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Center Folds

The fate of Rhode Island Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee is widely considered a political test of our times: Can a centrist survive the age of ideology? This week, Chafee gave hope to those who pine for aisle-crossing politicians by surviving a primary putsch mounted by the tax-cutting maniacs who operate a firm, called the Club for Growth, that exists to purge party-line deviants. But the travails of the GOP moderate are never-ending. Now, Chafee must beat back a Democrat in a state that overwhelmingly went for John Kerry in 2004.  

This November, control of Congress hinges upon the reelection of Republican moderates--especially those in the Northeast, such as Chafee and Connecticut Representative Christopher Shays. Inevitably, these dwindling, endangered few present their survival as an essential cause for all those who care about decency and goodwill. "I feel a moral obligation to make sure I do everything I can to make sure moderates have a place in this party," pleads Shays. We don't want moderate Republicans to disappear, right? Surely we don't want Congress to descend irrevocably into bitter partisanship, do we? Actually, yes, we do. This November, it's time for voters to wipe out the remnants of the GOP's moderate wing--and without regrets. When GOP moderates appeal to the spirit of bipartisanship or claim they can influence their leadership, they are recalling a bygone era. For the longest time, U.S. parties lacked ideological coherence.

Northern liberals voted Republican and Southern conservatives voted Democrat, with the result that party affiliation meant less in the United States than in nearly any other democracy. In this world, it made sense to evaluate your senator or representative less on party affiliation than philosophical convictions. This system still held sway the last time Democrats controlled Congress. As Bill Clinton learned, party moderates felt no obligation to support his agenda. Centrist Democrats from oil-producing states sunk Clinton's broad-based energy tax. Moderates allied with the insurance industry against his health care reform. If you wanted to circumscribe the Clinton agenda, then electing moderate Democrats was a good way to go about it. From the moment they took power in 1995, Republicans made it clear that they would act differently. Those Republicans who wanted to head committees had to pledge their loyalty to the party agenda. Republicans saw themselves less as a traditional U.S. political party--with diffuse power and independent personalities--than a parliamentary majority working in unison. From a standpoint of effectiveness, the GOP's record of winning floor votes and clinging to a majority in support of an often-unpopular agenda is impressive.

Of course, maintaining that majority has required Republicans to win the votes of many Americans who don't support their agenda. That's where the GOP moderates come in. Unlike the moderate wing of the old Democratic majority, they seldom do anything without the tacit consent of the leadership. GOP moderates are allowed-- indeed, encouraged--to publicly scold their party leaders, because that's how they hold onto their districts. But these displays of independence are a sham. Republicans have invented, or perfected, numerous methods of projecting the fake image of intraparty dissent. One trick is something they privately call "catch and release," whereby they let members from vulnerable districts vote against the leadership--unless their vote is decisive, in which case they are pressured to recant. Last year, for instance, Pennsylvania Representative Jim Gerlach reversed himself and provided the decisive vote for a refinery bill. When this political trick won't work, they'll try another method: rewriting bills behind closed doors. They'll let the House and Senate vote for something popular--say, allowing the importation of prescription drugs--and then quietly remove the provision in a members-only reconciliation conference. Or there's the cherished method of scheduling votes with an election year apology already in mind. So, for instance, Republican moderates in 2001 and 2003 cast votes declaring their support for smaller tax cuts less weighted to the affluent than what President Bush proposed, before ultimately voting for Bush's plan. 

At best, moderate Republicans have been hapless dupes. At worst, they've been co-conspirators. In either case, they have done almost nothing to alleviate the radical or corrupt tendencies of Republican Washington. Extinguishing the moderates at the polls this November is not a vote for mindless partisanship. It is simply a vote for transparency.

the Editors  
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