Thursday, May 12, 2005

Radical Moderates

Christopher Hitchens’s recent piece in the Wall Street Journal points out some of the widely discussed contradictions between economic conservatives (who ironically embrace liberal economics) and social conservatives. Using the biting prose that made him the darling of the Left, and then a black sheep for his ardent support of the Iraq War, Hitchens declares that:

“The need of the hour is for some senior members of the party of Lincoln to disown and condemn the creeping and creepy movement to impose orthodoxy on a free and pluralist and secular Republic.”

But who might these members be? Certainly not Senator George Allen of Virginia, a possible 2008 Presidential Candidate who, according The American Prospect, recently visited with Pat Robertson, an erstwhile Presidential candidate and controversial social conservative. Robertson offered these words of wisdom during his May 1st interview with George Stephanopoulos,

“I think people who feel that there should be a jihad against America -- read what the Islamic people say. They divide the world into two spheres: Dar al-Islam, Dar al-Harb. The Dar al-Islam are those who've submitted to Islam; Dar al-Harb are those who are in the land of war, and they have said in the Koran there's a war against all the infidels. So do you want somebody like that sitting as a judge? I wouldn't.”

While we can always count on Robertson to say outrageous things (see his comments after September 11th), we can also rest assured that Republican politicians will court him as reliably as they do Bob Jones and his South Carolina University. John McCain tried to take on the social conservatives (a little) during his 2000 campaign, but was smeared horribly for it during the South Carolina primary and never regained his early momentum. Don’t expect any better out of the slate of moderate Republicans this time around.

The modern Republican Party is an unwelcoming place for Rockefeller Republicans. Jim Jeffords felt that the party had left him, so he left the party. After that, no one apparently made small talk with him in the Senate washroom ever again. Stephen Moore’s Club for Growth challenged moderate Senators like Arlen Specter for being RINOs (Republican in Name Only) during the last election cycle and even though Specter survived, don’t think his pivotal role on the judiciary committee will not be impacted by his near-death experience.

Moderate Democrats are also under attack in their own party, mostly by the liberal wing of the Party who have long suffered under a Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) dominated party, where Bill Clinton reigned as a proud centrist who ended welfare as we knew it and Terry McAuliffe raised enormous sums of money from corporate donors for the supposed working man’s party. Liberal bloggers like David Sirota have made eloquent arguments for why the party should return to its populist roots and Thomas Frank’s fantastic book also seems to suggest the same. Howard Dean’s campaign, powered by anti-war sentiment and perhaps more importantly anti-establishment feelings, was a sign that the Democratic rank and file might be more left wing than their politicians in Washington. (The reason they eventually turned to Kerry might have been more pragmatic than visceral)

While Andrei Cherny and others have tried to defend (or at least define) the Clinton legacy, the lesson from the 2004 campaign (and the disastrous 2002 midterms) is that moderation has not paid off for the Democrats. Meanwhile, the Republicans have courted their base and compromised less of their core ideology to win elections.

While it is true that Clinton presided over massive electoral losses in 1994, left wingers should not forget that this disastrous outcome was preceded by the abject failure of Clinton’s health care proposal, which was closer to universal health care than any serious proposal we have seen in recent years. Later on, Clinton worked with the Republican majority because he had to, choosing to pay down the deficit rather than push for a massive public works project. Of course, President Bush had narrow majorities in his first term and still managed to pass a conservative agenda with little compromise, so perhaps Democrats could learn something from the GOP. On this point, the left wing may be on to something.

Unfortunately, the ascendant “Democratic wing” of the Democratic Party has few serious foreign policy ideas (where they are serious, they are unpopular) and is out of the mainstream on most social issues. The liberals will get Hilary Clinton as their dream candidate in 2008, and will blame the moderates when she loses.

So where can true moderates turn in these times of despair? Perhaps they could carve out their own party from the centrists in both major parties. Set aside the feasibility of such a proposal for the moment and two questions remain:

1. What would be the ideological core of a party composed of moderates?

2. Could moderates ever generate grassroots support?

In a future piece, I will outline what I think might be the answers to these questions. In the meantime, I’d like to hear what you think. Even though a true moderate party may never emerge, this discussion could eventually embolden moderates to challenge their respective party’s orthodoxy and marginalize the radicals on both sides.

R.C.

P.S. Seems like the NYT was thinking the same thing.

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