How the Mythical Republican Moderate Disappeared

Photo illustration by 731

At various points, Congress has acted to protect endangered bears, bats, wolves, ocelots—and, of course, the infamous salt marsh harvest mouse that conservatives got so upset about and rebranded “the stimulus mouse” after the 2009 stimulus funded a grant to study its habitat. But there’s at least one endangered species Congress can’t seem to protect: the Republican moderate.

Long ago, when Mitt Romney was defending abortion rights and Newt Gingrich was considered a viable presidential candidate, this legendary creature roamed the earth. Some people claim the moderate Republican still exists—possibly hiding out with Sasquatch and Nessie and plotting to pull together a slate for the Americans Elect ticket this fall. But the evidence presented Tuesday morning at a Bipartisan Policy Center panel discussion devoted to the Republican moderate was awfully thin. Only the presence on the panel of Lee Huebner, the preserved-in-amber co-founder of the moderate Ripon Society, confirmed that the species did once exist. (Cruelly, Wikipedia claims that Huebner “does not exist.”)

Perhaps necessarily—since there aren’t any moderate Republicans left in Congress—the discussion was grounded in the past. Huebner evoked the glorious old days of the mid-20th century, when young Republicans rose up in defiant opposition to radical student leftists. These self-styled “fiery moderates” were driven by important and honorable goals that often put them in conflict with the conservatives in their party: advancing civil rights and foreign-policy internationalism, protecting elements of the New Deal, and providing what Huebner characterized as “a temperamental moderation of conservatism.”

During this golden time, moderates were the alpha Republicans and sometimes sneeringly dismissed their conservative brethren. “Their number is negligible and they are stupid,” Dwight Eisenhower once said of conservatives, according to another panelist, Geoffrey Kabaservice, the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party. Alas, moderates have all but disappeared. “They might even be forced into breeding programs to keep them alive,” Kabaservice said, citing a recent Onion article. (Worth a click for the picture alone.)

With so few contemporary Republican moderates to discuss, the debate centered on the old ones and where they had gone wrong. The panel agreed that Richard M. Nixon was the culprit. “I think the plight of the moderate Republicans was caused by Watergate,” Huebner said. “[President] Obama cannot cite Nixon as an example [of the tradition of Republican moderation], so there’s a whole tradition that’s off limits because of Watergate.”

Might Nixon have prolonged the Age of Republican Moderation had he not gotten caught up in that other stuff? Huebner and others argued that he could have. Nixon did, after all, initiate arms-reduction treaties and environmental legislation, and he dramatically advanced school desegregation. His health insurance plan, one of the panelists said (I didn’t catch who), “went beyond Obama’s. It included, bragged about, and centered on the individual mandate.” There must have been a lot of dropped jaws in the room, because Huebner felt compelled to pause and remind the audience: “This is historical.”

As the discussion wound down, duty seemed to require that the panelists offer their thoughts about what little hope there may be for the reemergence of a moderate strain of conservatism. Some awkward laughter ensued. Finally, Steven F. Hayward, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the panel’s token conservative—“I am here to defend extremism and its correlates of hate,” he joked—suggested the only hope for moderation would be for a prominent person of means to step forward. Hayward’s suggestion: Michael Bloomberg. Short of that happening, the Republican moderate appears consigned to history.

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