Mod Squad

Mod Squad

Mod Squad

Printed.
Dec. 19 1998 3:30 AM

Mod Squad

Why do middle-of-the-road Republicans still exist?

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The world has been paying Republican moderates a lot of attention lately, and the moderates are finding it all a bit disorienting. "We're just so popular now," said a bewildered Melissa Pezzetti, deputy executive director of the Ripon Society, when I paid a visit earlier this week to the group's tiny office, located in a brick low-rise behind the Fertilizer Institute on Capitol Hill. "Us moderates don't make news very often."

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The Ripon Society is itself an emblem of how wispy is the movement to which Republican moderates belong. Founded at Harvard in the 1960s by college Republicans put off by the vulgarity of the Goldwater campaign, the society flirted with liberalism during the '70s (it even sued the Republican National Committee over minority representation at political conventions!) and has been drifting a little bit to the right ever since. Today, according to Executive Director Mike Gill, a former aide to Rep. Paul Gillmor, R.-Ohio, the classic Ripon Republican venerates Ronald Reagan (whose scrapes with "gypsy moth" Eastern Republican moderates during the 1980s are apparently forgotten) but tends to part company with the party on social issues such as abortion. Membership, Gill says with a rueful laugh, is between 15,000 and 20,000.

The heyday for moderate Republicans was probably the late 1950s, when Dwight Eisenhower was president and Modern (i.e., moderate) Republicanism was the prevailing conservative orthodoxy. The WASP aristocracy still controlled Wall Street, the Ivy League, and much of the press. The Republican Party's liberal wing (as moderates were then called) was filled with noble purpose about civil rights and women's rights, two issues on which Democrats would not achieve dominance until the 1960s. The remarkable work on civil rights done by Robert Kennedy's Justice Department bore a distinctly Republican stamp: John Doar, a celebrated member of that team--who single-handedly stopped an incipient riot at Medgar Evars' funeral by stepping into an angry crowd and yelling, "Anybody around here knows that I stand for what's right!"--was an Eisenhower appointee. (For a fictitious portrait of a quintessential GOP moderate, click here.)

Now that civil rights issues have become mired in complexity and uncertainty about affirmative action, the grand sense of purpose in being a moderate Republican doesn't seem to exist anymore. Perhaps the emblematic moderate-Republican stance on civil rights during this decade was Sen. John Danforth's championing of affirmative-action foe Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court at the same time Danforth was pushing the Bush White House to sign the affirmative-action-friendly 1991 civil rights bill (which it eventually did). Even regionally, moderate Republicans have lost their identity. For years they were a bloc of Easterners perpetually at war for control of the party with Midwestern conservatives. Now Eastern and Midwestern Republicans tend to blend together in opposition to more conservative Southern Republicans (a subspecies that didn't exist before) and conservative Westerners on Rust Belt issues such as acid rain.

Since the districts of moderate Republicans, especially in the East, tend to be heavily Democratic, and the ideological differences between moderate Republicans and New Democrats are now microscopic (or perhaps nonexistent), it's a bit baffling that moderate Republicans don't switch party affiliation and become Democrats. There are a few Democrats around who began life as moderate Republicans--Californian former Rep. and Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta is one--but for most (including Panetta), the switch was made at least two decades ago. That's when former New York City Mayor John Lindsay, former Sen. Don Riegle of Michigan, and former Westchester County U.S. Rep. Ogden Reid all jumped ship. Practically the only nationally known Republican politicians to defect to the Democrats in recent years are New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross (who's a head case) and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of New York (who ran after her husband was killed and her son injured by a gun-toting lunatic on the Long Island Railroad). By contrast, a steady trickle of conservative Democrats, including Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, have switched to the Republican side in recent years.

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Why the persistence of the Republican moderate as a subspecies? One explanation is simple mislabeling. A conservative such as John McCain of Arizona can get called a moderate simply because he bucks his party on a few issues (campaign finance, tobacco) and is found to be personally likable by the press. Sometimes all it takes in terms of apostasy is a pro-choice stance on abortion--as was the case with former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming. Black conservatives frequently get called "moderate" simply because they maintain some vestigial sensitivity about race. Conservative former Democrats like Tauzin get called "moderate" simply because they used to be Democrats.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Another explanation is opportunism. The liberal views of Kevin Phillips have greater market value because they can be presented to the public as startling Republican apostasy. Ralph Neas, who for many years ran the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, always identified himself as a Republican; he dropped the pretense only when he ran for the House last fall as a Democrat in liberal Montgomery County, Md., losing to Connie Morella (the most liberal Republican in Congress). In Vermont, liberal challengers to independent Rep. Bernie Sanders have no choice but to run in the Republican primary, since Sanders has co-opted the state's Democratic Party.

For most moderate Republicans, though, the principal reasons not to switch party are nostalgia and aristocratic indolence. The prevailing style of the GOP moderate is modest and self-effacing. When I asked the Ripon Society's Pezzetti whether the group had a Web site, she answered: "It's really pathetic. Don't bother." About the only thing a Republican moderate is likely to get worked up about these days is the Christian right, whose existence led to the 1992 creation of the Republican Leadership Council, co-chaired by financier Henry Kravis. The group is housed in a shabby building on Capitol Hill a few doors down from the palatial headquarters of the Heritage Foundation. The elevator groans, and brown paint peels from the window frames. The RLC's purpose seems to be precisely in tune with that of the corporate titans who supposedly rule the party: Get government out of the bedrooms and concentrate on lowering taxes. Yet the group's budget is dwarfed by that of Heritage, which rakes in corporate contributions while scattering its attention between economic and social issues.

Moderate Republicans are giving America what it wants. Broadly speaking, they provided their party with its last two presidential nominees (George Bush and Bob Dole) and, according to early betting, will serve up the next one (George W. Bush). Yet even as their votes in Congress are courted this week by Republican leaders and the White House, their ranks seem in no danger of expanding. For all their good manners, common sense, and solicitude toward voters, they just don't command much respect.