THE REPUBLICAN CENTER

Ironically, in light of the previous post, Christie Todd Whitman has an op-ed in today’s NYT imploring the Republican Party to remember the moderates.

When President Bush, arguably one of the more conservative presidents in recent history, is under attack from the right wing of the party for his proposal regarding immigration and migrant workers, is it any wonder moderates feel out of sync?

It doesn’t seem to matter to conservatives that moderates share their views on the vast majority of those bedrock principles that have always been the foundation of Republicanism: smaller government, the power of free markets, a strong national defense. Because we disagree on a few issues, most notably a woman’s right to choose, many conservatives act as if they wish we moderates would just disappear.

This phenomenon is not unique to Republicans. Many moderate Democrats also feel alienated from their party; Senator Zell Miller of Georgia has recently written a book about it. Party estrangement is, sadly, bipartisan, and it is destroying American politics.

While I don’t disagree with her larger point, her examples aren’t the best. Most of the “moderates” she refers to are simply people who by all rights should be in the other party.

Some might ask why Republicans should be concerned about broadening their appeal to moderate voters; many in the G.O.P. believe it already is the majority party. And it is true that we have done a better job than the Democrats of winning the votes of a larger number of the shrinking percentage of voters who actually go to the polls.

But that doesn’t mean Republicans have a lock on the electorate. We control Congress and the presidency, but a switch of fewer than 21,000 votes in two states in the 2002 elections would have denied Republicans control of the Senate. Had Al Gore been able to carry his home state, Tennessee, in 2000, today he’d be preparing for his own re-election campaign.

A true majority party should not be in such a potentially precarious position. We find ourselves in this situation in part because we too often follow the advice of political consultants to appeal not to a majority of the electorate but only to the most motivated voters– those with the most zealous, ideological beliefs. Both parties now concentrate largely on turning out greater numbers of their most fervent supporters.

As a result, candidates tailor their appeals to those who already agree with them. The inevitable outcome is rhetoric that precludes a sensible discussion of issues. Those with the most shrill voices are increasingly dominating our political discourse.

***

What too many Republican strategists seem to have learned from the 2000 election is that the states which voted for Al Gore–the entire West Coast, most of the Northeast, much of the Upper Midwest–aren’t worth fighting for. It’s the wrong lesson.

Of the 20 states that President Bush lost in the 2000 election, 15 either had then, or have since elected, a Republican governor. Of those governors, almost every one can fairly be described as a moderate Republican: George Pataki in New York, Linda Lingle in Hawaii, Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, to name just three. In addition, polls show that in states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maine, voters are evenly split in their party affiliation.

Who is it, exactly, that’s arguing that the GOP should ignore the center because they have a majority locked up? Karl Rove and Co. clearly aren’t satisfied with simply squeaking by again as in 2000–even though reapportionment has moved several Electoral Votes from the blue states to the red. Surely, the bills or proposals to improve public schools, reform Medicare, ease Mexican immigration, expand the space program, and the like aren’t aimed at the conservative base? The early polling seems to indicate that Bush would pick up some of the states Gore won in 2000 if the election were held today. One would think that’s an indication that a sizable portion of moderates are pleased with his job performance.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
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. Whitman lost me when she said that Bush is “one of the more conservative presidents in recent history.” Whatever Bush is, conservative ain’t it.

  2. oceanguy says:

    Most of the “moderates” she refers to are simply people who by all rights should be in the other party.

    Where does that leave those of us who turned away from the Democrats? Because of my “moderate” views I registered as a Republican. Because of disagreements with the Democrats I decided I belonged in the other party. Because I don’t agree with the entire Republican agenda, and my views are still “moderate,” are you saying I belong in the other party? I consider myself one of the “moderates” Ms. Whitman is speaking about: I believe in smaller government and a strong defense, but because I also believe in a woman’s right to choose, civil rights, and recognition of Gay marriage, are you really saying I, should be in the other party?

  3. James Joyner says:

    Oceanguy,

    Probably not. There is such a thing as a moderate. Whitman likely fits that mold. But, for example, Zell Miller is a moderate to conservative Republican wearing a Democrat label. Olympia Snowe, Lincoln Chaffee, Michael Bloomberg, and others are moderate to leftist Democrats wearing a Republican label. That’s not a condemnation–it makes perfect sense given our regional variation.

  4. Paul says:

    When President Bush, arguably one of the more conservative presidents in recent history,

    I guess she defines “recent history” to include the last month of Bill Clinton on.

    That single observation makes be question the validity of the whole rest of the piece.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Don and Paul,

    I’d agree that Bush isn’t a conservative ideologue by any stretch. But he’s more so than Clinton, Bush 41, or, arguably, any president from FDR through Carter. So, of all the presidents we’ve had since 1932–72 years–only Reagan is probably more conservative. Thus, “one of the most conservative” seems reasonable enough.

  6. I’m with James here… can anyone name a more conservative president than Bush 43 since McKinley other than Reagan? And Reagan wasn’t exactly above throwing money at problems either.

    Then again, the GOP is free to nominate a hypothetical Son of Goldwater (who? Little Ricky Santorum?) and watch him go down in flames…

  7. Paul says:

    WELL… I guess it all depends on how you define conservative…. LOL

    But the guy that passed welfare reform and controlled spending looks more fiscally conservative at least.

    OK lemme turn the tables… You guys say he is conservative. Other than national defense how is he more conservative than (say) Clinton? (or Kennedy?)

    Clinton talked a good liberal game in the first 2-3 years but he sold them out repeatedly. He was more worried about Clinton than ideology.

    I’ve taken as a hobby rereading many of Kennedy’s speeches and he would be vilified by the left if he were alive today. He was more conservative than W. (imo anyway)

    Maybe I missed the right turn. And if it exists I’ll grant you the point but unless you want to join the “Kyoto was the end of life as we know it” crowd I don’t see how this guy is so conservative.

    Paul

    Keeping in mind he passed Kennedy’s education bill, exploded medicare, proposed a 15 billion dollar giveaway to fight a preventable disease and probably did a few more lefty things I missed. (maybe I only see the lefty things 😉

  8. Paul says:

    James more to your point- Other than tax cuts I can’t call W a conservative. (unless I missed something)

    [National defense, I think, should sorta be off the table in this exact debate because 9/11 changed everything. There is no comparison to be made.]

  9. James Joyner says:

    Paul,

    Kennedy has been dead over 40 years now. The country was a lot more conservative/traditional then than now. But he was a liberal for his day, certainly.

    And while Bush’s Medicare plan expands government, it also introduces market reforms. Compare it the HillaryCare.

  10. James Joyner says:

    Compare the judicial nominees, too.

  11. Oceanguy says:

    I guess I don’t understand the distinctions you’re making (in the comments on my post) between legitimate moderates and crossovers.

  12. James Joyner says:

    OG: There are centrists in both parties in the congress. Indeed, most members are centrists. I’d say that John Breaux and Joe Lieberman are moderate Democrats, for example. But Zell Miller isn’t a moderate Democrat; he’s a mainstream Republican calling himself a Democrat.

  13. Josh McClain says:

    James you hit it on the head slightly earlier when you talked about regional variety.

    You simply can’t compare a Vermont Republican with a Mississippi Republican. The values typically are different, for better or worse.

    I remember a great quote from a bad, short lived political show last year when the main character was arguing why (I’m paraphrasing here) he should stay independent when things are upside down politically, the New Jersey Republicans are more liberal than the Southern Democrats.

    Whitman’s column confuses me. At times she seems like she is scolding, at times it reads like an ominous “watch out or I’m leaving” speech, it’s all over the map.

    Her argument that the GOP is drifting right and ignoring the middle should have been made 10 years ago. We’ve already drifted down that spectrum and come back as a group. It reminds me of a counter argument to Zell Miller’s column a few months ago when he spoke of national democrats looking south and telling a good chunk of the nation to “go to hell”. But it lacks the base, the examples or the outrage.

    As a so called “moderate” pro-choice, pro-gay marriage Republican, I don’t get the purpose of the column. And I’m the target audience. So go figure.

    On a side note, I always think it’s humorous how both Joe Lieberman and John McCain in recent years have gotten the media and general opinion to believe that both are so called moderates.

    A quick check of the Americans for Democratic Action ratings and the American Conservative Union show that both are some of the most partisan members of the senate year in, year out, yet somehow in the national opinion they’ve become the moderate voice in the Senate. John Breaux and Lincoln Chafee and on a lesser scale the two honorable women from Maine are who I’d define as political “moderates”

  14. Holding the center again
    Christie Todd Whitman argues on the New York Times op-ed page that the GOP needs to spend more time reaching out to moderate voters. (Hat tip: Martin Devon of Patio Pundit.) Update: James Joyner isn’t buying.

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