Republican moderates hold the key

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Democrats now eagerly pose as moderates, though nothing in recent Democratic Party voting history warrants the label.  Republicans, at their great peril, eschew moderates and imagine that the tremendous dissatisfaction with the Obama administration is a mandate for immoderation.

As President Obama delights at the Republican tilt to immoderation, and savors the prospect of triangulation from 2010 to 2012, it matters that Republican moderates gain their voice.  If they do not, 2012 will be the most gleeful Democratic Party reversal of earned misfortune in history.

To demonize moderate Republicans, particularly in districts or states where conservative Republicans probably cannot win — such as Delaware — is to guarantee that Democrats will win more Congressional seats than they deserve and that President Obama will be re-elected.

Either moderate Republicans are welcomed or we will witness the renaissance of long-term Democratic Party power in Washington, D.C.  The stakes could hardly be larger on virtually every issue: government spending, tax policy, labor policy, public sector unions, energy policy, hyper-environmentalism, education policy, immigration policy, national security policy, foreign policy, the security of Israel.

Does ideological purity warrant ceding a second term to President Obama and gifting power to left-of-center Democrats?  Of course the answer is no.

For conservatives feeling their oats and sensing some kind of conservative resurgence, I understand the appeal of ideological purity.  I simply ask, do you wish to continue speaking to a shrinking pool of kindred spirits, while Democrats seize the center and power, or do you wish for some of your agenda to have a chance of becoming national policy?

That is the stark choice facing the Republican Party.  Beltway wonks are rightly ridiculed for their relentless exuberance about current events, and ordinary Americans are right to trust their own decent instincts.  But here is something Beltway wonks, the people who have seen close up how power is exercised and what then happens in the real world, might rightly contribute to the sensibilities of ordinary Americans:  the party in power does not merely enact distasteful things; the party in power decides whether or not to investigate itself and rewards and empowers its constituents, so that dislodging that power in electoral politics becomes increasingly difficult.

President Obama didn’t disproportionately reward automobile manufacturer unions in that egregious bailout simply because he’s “liberal.”  He did it to energize and empower a critical constituency, one that contributes enormous money and muscle to Democratic campaigns.  Democrats in power don’t resist sensible tort reform that could lower the cost of health care, and every product we buy, simply because they’re “liberal.”  They do so because trial lawyers, through their American Association for Justice PAC, have contributed well over $2 million to campaigns in the last year, 97% of which have gone to Democrats.

The party in power matters enormously.

Republicans have always suffered, to a greater degree than Democrats, from ideological zeal and personal shame.  It is why scandals large and small have tended to upend Republican careers much more readily than Democratic careers.  It is why right-wing Republicans, more so than left-wing Democrats, have been willing to declare war on their compatriots.  It is why there is a preposterous category called “RINO” — Republican In Name Only — and no similarly self-destructive “DINO.”  It is why Republicans now imperil the opportunity to exercise a measure of power, for the good of the country, so that ideological purity can win a Pyrrhic victory.

The marginalization of moderates — the people conservatives and liberals equally think have no “principles” — is a disaster for whichever side best succeeds at purging them.  In his fascinating book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, Edward O. Wilson cites the death of the Marquis de Condorcet at the end of the 18th Century as the death of the Enlightenment.  Condorcet was a “MINO,” a Moderate In Name Only.  A brilliant social scientist, he fully supported the French Revolution.  Indeed, Jean-Jacques Rousseau advocated dispensing with religion, but not royalty — but Condorcet targeted both.

Condorcet stopped short, however, of advocating the execution of King Louis XVI. That made him a Girondist — a “moderate” in the murderous world that Robespierre ruled.  In due course, he was branded a traitor and died in prison.  And the French Revolution took its horrible course, stripped of moderates.

Moderate Republicans believe:

* Government spending is out of control. And it is particularly egregious that government spending, in the name of “stimulus,” has rewarded special interest groups rather than the economy.  Cutting back on government spending is a goal for both moderate and conservative Republicans.

* Across-the-board tax relief is appropriate and has the best chance of jump-starting our economy.  Americans with more of their own money in their pockets will spend more, and business will respond with more productivity.  Overcoming business skepticism about consumers and imminent government regulation is key to unlocking business liquidity.  Calibrating this tax relief to ensure that it optimizes consumer spending and tax revenues may require experimentation.  But in no event should it smack of class warfare.

* Unemployment benefits should be set at a humane, but not indulgent, level.  Beyond a certain point, unemployment benefits discourage looking for a job.  At some point, an individual gets used to not working — though every benefits-recipient would rather work than be on the dole.  President Clinton made precisely this point in “ending welfare as we know it.”

* Government has no role in our private lives. Period.

* Abortion, thanks to the overreaching jurisprudence of Roe v. Wade, has been lifted out of democratic deliberation and made a constitutional right.  If the matter were properly subject to democratic deliberation, some moderate Republicans would support the right to abortion — because government has no role in our private lives, period — and some moderate Republicans would oppose the right to abortion because fetal life is sacrosanct.  Moderate Republicans generally oppose partial-birth abortions, and generally support measures to discourage abortions, mindful that the woman is making a serious private decision which government can properly influence with information but never properly dictate.

* Gun control depends on the jurisdiction.  Where constituencies favor limits, moderate Republicans respect that popular wish.  The dialogue concerning the doubtful actual utility of gun control laws must persist, but it is Republican suicide to insist that every elected representative in every district must subscribe to an open guns ideology.  If the people in that district do not believe that freely owning guns advances their interests, then it is a matter for Republicans of respect and education, not self-destruction.

* Gay marriage tests Republican tolerance.  Gay America is a reality.  Accept this.  Americans increasingly support gay rights and gay marriage.  Gay marriage is a conservative institution, a way of integrating gays into not being sexually profligate, a way of welcoming gays into mainstream America.  Moderate Republicans welcome gays.  One can be gay and conservative — but not Republican if Republicans demonize gays.  That must end.

* Immigration policy is critical.  George Bush and John McCain rationally supported comprehensive immigration reform — meaning reform that both strengthens border security and creates a viable route to citizenship without completely trampling on the righteous and often tortured efforts of millions of legal residents to gain legal citizenship.  In other words, it shouldn’t be easier to be an illegal immigrant and gain citizenship than it is to be a legal immigrant and gain citizenship.  For conservatives to call that “amnesty!” — and end up with nothing that stems the tide of illegal immigration — is self-defeating.  Our borders are less secure today, and the Obama administration is empowered to decline to enforce certain immigration laws and to target states like Arizona, because conservatives screamed “amnesty!” when Republicans proposed comprehensive immigration reform.

The survival of moderate Republicans, however much some conservative Republicans would wish it otherwise, will determine the fate of the Republican Party.  There is imagined purity and there is power.

Kendrick Macdowell is a lawyer and writer in Washington, D.C.