Get AlterNet's Headlines Newsletter:
Email: 
no thanks
Election 2004

The Soul Of An Elephant

Can Republican moderates find the nerve to fight back against the neocons who have hijacked their party?
The search for the soul of the party, it seems, is not confined to the Democratic faithful, where those belonging to the traditional “base” are gearing up for a fight to wrest influence away from the centrists in the party.

There is a similar battle playing out in the Republican arena as well, where for the past 20 years, moderates have watched their ability to affect the GOP’s national agenda slowly erode. An oppressed band of political optimists, they have subjected themselves to years of abuse in the hope that thoughtfulness and good manners would restore their power in the party.

Referred to as RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) by many hard right conservatives, they are respected by the voters in their states, but despised by party leaders in Washington.

Out-organized by neo-conservative groups like the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council, and the Club for Growth, moderates are no longer viewed as respected members of a philosophically broad-based party. They have, instead, become targets for a group of cannibalistic vigilantes bent on establishing ideological purity.

Drunk with power from their recent electoral victory, these ideologues make no pretense about their intentions. Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, says his organization's goal is to punish moderate Republicans and make them an endangered species. “The problem with the moderates in Congress is that they basically water down the Republican message and what you get is something that infuriates the Republican base,” Moore says.

“They will learn to conform to our agenda or they will be driven from our party,” he says simply.

The “Problem Children”

In previous years, when party majorities in the House and Senate were thinner, GOP moderates were able to manifest more control over an increasingly extreme Republican agenda. This year’s U.S. Senate elections show how that equation has changed. Candidates with demonstrated hardcore conservative credentials won open seats in Oklahoma and Florida, as well as North and South Carolina. They also defeated Democratic minority leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota. These victories increased the Republican’s majority in the Senate from 51 to 55 seats.

In Pennsylvania, respected Republican senator Arlen Specter narrowly survived a Club for Growth-financed $2 million primary challenge from conservative congressman Pat Toomey. Moore saw the Pennsylvania effort as “serving notice to Chafee, Snowe, Collins and Voinovich and others who have been problem children that they will be next," referring to moderate Republican senators Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, and George Voinovich of Ohio.

Ironically, after the last election, this small group of Republican moderates may be all that stands between the country and the total domination of its political agenda by neo-conservatives like Moore — radicals who have spent a decade and a half planning for this moment of ascendancy in American political history.

The moderates hope that as President Bush begins his second term, he will see the light and want to establish a legacy that is more inclusive, more reasonable and more moderate. Regrettably, the president’s actions and the public declarations of party leaders belie such hopes.

Already Porter Goss, the president’s choice to be director of the CIA, is replacing respected intelligence officers with political appointees more in line with this administration’s political agenda. While the retirement of Colin Powell as secretary of state, and the nomination of National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice as his replacement, promises a similar purge in this critical cabinet department. And, rumors abound that the president is already considering nominating Justice Clarence Thomas to be Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court should William Rehnquist retire from that position — a nomination that could change the ideological direction of the court for a generation.

Former New Jersey governor and Bush administration official Christie Todd Whitman said this summer: “If the president wins this election walking away then maybe the country is in a different place than where the moderate Republicans are. If he loses, it is an absolute validation of the fact that you cannot be a national party if you are excluding people.”

The issue facing Republicans may not be a question of inclusion or exclusion, but rather one of polarization. Over the last 20 years neo-conservatives have pushed a radical social and economic agenda. As this program has become increasingly extreme, the country has been driven more and more into an us-versus-them posture. We have seen the emergence of ideological “bases” within the two major parties, and the destruction of the country’s ideological center.

The result has been the defection of millions of Americans voters who no longer identify with either party and have chosen, instead, to become Independent.

The “Civil War” Within

It is into this political wilderness that a dwindling number of hopeful, but increasingly outnumbered, moderates have been driven. As the neo-conservative majority increases, these moderates are caught between their natural instinct to be loyal but powerless Republicans, and the reality that their concerns are being totally ignored by Senate and House leaders.

When Arlen Specter, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, made the mistake of suggesting that judicial nominees who sought to overturn Roe v. Wade would likely face a filibuster by Democrats in the Senate, Republican conservatives immediately moved to deny him the chairmanship of the committee.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said that he was “disheartened” by Specter’s position and all but withdrew his support for Specter.

The first test for Republican moderates may come on the issue of filibusters. Frist has suggested that Senate filibusters be declared illegal — a legislative move that requires a simple majority to pass, instead of the 67-vote super-majority required to change Senate rules. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) responded that such a move would be viewed as “a nuclear attack” on Democrats by this administration and could have long-range Constitutional implications. Should Frist push such a tactic, will the moderate Republicans capitulate to pressure from party leadership, or align themselves with Democrats to block a blatant Republican attempt to seize long-term control of the Senate.

Jennifer Stockman, national co-chair of the Republican Majority for Choice and a delegate to the 2004 Republican National Convention, sees the prospect for a serious and potentially damaging confrontation. “Election Day brought the mudslinging battle between Democrats and Republicans to a close,” she says, “but an equally brutal battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party is looming. Will President Bush work to unite us, as he promised in his acceptance speech, or will the civil war between GOP party fundamentalists and moderate pragmatists, only serve to eventually ruin the GOP?”

Her concerns raise the serious question as to whether moderate Republicans can rebuild their influence in the party or become an historical irrelevancy — a throwback to a kinder, gentler time?

One longtime Republican analyst in Washington (unwilling to be named for fear of professional retaliation) says: “Moderates have to commit to a fight using the same hard-nosed tactics that have made them such a legislative minority in their own party. At the moment they lack the fire to confront neo-conservatives who are rapidly rewriting the historic principles of their party. A narrower, more focused approach that targets winnable state legislative and congressional seats will allow them to get maximum value for their more limited resources. It will require patience and passion, but a variety of recent surveys indicate that it is a tactic that has a realistic opportunity for success.”

CNN election day exit polling supports this theory. About 45 percent of voters in the last election identified themselves as moderate, and 45 percent of those voters supported Bush. This represents a total of approximately 11,745,000 votes. Also supporting Bush were 13 percent of voters who identified themselves as liberals, or 1,583,400 voters. These numbers demonstrate that while the energy and organizational commitment of the religious right were a critical piece in the president’s victory, it was meaningful moderate support that won him re-election.

A change of 30-40 percent of these moderate votes would have overwhelmed the president’s 3.5 million vote margin and reversed the outcome of the election. In all likelihood, such a shift might also have altered the results of a number of tight U.S. Senate and House races. While such a move would have elected a Democratic president and some Democratic senators and congressmen, it almost certainly would have expanded the ranks of moderate Republicans as well.

Centrists in both parties must decide whether to trade a little partisanship in the interest of restoring ideological balance to an increasingly polarized nation. “As these fissures deepen, they transcend President Bush and Sen. Kerry,” says Alan Murray, Washington bureau chief for CNBC. “They run deeper than disagreements over the Iraq war. They represent a fundamental difference in visions of the country's future.”

“Moderate Republicans have a couple of choices,” says one longtime GOP activist. “We can set the clock back 30 years and begin a process of rebuilding — similar to the one the religious right used to seize power. Start at the school board and county commission level and develop candidates, and then move on to state legislative seats and finally into the Congress. The other option is to wait for a political event so seismic in its proportions that it shatters the present political environment and forces massive political realignment along ideological lines. An example of such an event might be the overturning of Roe v. Wade

Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

The irony of the current situation is that too many political observers are willing to accept President Bush’s assertion that this election represents an overwhelming “mandate” for his agenda, one that many suggest is the result of almost total evangelical support. This notion appears to be more perception than reality. Exit polling shows that 21 percent of all self-identified evangelical voters supported John Kerry — a total of 2,801,400 votes.

What Republican political strategists did accomplish with the president’s reelection was to expand their strength in the Congress, a very different outcome than building a nationwide coalition prepared to support the new Republican Party’s extreme social agenda, and questionable economic, environmental and foreign policies.

In the near term, Americans must beware of what can only be described as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The religious right “has never been so activated” as it is now, says Andrew Sullivan, a pro-life, gay, conservative op-ed writer for the Washington Times. “They feel as if they are responsible for the president’s re-election, and their strategy now is going to be to appear moderate while pushing their radical social agenda.”

The daunting challenge that all moderates — not just Republicans — must address is how to penetrate the imposing political machine constructed by neo-conservative activists like Stephen Moore, and his extremist allies, and win the support of the millions of moderate voters who re-elected President Bush.

The first step may be a matter of storytelling — of weaving a narrative. Will moderates be able to discredit the illusions Republicans created during this last election? They need to dispel the myths that massive government borrowing creates a sound and healthy national economy, that the outsourcing of millions of good jobs strengthens the financial security of the American middle class, that undermining clean air and water standards is good for the economy, or that packing the U.S. Supreme Court with conservative justices who could overturn Roe v. Wade will protect American women’s personal freedoms.

Improved communications, in and of itself, will not be enough. Republicans and Democrats must begin to forge new coalitions. Hopefully this can be done in quiet, bipartisan ways, but if necessary it must be done in an independent manner that demonstrates a shared concern for America’s long-term political future.

The fact that 55,949,407 Americans supported John Kerry demonstrates that this country is not a bastion for what many in the Bush administration would have you believe is their right-wing agenda. Measured as a share of the popular vote the president won by a margin of 2.9 percent — the narrowest margin in the last 88 years.

As a nation, America has flourished when its political center has been strong and vocal — when its national discourse has been energetic and combative — while remaining respectful and bipartisan. To restore reason, Republican moderates must be prepared to take some small political organizing steps, as well make a major political statement. They must demonstrate that they are no longer willing to submit to bullying by Republican neo-conservatives. “This phenomenon has become a disturbing reality within our party,” said Stockman, “and has been fueling the battle for its heart and soul.”

Of equal importance must be a willingness on the part of Republican moderates to step forward on a regular basis and align themselves with Democrats on issues where they agree, such as: a responsible stewardship of the environment, protection of a woman’s right to choose, meaningful reform of the nation’s health care and educational systems, or federal support for critical stem cell research. This would send a powerful message to President Bush that he has drawn an ideological line they are unwilling to cross.

Such a demonstration will prove to millions of Americans that they are no longer moderates but are, instead, radical centrists capable of, and determined to, the retaking of political ground that is legitimately theirs.

Michael Cudahy is a political writer and analyst from Massachusetts. He is a former national campaign staff member for President George H.W. Bush, executive director for Elliot Richardson's Committee for Responsible Government and national communications director for the Republican Coalition for Choice.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Election 2018
Environment
Food
Media
World