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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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