama’s supreme court nominee….and he hasnt annointed anyone yet!

    The Republican party looks like it is primarily concerned with power rather than the people of this country..

    • cabse5

      While Bush was in office, one minority, conservatives, ran the country. While Obama
      is in office, another minority, progressives, will run the country.
      The majority of Americans will suffer because of both minorities.

      Moderates need to militantly unite against the conservative and progressive.
      Moderates on radio and TV should begin to spring up in cities all across the U.S.
      The show’s rallying cry might be “We will provide ALL sides not just the progressive or conservative side” or “Some open-mindedness is needed”.
      These shows would provide all different viewpoints in a concise manner so listeners can make up their minds.

      Initially, there is usually no clear cut answer for any political issue;
      one definitely needs to do research.
      Right now, there aren’t enough facts to prove the existence of global warming, yet many Americans demand action to stop global warming now.
      Right now, many Americans want to blame the mortgage meltdown entirely on corporate America;
      these Americans disregard Congress’ equal culpability.
      We need to understand how the mortgage meltdown occurred so it doesn’t happen again.


      Simplifying political issues into absolute rights and wrongs is the main mode of operation for progressives and conservatives.
      Conservatives and progressives have been taught to strictly follow leadership.

      Progressives and conservatives have made the resolution of political problems much more difficult.
      Their political actions happen quickly, but examination of facts from all points of view rarely happen.
      Consequently, their political actions always make political problems worse.

      Devising a satisfactory platform(s) for the many types of moderates could be arduous and time consuming.

      Let me give you my moderate example: I am fiscally conservative and socially moderate. I am a moderate Republican.
      I voted for McCain but didn’t care for Palin.

      I believe in gay rights. I believe the less big government intrudes the better.
      Neither belief supersedes the other. I agree with the decision to allow gays to legally join using a civil union.
      I disagree with the Supreme Court of Iowa that recently legalized gay marriage.
      Here’s some analogies: can I sue for civil rights damages because, being a man, I can’t use the women’s public restroom?
      Can I sue for civil rights damages if I’m not athletic enough to play on the school’s sports team?
      Can I sue for civil rights damages if my boss doesn’t give me a raise or promotion?
      (By these analogies, it may appear I’m eighteen and in school. I’m neither. I’m over fifty).

      Iowans care about civil rights violations.
      The Iowa Supreme Court should not be giving gays the access to marriage because gays and gay advocates are offended.
      For once, I’d like an open-minded discussion on gay marriage; you’d have to take conservatives and progressives out of the discussion.

      Big government changing the definition of marriage is an unnecessary intrusion.
      I believe gay marriage is the Supreme Court of Iowa’s way of saying big government is the only legitimate setter of standards.
      Iowa’s gay marriage decision seems like a violation of the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution; it is a violation of the “separation of ideology and state”.

      Progressive ideologies cause some Americans to see the insolvency of GM as an example of the failure, solely, of corporate leadership.
      In actuality, the insolvency of GM is an example of the failure of corporate leadership, government leadership, and to a lesser extent the automotive labor unions.
      So far, the Obama administration has leaned on GM’s corporate leadership and the leadership of GM’s lenders.
      Will the Obama administration lean on the government’s leadership and, for example, demand the government dissolve CAFE standards
      and/or lean on the auto unions’ leadership to save GM? Both are major special interests of the Obama administration.
      Is the Obama administration committed to saving jobs at GM?
      Only time will tell.

      America simply can’t afford the MASSIVE global warming expenses already incurred by the government unless a disaster is eminent.
      GM can’t afford the CAFE standards Congress has placed on the company because of global warming concerns. GM can’t
      produce their most popular selling vehicles, trucks, because of CAFE standards.

      That should be said every day. Believers in CO2’s culpability in global warming say that daily; they say the debate is closed because of the “facts”.
      Believers in global warming use conjecture and the ideology of environmentalists.
      Here’s more: CO2 is less than 5 percent of all greenhouse gasses.
      Methane constitutes twenty-seven times more of the greenhouse gases than CO2 does.
      If we really want to eliminate greenhouse gasses, we would need to stop water evaporation; over 90 percent of all greenhouse gasses.

      Nature produces over 95 percent of all greenhouse gasses…

      If environmentalists are concerned with lowering greenhouse gasses, why have they chosen to target CO2, less than 5 percent of all greenhouse gasses?
      For a higher probability in slowing the amount of greenhouse gases, I suggest we stop the experiments
      which limit CO2 now. – Before the earth turns into a charcoal briquette.
      We should begin experiments to limit water vapor. – If global warming is eminent;
      if we believe a build up of greenhouse gasses causes global warming; if global warming exists.

      Logically, ideologues concerned with the lessening of greenhouse gasses to stop global warming will eventually demand that CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor be reduced from the atmosphere.
      We send CO2 into the atmosphere every time we exhale; we will be wearing “gas masks” to trap the escaping CO2.
      It is just as difficult to remove CO2 from the atmosphere as it is methane; neither is easy.

      Burning fossil fuels sends CO2 into the atmosphere.
      Do environmentalists hold a separate ideology against the burning of fossil fuels?
      What could that ideology be?

      The one and ONLY fact environmentalists who believe in global warming caused by a buildup of greenhouse gasses have is:
      levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have dramatically increased.

      Global warming caused by a build up of greenhouse gasses is one of the biggest scams in the history of the world; up there with the earth being flat,
      or the center of the universe, or prohibiting baseball players from lifting weights because it reduced flexibility.

      The issue is, should the government spend MASSIVE amounts of money to adjust CO2 levels in the atmosphere
      to an arbitrary standard like, for example, the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere in 1980?
      This could satisfy environmentalists because the LEVEL OF CO2 IN THE ATMOSPHERE WOULD BE RETURNED TO A MORE PRISTINE STATE…
      Environmentalism is another powerful special interest group the Obama administration pays special attention to…

      The only special interest or ideology politicians should have is: the people of the U.S., and what is best for them.
      As John McCain’s campaign slogan said: Country First (not ideology first).
      More and more politicians have become confused. They say they are for the American people, yet they allow some “anti-American people” ideologies to form their policies.

      With conservatives and progressives, it is their ideologies that are too important to fail.
      A progressive thinks everyone should own a home; that is good for the country.
      A conservative thinks a soaring stock market, albeit unregulated, is good for the country.
      Actually, the progressive’s everyone-has-a-right-to-own-a-home ideology focuses on the government redistributing wealth for the sake of fairness.
      Actually, the conservative’s high-flying-stock market ideology focuses on stimulating small businesses, which creates new jobs,
      which raises the stock market for the sake of fairness.

      From at least 2004 on, these two ideologies fed off each other.

      The everyone-has-a-right-to-own-a-home ideology sent the stock market to new heights.
      This ideology also radically altered a major self-regulation of the free market: supply equals demand.
      By federal law, and in an interest of “socialistic fairness”, both supply and demand for home mortgages were dramatically increased.

      Mortgage investors were forced to accept mortgage paper for its face value.
      Because the house was not worth the mortgage, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac failed to ensure the face value of the mortgage even though great amounts of debt were added to America to do so.
      Worthless, defaulted mortgages became more numerous.
      The mortgage investor’s balance sheet became uncertain.

      By federal law instituted in 1993, because of a court ruling that it was discrimination to refuse a mortgage based on the inability to pay or because of low down payment,
      the federal government (by at least 2004) began to take homes away from the mortgage investor and gave them to the personal home owner.

      Currently, the federal government pays personal home mortgages in arrears to make the “house gift” permanent.
      It will become permanent entitlement spending for a yearly federal budget; more federal spending we just can’t afford.

      Conversely, the high-flying-stock market ideology sent the everyone-has-a-right-to-own-a-home ideology to new heights.
      Bonuses and commissions were earned for the number of mortgages written.

      The economy was booming (any administration would have loved that) because many jobs were created, because homes were being built for people who didn’t have much invested in them.
      There was an overall false feeling of a robust economy and an overall high assessment of the value of personal homes.

      Progressives and conservatives loved it; they both got fat;
      unfortunately for Americans, progressives and conservatives forgot to watch out for their one legitimate special interest. Americans.

      THE RESULT WAS THE MORTGAGE MELTDOWN; one of the biggest scams in American history.

      Laws will always be needed to stop predatory practices in capitalism.
      Laws will always be needed to stop predatory practices in socialism.
      Next time, before writing a law that undermines capitalism (as if capitalism doesn’t do a good job undermining itself sometimes),
      we should ask economists how the law would effect the economy before it becomes law.
      If the law is not good for the economy, the American people, we should think hard before making it law.

      FOR THE GOOD OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE. This is not ideology. This is fact; proven since 2008.

      Those who participated in a TEA party on April 15 because they believe their taxes shouldn’t be raised:
      Where will the government get the money to pay its gigantic debts?
      Devaluation of money caused by excess printing of money won’t allow the government to print money forever.
      The government will continue to borrow against other programs like Social Security, or the bridges and roads fund (if you live in Minnesota).
      The government will continue to borrow from other countries.
      The government will continue to try to ensure its debt against itself (FDIC, Fannie, Freddie).
      The government will continue to kick the “debt payment can” down the road to future generations.
      All levels of government will try to raise taxes.
      A big question for all Americans: are you willing to accept higher taxes to enjoy today’s government benefits,
      or will you accept less government benefits in the future so your taxes will stay the same? I don’t foresee taxes dropping any time soon.

      Those who participated in a TEA party on April 15 because they believe the government shouldn’t
      spend to get our economy moving: OK, what is your ideology?
      Rapidly rising unemployment isn’t good for the American people. It also greatly decreases your chances for election if you appear to be apathetic.

      Should we aspire to the same level of production in the economy as the Bush administration’s “economy on steroids”?
      Would we be setting ourselves up for another economic “crash” if we do?
      Is there a consensus to make the “change”, the MASSIVELY increased level of government intervention in the economy permanent?

      It will be time to balance the budget once the government’s spending spree caused by the CURRENT ECONOMIC CRISIS ends.
      The government should try to pay down some of the principal of its debt.
      This decision to slow down federal spending will probably be forced on the Obama administration.
      A question to ask Obama’s administration: under which conditions, and how soon, do you foresee a slow down of federal spending?

      Private individuals and big business must be more philanthropic.
      Big business must create more jobs NOW.
      One of the biggest mistakes big business made was letting health care coverage for their employees lapse.
      BUSINESSES MUST PAY FOR HEALTH CARE COVERAGE FOR ALL EMPLOYEES WHO WORK FOR THEM or suffer through a government-run health care program.
      Under controlled circumstances, the government can handle health care coverage for the percent of the population that is unemployed.
      The government cannot handle health care coverage for the percent of the population that is currently without health care coverage.
      Of course, we must always try to find ways of lowering health care costs.

      The biggest secret held by government-run health care enthusiasts is: the dramatic increase in those uninsured for health care is mainly caused by those who are not citizens of the U.S.,
      (employers reducing medical health care coverage for employees who work for them second) and the willingness, the cost, of government paying for all their health care.
      Because of health care costs to all Americans, I am for the U.S. having restrictions on U.S. citizenship.
      The U.S. must be able to control the costs by controlling the flow.
      Because of the tremendous cost to some benevolent states and to all citizens, the U.S. must rethink its willingness to pay for all the health care for those who are not U.S. citizens.
      I don’t think the federal government can handle ANOTHER…. MASSIVE…. spending program that would be government-run health care.

      I’ve intentionally stirred things up to show how difficult it will be to unite moderates.
      Let’s begin, now, to use conciliation, cooperation, and compromise, all those terms that progressives
      and conservatives disdain, to unite moderates and save America before it’s too late.
      Please, somebody respond. We don’t need any more radical and destructive minority rule.

      Mark Fruehling
      Des Moines, Iowa

  • pacatrue

    Very thought provoking article, Dennis. Great one.

  • CStanley

    The other problem is that I thought deal making was part of American politics. I thought democracy was about dealing with competing interests.

    Doesn’t it matter whether the deal is made in exchange for something principled vs. making it for self interest though? That’s my beef with the particular ‘moderates’ in question- especially Specter. I’d be hard pressed to describe any gains he made for any responsible public policy in making the deals he’s made- there’s no rhyme or reason to them, and I’d be willing to bet that you could find rhyme or reason in the form of something that benefitted Arlen Specter.

    In defending the idea of moderate politics and deal making, I think you ought to be careful not to defend opportunism. It’s fine in the abstract to say that moderates in the party should be willing to forge compromises with the opposing party- but for example in the stimulus bill, we ended up with a slightly smaller but worse bill overall than what we started with. How is that good governance?

  • BBQ

    I agree and disagree with both of you. I think Douthat is right that Specter is not the model moderate that we should want. He is always out for one person, Arlen Specter. I find it interesting that out of all of this we might get a more consistent moderate in Ridge (even if I disagree with many things). Do you really want someone in your party that only agrees with you 45% of the time? Reagan said 80%, I would at least want 51%.

    I still feel that as a moderate who leans right, I would much rather see the party get focused on fiscal conservative policies than go fiscally moderate. Also becoming socially moderate in my mind is key. Now Douthat would disagree since he is a compassionate Conservative, which is why check box conservative bloggers like Matt Lewis think he is a moderate. Which I find funny on many levels.

    I think Brooks as usual is wrong but I never really find much of what he says to be on the mark. While he is correct that many young people (I include myself in this) are more community orientated there is another part of that generation that is very much libertarian in spirit. They really don’t like either party because they see them controlling aspects of their lives that they don’t want them to. I feel that the future arguments will be one side Community/Order vs Liberty/Freedom in the next few generations. Whether the GOP decides to fix it’s imagine and claim the liberty/freedom, I am not so sure.

  • elrod

    Douthat has a point: folks like Chafee and Jeffords were liberal Republicans, not moderate Republicans. As such, they held ancestral ties to the old Radical Republican party that pushed emancipation and equal rights for African Americans. That wing was pushed to the netherworld of the Upper North after the 1890s. Vermont, we often forget, never voted Democratic until 1992 (with the exception of 1964). Old habits die hard – and it wasn’t ALL liberal New Yorkers that changed Vermont.

    I compare Chafee and Jeffords to people like Shelby in the South; they were simply out of step with their parties, and so they switched.

    Snowe leans in this same direction; Collins less so.

    Specter is a different animal. He isn’t a liberal. He’s barely a moderate. He’s not a conservative. He’s an opportunist who saw that the PA GOP had flushed out its moderates during the 2006 and 2008 elections and never won them back.

    It’ll be interesting to see if the pro-choice Tom Ridge has any better luck with the right-wing PA GOP electorate than did Specter.

  • Chafee was liberal compared to the national GOP. Was he liberal compared to Rhode Island? I tend to think that he was about as conservative as one could be and still get elected in RI, which certainly ranks close to Massachusetts for the most liberal state in the nation.

    I’ve spent the last five years laughing at the buffoonish attempts of the Kossacks and the Firedogs to expel the heretics like Lieberman, only to find the same thing going on in my own party.

  • CStanley

    Elrod nailed it.

  • pacatrue

    It seems that almost all the comments have moved in the direction of who fits what label and what their motivations are. I just wanted to say that the part of this which I felt was the most intriguing was the idea of community-focused Republicans. People who wanted to build great communities to live in. That’s a very profound idea, I believe.

  • superdestroyer

    There is no way that you can say that Souter was an old time Republican. Look at his concurrence in Kelo. Souter had no problem with the government talking away people’s private property at a low cost for central economic planning reasons. Look at Gratz, Grutter, and Seattle decisions. Souter was consistent is his support of race based social engineering. Even more than 30 years ago, Republicans were opposed to such nonsense.

    Claiming that Souter was anything but a RINO is to once again to porpose the idea that real Republicans are actually Democrats and should act like Democrats. How can anyone claim that Republicans are small government proponents whne Souter appears to be consistent is his support of the power and scope of the government.

  • superdestroyer

    If you want to know what Republicans have given up on the idea of community, I suggest everyohe go read bowling alone. Diversity killed the idea of community. When organized black groups are in front of the school board demanding separate and unequal treatment, it become impossible for most people to believe in working for the community.

  • Leonidas

    Specter loss is not a horrible one, as elrod said he was an opportunist. Losing opportunist isn’t a great blow.

    That being said, right-wing blowhards try to stereotype all moderates using Specter is a recipe for failure. As long as the right-wing continues to alienate moderates and independents it will be a shrinking minority party as long as Democrats take efforts to appeal to moderates and independents. The GOP needs to shake off the blowhards if they wish to be in any position to make policy or to have the power to oppose Demacratic policy in any way other than verbally.

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