What’s so great about moderates?

March 6, 2012

Could David Brooks, Frank Bruni and Joe Nocera be any more disappointed with the Republican Party? Over the last week, the three New York Times columnists have written op-eds about how miserable the ultra-Republicanness of the Republican Party establishment has made life for moderate Republican officeholders.

In his piece, which riffs off of a Times news story by Jonathan Weisman, Brooks sets the tone for his page, uncorking a sluice of tears not just for moderate Republican Sen. Richard Lugar but for conservative Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, both of whom have had to swing “sharply to the right to fend off primary challengers” from the “wingers.” The “wingers,” as Brooks calls them, “have zero tolerance for the compromises needed to get legislation passed.” The winger campaign is guided by “grievance politics, identity politics,” he writes, and they “have trashed the party’s reputation by swinging from one embarrassing and unelectable option to the next: Bachmann, Trump, Cain, Perry, Gingrich, Santorum.”

The wingers are “ferocious,” “extreme,” “metastasizing,” conductors of “heresy trials” (the presidential debates!), “meshugana,” and creators of “insular information loops,” Brooks continues.

After the Brooks piece ran, the ur-moderate Republican, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, announced she wouldn’t seek re-election this fall, which prompted the liberal Bruni to write a celebration of her 33-year career in Congress. Bruni confesses a “kind of crush” on Snowe, one he says he shared with other Capitol Hill reporters. “We liked her best for her disobedience,” he writes, her rejection of her “political tribe’s often tyrannical orthodoxy.”

Last came Nocera, who reprised the points made by Brooks, Bruni and Weisman to make his: that he was rooting for Rick Santorum to win the Republican nomination so that the party would take such a beating in the general election that its “extremist” faction would abandon its “ideological rigidity” and the party would turn to the “endangered species” of moderate Republicans, like Christine Todd Whitman and Lincoln Chafee.

So large is Brooks, Bruni and Nocera’s enthusiasm for the endangered species of moderate Republicans that I half expected their pieces to end with a proposal for a breeding and reintroduction program, lest the extreme Republicans drive the moderates into permanent extinction.

None of the pieces really makes the case for why a less ideological Republican Party would mean a better Congress or a better country, unless conviviality, the building of congressional coalitions and the steady passage of new legislation are the supreme measures of improvement. Mostly, the Times op-ed troika transcribed their Christmas wish list, the first item being that they want the Republican Party to become more like the Democratic Party. But you can’t put ideological realignment of the party you oppose on your Christmas wish list. It’s up to the party faithful and the voters to determine what sort of party they will become, right? Liberals like Bruni remind me of an ex-girlfriend of mine who wanted to order her entrée and my entrée when we went out so she could maximize her dining options.

Of course, it’s kosher for a partisan pundit or politician to agitate for a change in the leadership of the opposing party, or a catastrophic showing in the presidential election, as Nocera does, or even call for its dissolution. But when Nocera cites the disastrous presidential campaigns of George McGovern (1972) and Walter Mondale (1984) as examples of liberal crack-ups that caused the Democratic Party to swing back to a Clintonian center, and argues that the Republicans would benefit from a similar course-correcting calamity, perhaps he picks the wrong parallel. Was it not the catastrophic defeat of Republican “extremist” Barry Goldwater in 1964 that resulted in the building of the conservative cadre and the victory by Ronald Reagan in 1980? In other words, even if Nocera’s short-term wish comes true, it’s no sure thing that his long-term hope will also become reality.

Perhaps Brooks has enough credibility as a conservative to enter the debate over which path the Republicans should take. But Frank Bruni? That would be like heeding a plea from George F. Will that what the Democratic Party really needs is some more Blue Dogs.

The primary flaw of the extreme-Republicans-out-of-control argument is that even the “wingers” are nowhere near as doctrinaire as the Times columnists would have you believe. Last week in the Washington Examiner, columnist Timothy P. Carney took a hammer to Brooks’s notion of Republican rigidity. “Someone should show Brooks the GOP presidential field,” he writes. “The ever-changing policy views of front-runner Mitt Romney can be derided in many ways, but never as ‘rigid.’ Nor can the mercurial Newt Gingrich be pinned down as unbending.”

As for Santorum, Carney recalls his rescue of moderate Arlen Specter in 2004. Specter “who would have lost the GOP primary to conservative Pat Toomey that year if not for Santorum’s tireless campaigning.” Smart move or stupid? As Carney notes, Specter left the party in 2009 and gave the Democrats the 60 votes they needed to pass Obamacare.

Putting all of our bickering and political differences aside to work together doesn’t necessarily result in civic nirvana. Fans of the cooperative, non-partisan political spirit should remember legislative travesties like the USA Patriot Act, which was passed as quickly as it was introduced.

For decades, pundits and politicians complained that there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the two main political parties. Now that there’s a nickel’s worth of difference, they want to reverse the 50 years of ongoing realignment of the two parties, both of which once contained liberals, moderates and conservatives, into two parties, one of mostly liberals and the other of mostly conservatives. If the sorting hat of American politics has accomplished that, Brooks, Bruni and Nocera will have to do more than compose irate op-eds to reverse it. Did the 1970s versions of Brooks, Bruni and Nocera bemoan the exile of Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party to the wilderness of the Republican Party? I’ll bet not.

Writing in the Atlantic four years ago, Matthew Yglesias identified the journalistic resistance to political polarization. “[T]he resulting system is tragically dull. Legislative outcomes become a simple matter of vote-counting: either a party has a majority or it doesn’t. There’s little room for journalistic sleuthing,” he writes, before enumerating the upside for voters. When the parties turn rigid, ideological and doctrinaire, voters have less trouble figuring out what the candidates actually stand for.

Republicans denouncing Republicans sounds terrible when you read about it in the press, but it’s a logical product of any primary election. The last time I checked, primaries, for all their shortcomings, were created to enhance democracy by removing the selection of candidates from the smoke-filled room and presenting it to the voters.

Moderates and roadkill are the only things that dare rest in the middle of the road. Send your political roadkill recipes to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and savor my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.

PHOTO: U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum speaks at a campaign rally at the American Legion post in Westerville, Ohio, May 5. REUTERS/Jim Young


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While the current party polarity may make for more exciting campaigns and lots of grist for the endless media mills, I was under the impression that we were trying to get some good people in government to sort things out and solve some problems. What we seem to be getting is a circus in which the clowns (candidates) will say anything to anybody to get a laugh (vote). While this campaign is probably no more strident or idiotic than those in previous years or decades, the general idea is things should get better over time. Or are we just to accept that stupidity is the never-changing order of politics?

Posted by steve778936 | Report as abusive

I’m hopeful that somehow someday this all paves the way for a viable third party. Just kidding. Wishful, not hopeful. But what the partisans of either side do not appear to recognize is that neither side constitutes a majority, and that elections are decided by the independents and moderates who vote against whichever party most recently overreached. What we have is a coalition voting block and what we need is a coalition government. And we should never have to hear the word “mandate” again.
As for myself, I cannot discuss politics with some liberals without being labeled as conservative, and vice versa. Additionally, I cannot disagree with either of them about one thing without them assuming that I buy into the entire polar opposite dogma. A pox on both their houses. They cannot recognize the middle for what it is.

Posted by RynoM | Report as abusive

First of all, Shafer, the polarity of the parties would hardly be a problem if the Senate rules did not require 60 votes for cloture. Secondly, we “moderates”, or independents, see that each of the poles have room to give on their big issues, i.e., social mores and taxation/revenue. It’s the refusal of each of those extremes to see the room to move as the biggest irk of we moderates.

Posted by Sarasota | Report as abusive

I expect legislators to engage in thoughtful debate with their ideological opponents, take part in rational discussions with their highly educated and experienced peers and use that process of collaboration to come up with solutions that solve problems. As the parties become more polarized, this becomes closer to impossible.

Politicians can’t vote with their conscience, their brain or for the good of their constituents if any of those traitorously happen to fall outside party orthodoxy. I don’t know about you, but when I vote for someone I don’t vote for their party, I vote for the individual…

Posted by spall78 | Report as abusive

Jack, the Republican party has become the party of the Old Confederacy and overwhelmingly rural states. Get used to it; they’re the ones who just do as they’re told. Sarasota has a point, though, about these “supermajorities” in the Senate to get anything to move. The drafters of the Constitution put in a provision to break Senate deadlocks, the vote of the VP, but that was only for actual ties, apparently the only case they thought would actually result in deadlocks, but now individuals can hold up the nation’s business with holds and such. I don’t think this was the kind of protection of minorities’ rights the founders had in mind.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

Moderation means not to be liberated without morality that morality is a tool of judgement to measure the social, religious and political norms to resolve the contemporary problems of the societies.
The problems of the developed countries are to find the solution in strict secular norms and to avoid the human instinct that he explores divine source to get inner-satisfaction.
As John Bunyan said in his famous writing that ‘A man with a book and a man with a burden’
So we need to get guidance with books either divine or non-divine to make the world more peace and wealthier.

Posted by iqbal123456 | Report as abusive

My first reference on all of this is Alex de Tocqueville, who observed (1837) that America didn’t need its guarantee of free speech because it wasn’t using it anyway. Our culture forces moderation, indeed ‘extremism’ is pejorative. Given that, I have enjoyed this election cycle, I just wish the Libs would actually be forced to do a public examination of their rather bizarre political reasoning, which for this election seems to come down to simply buying the woman’s vote.

The problem, though, is purity. It comes as no surprise to me at all the both Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi appear to be equally mentally ill. Neither can ever accept the idea that the other side might be more correct on a subject than they are.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

The root of the extreme nature of politics is the ability of state governments to Jerry Rig the voting districts. If districts were drawn in some uniformly blind fasion, you would see candidates for the House moving to the middle to win. Until Jerry Rigging by state party bosses stops, our nightmare of polarized politicians will not end. Both parties are at fault.

Posted by actnow | Report as abusive

One great thing about moderates is that they can keep the extremes at bay, unless extreme circumstances overwhelm the moderates’ hold on power. As the US seems constitutionally predisposed to a two-party system, it pays to have both parties run by moderates in circumstances that call for moderation – i.e. almost always. The two parties, in those circumstances, are practically one, it’s true, but fostering a multi-party system might require extreme constitutional changes, and that would be immoderate. Even if such changes ever came about, it’d probably result in one or two moderate parties that always won practically everything, and two or three extreme parties that never won much of anything. So nothing would change, really.

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive

actnow: Your post hit the nail right on the head! What a topsy turvy world we live in when our politicians go shopping for their voters and not the reverse.

Posted by Realist99 | Report as abusive

Turgot, it’s the GOP that loves the result of Citizens United, the ability of even foreign corporations to take to the US airwaves and try to influence our election. If we tried to do it to other countries they’d have riots in the streets.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive