The Centrist Fantasy

Can moderate Republicans take back their party?

Political scientist turned columnist Jonathan Bernstein pines for the return of normal politics, arguing “Joe Manchin Charted a Better Course for [the] House GOP.”

There are roughly two dozen House Republicans who, based on the midterm results or their districts’ makeup, are likely to face difficult re-election battles in 2024. While these Republicans typically get far less attention than the party’s anti-democratic extremists — those who praise autocrats like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and spread former President Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election — they potentially have far more leverage. 

That’s because moderate Republicans could undermine the GOP’s slim House majority by reaching across the aisle to work with Democrats. Extremists, for all their bluster, have no such option.

The problem with that, of course, is that doing so puts them in a political No Man’s Land. It would mean that they’d be heavily targeted in the Republican primaries—in which Democrats would invest heavily to boost extremist candidates—with no backing from party leadership. And, if they somehow survived that, would be even more vulnerable in the general election.

The narrow GOP majority means moderate Republicans could exercise their influence to press for centrist priorities that could help them with voters in 2024. But their leverage will only be helpful if they choose to take advantage of it. In recent years, the majority of House Republicans, fearful of being labeled Republican in Name Only, have allowed the party’s extremist fringe represented by the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan to intimidate them.

That’s increasingly looking like a risky electoral strategy. As we learned in the midterms, voters in closely divided districts tended to reject the anti-democratic inclinations of candidates backed by former President Trump. In a tightly divided legislative chamber, any small group from the majority party can cause disruption by threatening “no” votes on legislation. But only the relatively moderate group can offer — or threaten — constructive alternatives that involve finding common cause with some Democrats.

Again, I don’t see how this works. It would instantly alienate them from their party with little payoff.

Joe Manchin was in a very different position: he was often the deciding vote on legislation backed by the majority party in the House and Senate with a same-party President eager to sign. This didn’t require working with the opposition party; it simply meant drawing a line and saying “This far and no farther” or “I’ll vote for it under conditions X, Y, and Z.” And Manchin is pretty much the only Democrat who could plausibly get elected to the Senate from West Virginia; there’s really not much the party can do to punish him.

There’s no analog here for moderate Republicans in a bare majority House with a majority Democratic Senate and Democratic President.

With control of Congress divided between the two parties, bipartisan deal-making is also the only way that Republicans will actually accomplish anything in the next Congress.

On that, we agree. But, honestly, to the extent that Republicans actually want to accomplish anything in the next Congress, it needs to be orchestrated by the party leadership. Kevin McCarthy, or whoever winds up as Speaker, is the one who’s in the Joe Manchin position, as President Biden can’t realistically get anything through Congress without bipartisan cooperation.

Bernstein’s concrete proposal is this:

A major indication of which direction the Republicans will choose will come on Jan. 3, when the House votes to elect the next speaker. Most leaders of House and Senate parties are chosen by internal party votes; Mitch McConnell, for example, has already been elected minority leader for the next Congress because he won a vote of Senate Republicans.

But thanks to a constitutional quirk, parties only nominate candidates for House speaker, with the winner chosen in a vote by the entire House, Republicans and Democrats. That’s usually a formality; until recently, party loyalty required every member of the majority party to support the party’s nominee, ensuring his or her victory. But party loyalty on the speakership vote has eroded in the last two decades, with handfuls of dissenters willing to vote “present” or for someone else.

The prospective speaker needs to win a majority of the whole House to be elected. If Republicans wind up controlling the House by a 222-to-213 margin, five Republicans voting for someone other than Republican leader Kevin McCarthy for speaker would mean that no candidate would have the 218 votes needed for a majority.

The GOP’s anti-democracy faction has been using that math to pressure McCarthy for concessions, threatening to sink his chances unless he gives them everything they want. They apparently believe that they are in the driver’s seat; indeed, Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, a Tea Party supporter perhaps best known for delaying a vote on the original bipartisan pandemic relief bill in March 2020, has publicly expressed his wish for a smaller Republican majority on the idea that it would give him more sway.

That’s a logic that Republican extremists have relied on for years, but its effectiveness depends on the rest of the party’s willingness to go along.

But what if instead of allowing a tiny group of fringe figures to call the shots the party was compelled to heed the influence of Republicans in vulnerable seats and of others who resist being defined by Matt Gaetzes of the world? This faction, which could include some of the newly elected Republicans from New York State, could decide to take a page from Senator Joe Manchin and other relatively moderate Democrats, either by crossing party lines in key votes or by seeking to build a center-against-the-extremes bipartisan coalition.

Again, that’s not what Manchin did. And what, exactly, are the New York moderates going to do? Vote for a Democrat as Speaker? Run one of their own and get Democrats to cross over and vote for them?

On the Democratic side, Manchin had one big advantage that House Republicans in Democratic districts lack: The most ideologically extreme Democrats such as Bernie Sanders in the Senate and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the House are basically pragmatic politicians who want to get things done and are willing to cut deals to achieve what’s possible. The House Republican fringe is more concerned with elevating their media profile than with passing legislation.

I don’t know that that’s true of AOC in particular but, yes, that’s basically right. AOC at least has a policy agenda she’s trying to promote; I have no idea what MGT is trying to accomplish.

But that’s all the more reason for anyone who doesn’t want to be defined by the fringe to stand up to it at the outset of the new Congress. Make clear to McCarthy and any other speaker candidates what they want and show that they’re willing to walk away — even to work with Democrats — if they don’t get it.

Ask Peter Meijer how that worked out for him. It’s basically political suicide.

Two weeks after the midterms, we’re seeing the first stirrings of resistance from some of these Republicans. But vague notions of wanting to appear less partisan won’t cut it. If they are to make use of the clout they can have, these Republicans will have to quickly figure out what to ask for and then fight for it, and to be prepared for the ferocious pushback they will face from conservative media outlets and, for that matter, from former President Trump.

But if they aren’t willing to do it, they might as well make Marjorie Taylor Greene the speaker of the House right now and accept that they prefer to be bullied into irrelevance.

Or, how about this: they actually follow the Manchin model and refuse to go along with extremist bills that would be unpopular with their constituents? Again, the analogy isn’t exactly right because Manchin’s party had nominal control of all three parts of the policymaking apparatus. But the moderates can absolutely demand that McCarthy and company go along with popular proposals and insist that they be allowed to vote for them. But they have to do it via the Republican Caucus rather than in coalition with Democrats if they hope to serve another term as Republican Congressmen.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    I find the whole “moderate” discussion tiring. There is simply no evidence that there is some middle ground between what the median Democrats and Republicans want, and plenty of evidence that the actual goals are orthogonal. The Democrats want policy and government to meet certain societal needs. The Republicans, on the other hand, don’t want to have to think about policy and simply want to be told what to do by their patrons. And what those wealthy patrons want is almost always at odds with the needs and desires of 99% of the population, so they must offer distractions, enraging voters about perceived slights and injustices so they don’t notice what is really happening. And their method of achieving that is to identify groups that are “other” and whip up pogroms against them.

    I defy anyone to come up with a better explanation of what the Republicans actually do than what I have described above. The idea that they are simply more conservative or more libertarian or more anything than the Dems and so compromise is possible flies in the face of at least 15 years of experience. Heck, I defy anyone to name a single policy position the Republicans have shown a willingness to find for in the past 15 years other than:
    1) Reducing regulation on polluters
    2) Lowering taxes on the corporations and the wealthy
    3) Subsidizing mega-businesses
    4) Taking benefits away from the working class and poor

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  2. steve says:

    Since primary votes are dominated by the base voters anyone actually working with Democrats will lose their primary. One of the reasons the GOP likely has a narrow majority is that they replaced candidates who probably could have won with more extreme candidates. So I think you are right that the best we can hope for is that maybe some of these people could act as a brake to stop extreme proposals. However, there is even risk in doing that. The safer course will be to go along and just let things die in the Senate.

    Steve

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  3. charon says:

    @MarkedMan:

    1) Reducing regulation on polluters

    They do not like safety regulations, endangered species regulations, energy efficiency regulations, etc. etc.

    And, they do not like immigrants or easy voting access.

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  4. As James notes: while these so-called moderates have to worry about being primaried more than they have to worry about the general election because they can’t even get the chance to lose in the general if they aren’t re-nominated.

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  5. Modulo Myself says:

    How can you be moderate against a non-existent platform? The GOP runs on vibes and stunts, not policies. A moderate Democrat can point to being against debt relief or infrastructure spending. The moderate Republican might as well just switch parties. They are otherwise sticking around for the vibe and stunts.

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  6. MarkedMan says:

    @charon:

    They do not like safety regulations, endangered species regulations, energy efficiency regulations, etc. etc.

    Largely agree, except to note that the average Republican Pol is probably indifferent to moderately in favor of all these on a personal basis. It’s their patrons who are against them.

    And, they do not like immigrants or easy voting access.

    Agree with no caveat.

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  7. Jay L Gischer says:

    Let me just note that there are plenty of areas where a moderate compromise would be a step forward for policy.

    For instance, we have had, multiple times in the last 20 years, a compromise ready to go on immigration policy reform. This put together increased spending on enforcement (and one would hope, on courts) and relief for the DREAMers. It has been torpedoed by the Freedom Caucus and/or Ted Cruz. (It passed the Senate once! But Denny Hastert wouldn’t allow a vote on it).

    There are other areas like this.

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  8. Stormy Dragon says:

    I don’t know that that’s true of AOC in particular but, yes, that’s basically right

    That is true of AOC. If you think it’s not, you need to reconsider your news sources because they’re lying to you.

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  9. Michael Cain says:

    The usual question applies: name some policies supported by a large majority of the Dems in the House that Kevin McCarthy and a dozen or two “moderate” Republicans would vote for. The only thing that comes to the top of my head is ongoing weapons support for Ukraine. In that case, the Republicans that can be peeled away are not necessarily “moderate”, but more likely Republicans with a large military presence in their district. Doug Lamborn from Colorado Springs is an example of what I’m thinking about. Rep. Lamborn can’t afford to lose the Springs’ military and veterans’ votes.

    I don’t know how many times McCarthy can get away with it. If forced to bet, I’d bet on no more than once.

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  10. wr says:

    @Stormy Dragon: “That is true of AOC. If you think it’s not, you need to reconsider your news sources because they’re lying to you.”

    Of course it was AOC who was willing to vote yes on the standalone vote on the infrastructure bill, even though most of her priorities were stripped out of it and placed in a second spending bill which the “moderates” promised to pass. And of course quickly reneged on.

    AOC is a real legislator, which is one reason why Republicans fight so hard to demonize her.

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  11. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    For instance, we have had, multiple times in the last 20 years, a compromise ready to go on immigration policy reform.

    This x 1,000.
    McCarthy is down on the border yelling about impeachment of the HS Sec and blah blah open borders blah blah blah caravans blah blah blah crisis…
    If the far right Republicans were serious people they would do their jobs – and LEGISLATE! How about writing serious immigration reform and work to pass it?
    What he’s doing is purely performative for the rubes.
    Actually solving the immigration issue would remove one of the GOP’s primary cudgels.
    And it may very well be that the majority of the Republican Caucus won’t ever give up that cudgel, and the only way to get anything done is in coalition with the Democrats.

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  12. Scott F. says:

    @Stormy Dragon & @wr:
    If you take away the knee-jerk “equalizing” characterizations of vocal Social Democrats as radicals or extremists, you take away the entire argument for moderation being equal to a mid-point between the parties’ ideologies. Give Professor Joyner his due. He’s at least trying which is more than could be said for Jonathan Bernstein.

    From Chris Wallace’s CNN interview with AOC following the election:

    “It’s important for us to dig into the substance of what that actually means,” [AOC] told Wallace. “As someone who is often … characterized as ‘extreme,’ I, of course, would object to that. I do not believe that I am extreme in the way that Marjorie Taylor Greene on the Republican side is extreme.”
    As one example, Ocasio-Cortez pointed to her support for a Medicare-for-all health care system, arguing that the fight for universal health coverage — a benefit program — should not be equated with support for the separation of undocumented families at the Southern Border, which has been shown to have harmful effects on children’s health.
    “The idea that there is an equating of … someone who believes in guaranteed universal health care in the United States with someone who believes that undocumented people should incur physical harm — [that those] are somehow in the same level of extreme — is something that I would object to,” she said.

    That’s pretty pragmatic rhetoric from the Democrats’ most prominent radical.

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  13. gVOR08 says:

    @charon:

    And, they do not like immigrants

    I don’t think they actually care about immigrants except as a bone to throw to the base. They used to like immigrants, Musk is depending on them, but they offshored most of those jobs, so now they can afford to throw immigrants to the base.

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  14. Chip Daniels says:

    The problem with this sort of prescription is that there is no constituency for a “moderate Republican” anywhere outside of Beltway punditry.

    The voting base of the GOP has gone all in on culture warring. If you doubt it, just look at what motivates them, what gets them on their feet at rallies, what turns them out to school board meetings.
    It isn’t fiscal conservatism, it isn’t a prudent use of government power.

    Its abortion bans, anti-trans bills, CRT and anti-anything that can conceivably be called “Woke”.

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  15. MarkedMan says:

    @Scott F.: I have a lot of respect and hope for AOC. My main concern is (was?) that she would believe the hype about herself and spiral out, as so many people do in public facing professions.

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  16. al Ameda says:

    Every time I see someone who self-describes as a ‘centrist’ or an ‘independent’ I assume that they are Republican and they don’t want to admit it.

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  17. John W Crawford says:

    @Chip Daniels: It actually IS fiscal conservatism, which is why fiscal conservatives were elected, and why the profligate RINO’s are being weeded out.
    Semper fi

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