What Ever Happened to Moderate Republicans?

When Minnesota's Jim Ramstad was first elected to Congress in 1990, the Republican Party was approaching a critical juncture. President George H. W. Bush, a mainline Protestant and former abortion-rights supporter who had just appointed moderate David Souter to the Supreme Court, was riding strong popular approval in the wake of the Gulf War. But the Souter appointment, coupled with Bush's broken pledge to not raise taxes, awakened a conservative movement that had become powerful enough to make or break Republican presidents. Bush tried to appease conservatives with his 1991 selection of Clarence Thomas for the high court, but it was too little too late: He had become an apostate. Ramstad, the moderate rookie, held on to his seat in 1992. Bush did not.

Over the next dozen years, Ramstad would witness the sometimes rapid, occasionally stalled, but always rightward shift of his party. The maverick's image he nurtured with frequent votes against his party was cemented when, after being returned to minority status for a ninth term, Ramstad joined 16 other House Republicans earlier this year to oppose President George W. Bush's Iraq War escalation. So you might expect national Republicans would be rejoicing with the news that the 61-year-old Ramstad decided not to seek re-election in 2008. "It's no secret that Jim Ramstad was ostracized within the Republican Party, in Washington, that's become so extreme and polarized," said Larry Jacobs, of the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, upon learning of Ramstad's decision.

Yet less than a month after Ramstad's announcement, national Republicans asked him to reconsider. The race-trackers at the National Republican Congressional Committee -- scrambling to find candidates to run for seats their incumbents have vacated in Arizona, Illinois, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Ohio -- know how to count. "With Jim Ramstad out of the race, it will be a competitive district, and probably a seven-figure race on each side," former Minnesota Republican congressman Vin Weber told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "With Jim in it, it's a put-down hand for the Republicans."

Adding insult to possible Republican injuries, Edina mayor Jim Hovland, a lifelong Republican, is running for the open seat in this increasingly Democratic district -- but has switched his affiliation to Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. "For years, I would characterize myself as a moderate-type Republican," said Hovland. "Over time, I felt like the Republican Party had moved farther and farther away from my philosophical beliefs. I find myself consistently philosophically aligning myself with Democrats." Just when it looked like things had reached rock bottom for the GOP in Minnesota -- the airport in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, host city for the 2008 Republican National Convention, is where wide-stanced Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho got caught toe-tapping -- Ramstad's retirement made things worse.

Jim Ramstad's career provides a useful prism through which to view the Republicans' disappearing moderate wing. Indeed, obscured by the incessant chronicles of the all-powerful evangelical movement or the arresting tactics of conservative kingmakers like Grover Norquist, is a largely unnoticed tale of centrist Republicans and other dispossessed elements within the GOP coalition waging an intraparty struggle to restore some balance to the party. Though the 2006 midterm disaster was a major event in this story, the Terri Schiavo controversy will be remembered as the transformative moment, if for no other reason than it led to former Missouri Republican senator John Danforth's emergence as an unlikely but crucial figure.

On March 30, 2005, Danforth complained in a New York Times op-ed that "Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians," adding that the "problem is not with people or churches that are politically active. It is with a party that has gone so far in adopting a sectarian agenda that it has become the political extension of a religious movement." Danforth is no RINO -- the derogatory acronym the right applies to insufficiently conservative "Republicans in Name Only." He's an ordained Episcopal minister. He literally chaperoned Clarence Thomas through the 1991 nomination process for the first President Bush, and was reported to be a co-finalist for Bush's running mate in the 2000 election. Along with Justice Thomas, future U.S. Sens. Kit Bond and John Ashcroft learned at Danforth's knee when Danforth was the young, up-and-coming attorney general of Missouri.

But by 2005, Danforth had heard enough from these new conservatives. "As a senator, I worried every day about the size of the federal deficit. I did not spend a single minute worrying about the effect of gays on the institution of marriage," he lamented. "Today it seems to be the other way around." Following the 2006 electoral debacle, Danforth joined former New Jersey governor and Environmental Protection Agency director Christine Todd Whitman and former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele to revive the moderate Republican Leadership Council (RLC). Since then, Danforth has also signed up to be a board member for the Republican Main Street Partnership (RMSP), another centrist GOP national organization. Both organizations are troubled by the new conservative orthodoxy, particularly on social issues.

The RLC is a self-described "fiscally conservative, socially inclusive" splinter group that advocates "for the historic Republican principles of liberty, individual responsibility, and personal freedom." The group hopes to resuscitate the moderate, Eisenhower-Ford-Rockefeller wing that long ago lost the intraparty clash for power to the abortion opponents and racially exclusive elements of the Southern-based Goldwater wing. Founded in the mid-1990s, and then dormant for several years after September 11, the RLC's 12-member board overrepresents former Republican officials from the Rust Belt, including three who lost their U.S. House seats in 2006: Connecticut's Rob Simmons and Nancy Johnson, both of whom were beaten in the general election; and Michigan's Joe Schwarz, a freshman Republican who lost his primary to Tim Walberg, an arch-conservative backed by the anti-tax Club for Growth and the state's Right to Life chapter.

The RLC boasts of its "diverse" national board and rejects issue litmus tests. Its affiliated partners are a virtual roll call of the ideologically moderate and identity groups that get trotted out every four years for the Republican National Convention before being shunted aside once national debates commence: The Alliance of Black Republicans, GreenGOP.org, Log Cabin Republicans, Republicans for Choice, Republicans for Environmental Protection, and The WISH List. (The GOP counterpart to the Democrats' EMILY's List, this last group works to recruit and elect pro-choice Republican women.) Collectively, the RLC's chiefs are biographical proxies for these out-groups: Danforth is the white male minister who pushes back against the party's evangelical-led cultural warriors; Todd Whitman is a woman and environmentalist whose book, It's My Party, Too, provides a compelling critique of the party's radicalism; and Steele is an African-American who made an earnest attempt in his failed 2006 Senate bid to broaden his party's reach to non-white voters. The only person missing, it seems, is Jim Kolbe, the openly gay Arizona congressman whose retirement in 2006 left vacant yet another seat Democrats picked up.

Whereas the RLC is trying to change the sociological makeup and cultural issue profile of the modern GOP, the Republican Main Street Partnership prefers to remain ecumenical on social issues. Any Republican members or former members of Congress or governors may join; currently, the organization is comprised of 42 U.S. Representatives, six U.S. senators, and two governors, California's Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hawaii's Linda Lingle. Former New Hampshire congressman Charlie Bass, another 2006 casualty, took over the helm at the RMSP after his defeat. Bass says his organization is unified on core Republican economic principles -- low taxes, deregulation, devolving control to state governments -- but tries to stay away from the culture-war fights over abortion and other "values" issues. Members include both supporters and opponents of abortion rights alike (though the group supports embryonic stem cell research). Formed in the wake of the 1994 elections that put Georgia conservative Newt Gingrich in the speaker's office, the RMSP operates as a non-profit group with a political action committee that, says Bass, may become involved in the 2008 presidential race (depending on the nominee) but mostly focuses on congressional and gubernatorial races.

Not surprisingly, more than two-thirds of the RMSP's members hail from the Northeast or Midwest. In addition to Bass and Danforth -- who recently joined the RMSP's leadership, making him a bridge between the two organizations -- the RMSP's leadership team likewise is dominated by former members of Congress from the Northeast -- the last remnants of the I-90 corridor coalition that once served as the backbone of the national Republican Party. "What you have is a formerly ascendant group within the party fighting with the current dominant wing," says Kenneth Baer, who wrote about the rise of a different set of centrists in Reinventing Democrats. "These people are not evangelicals, they're not Southern, they're not Western, and they're not working class. They are the George H. W. Bushes, not the George W. Bushes."

Because the RMSP's focus is national, the RLC tries to work downballot. Todd Whitman says the RLC "played" in approximately 150 mostly non-federal races nationally, winning 65 of them. "Not bad, given how Republicans did overall last cycle," she crows. For the coming 2008 cycle, the RMSP political action committee, led by Michigan representative Fred Upton, has raised about $300,000 and hopes to reach a half million dollars by cycle's end. Bass says there is "no competitive" relationship between the two groups, and their cooperation will only grow once Danforth becomes more intimately involved with RMSP. Synergy between the two groups will be necessary if the Republican middle hopes to revitalize itself.

The strange interregnum between the 2006 defeats and the upcoming 2008 presidential contest continues to be a time of intraparty tension and, for Republican moderates, an opportunity to prove their resilience. In early October, Focus on the Family's James Dobson penned a New York Times op-ed that threatened a potential Christian right defection if the Republicans nominated a pro-choice presidential candidate. The not-so-veiled target of the commentary was former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Dobson said "secular news media" reports that "the conservative Christian movement is hopelessly fractured" were untrue. "If the major political parties decide to abandon conservative principles, the cohesion of pro-family advocates will be all too apparent in 2008."

Dobson's commentary prompted Todd Whitman to take a page from Danforth's playbook and publish some unvarnished thoughts on the RLC's blog. "After years of using the Republican Party to push a far-right social agenda, activists such as James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and Richard Viguerie are apparently willing and eager to abandon the party at the first glimpse of moderation," she wrote. "That these men would absolve themselves of any responsibility to repairing the Republican Party and preparing for future elections is extremely disappointing -- especially considering their far-right views are rightly to blame for the poor standing in which our party now finds itself." While she hopes the intraparty conversation will begin to prompt some change, she doesn't kid herself. "I heard a lot of people say [after the 2006 defeats] that the party wasn't conservative enough," she told me, with audible exasperation.

Bass feels similarly frustrated. After his defeat last November, he had extensive conversations with former House colleagues, including Delaware's Mike Castle, Virginia's Tom Davis, and Michigan's Upton, and they persuaded him to take over the helm at the RMSP for two years. The problem for Bass is that 2006 took down so many moderates from the already conservative House and Senate GOP delegations that the remaining caucuses are even more conservative. "We [moderates] were a minority of the majority, and now we're a minority in the minority," he says, matter-of-factly. Because several Main Street Partnership members -- Illinois' Ray LaHood and Jerry Weller and Ohio's Deborah Pryce -- are joining Ramstad on the retirement bandwagon, the group's ranks may thin further in 2008. "There's lots of retirements, and there's nothing we can do about that. It's a natural phenomenon after losing majority control," says Bass, who remains optimistic his party can hold many of these newly opened seats.

Despite the renewed energy in moderate quarters, the fact is that the RLC and the RMSP are struggling to assert their relevance and build momentum. When I first called the RLC's offices, the young female intern who answered the phone became quickly flustered when I asked to be connected to the voice mailboxes of certain employees. I later learned from communications director Heather Grizzle that RLC's "five, or maybe six" employees, including herself, are actually paid consultants working remotely; only one full-time person is located in the RLC's Union Station office in Washington. No upcoming or recent events are chronicled on the RLC's Web site, and the site's blog has very few posts. Likewise, the RMSP's site reports having sponsored no events since late July, and lists none forthcoming.

Though leaders of both groups told me state-level growth is on the horizon, developments thus far are limited. Visitors to the RLC Web site can use an interactive map to learn how to become involved with the RLC's state chapters. To date, however, only 20 states and the District of Columbia have "volunteer captains" for the RLC's state-level grassroots organizing efforts. (Predictably, 14 of these states are in the Northeast, Midwest, or Southwest, the very parts of the country where Republicans were beaten or replaced by Democrats in 2006.) "The goal isn't to have every state covered right away, but grow where we do have them," Grizzle told me by phone from New York. The RMSP also has state affiliates but is operational in only a dozen states, just three of which have contact links.

Neither group is exactly rolling in cash, either. Grizzle says the RLC's budget is "a few million." RMSP executive director John Billings also preferred not to provide a precise figure, but confirms that the amount the group's non-profit raises, entirely from corporate sponsors, is "under eight figures." Seven-figure budgets are nothing to sneeze at, of course. But such sums are dwarfed by the $138 million in revenues Dobson's Focus on the Family had in 2005 or the $18 million each the Alliance Defense Fund and the American Family Association, key culture-war groups, raise annually. Baer is not surprised that the moderates continue to fight for scraps, or that corporate Republicans have not rushed to provide financial ballast for moderate ventures. "The old-time business Republicans are going to do one of two things: They're either going to become Democrats, or they're going to put money where they feel more comfortable," he says. "But I don't think the business wing of the Republican Party is that alienated yet because the cultural wing has not given up on their radical economic conservative agenda."

In Washington, centrism supposedly commands the undying reverence of a platoon of pundits, from David Broder on down. The middle matters, we are told, and the center can -- no, must -- hold. Given the prevailing force of this narrative, it is little wonder that organizations like the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and its chair, Harold Ford, receive ample attention. We likewise hear repeatedly about the need for the Democratic Party to moderate itself and to push back against its identity groups in its base, or against "radical" organizations like MoveOn.org. Only a week after it ran Dobson's ominous commentary, The New York Times front-paged a major analytical piece titled, "Liberal Base Proves Trying to Democrats."

In noticeably short supply, however, is a complementary conversation about the need to revive the Republican center. The Main Street Partnership garners far less attention than the Democratic Leadership Council: Lexis-Nexis search results produced roughly the same number of matches for "Democratic Leadership Council" in the past two years (996) as the "Main Street Partnership" garnered during the past 10 (994); television and radio transcripts are absurdly asymmetrical, with the DLC matches outpacing RMSP matches over the last decade by a nearly 40-to-1 ratio. (Matches for the Republican Leadership Council are so few that comparisons are not worth reporting.) "The center of the Republican Party isn't nearly as exciting or sexy as the base," bemoans Todd Whitman, when asked why groups like hers receive so little attention. "We don't give the great quotes." Bass also correctly noted that the DLC is about twice as old as either moderate Republican organization, and the election of former DLC chairman Bill Clinton in 1992 gave the organization a major lift in terms of national attention and resources.

But the core problem is that Beltway protocols tend to result in the validation of Wall Street Democrats, anti-abortion Democrats, religious Democrats, and red-state Democrats, and the shunting aside of green Republicans, pro-choice Republicans, secular Republicans, and blue-state Republicans. In American politics, Democrats like Zell Miller merit megaphones, while the Republicans like Charlie Bass are put on mute. This reality is not inconsequential to the course of the nation, mind you: The set of policies produced when the national conversation is bounded, say, by the ultra-conservative Americans for Tax Reform on the right and the centrist DLC on the left will be substantively different from those produced by a conversation bounded by the centrist RLC on the right and the liberal Campaign for America's Future on the left.

This asymmetry, and the struggles of moderate Republicans to be heard and heeded, is exacerbated by resistance from movement conservatives to any attempts by Republican centrists to moderate the movement. In 2005, Norquist invited the liberal satan himself, billionaire philanthropist George Soros, to one of Norquist's famed "Wednesday meetings," where Washington-based leaders of the conservative movement gather to strategize. As recounted to John Cassidy of The New Yorker, Soros told the room that he considers himself a moderate Republican, but had spent millions the previous year trying to defeat Bush and other Republicans because "moderate Republicans have been practically exterminated in recent years." The audience cheered.

The potential loss of Soros' millions is hardly fatal to the Republican Party, but it does raise an intriguing question: Why isn't the GOP's corporate wing rushing to provide ballast and resources for groups like the Republican Leadership Council and the Republican Main Street Partnership? Baer's explanation -- that the social conservatives have adopted the free-market and deregulation agenda -- explains why the corporate wing tolerated the social conservatives' radical social agenda. But with the post-2006 Republican brand now tainted, and the party's majorities gone, does this Faustian bargain still make sense? If Republican moderates have any hope, it is that business conservatives will realize that defending their anti-tax and deregulation policies may compel them to rethink the coalitional realities and in turn redirect their dollars.

At the end of our conservation, I asked Charlie Bass if centrist Republicans might be able to revive themselves as quickly and successfully as the Clinton Democrats did in the early 1990s. Bass pointed ahead to 2008, noting that John McCain is a current RMSP member and Mitt Romney was one previously. Of course, neither man has locked up the nomination, and the two recently had a very public fight over what defines a "real Republican." As for Rudy Giuliani, the great social issues apostate, one gets the distinct feeling from Christine Todd Whitman that the former mayor's candidacy is one she and the RLC would welcome as a chance to force their way back into the partisan conversation. Perhaps this murky and quirky 2008 presidential race -- no matter whom the Republicans nominate, nor whether he wins -- will be remembered years from now as a watershed akin to Goldwater's 1964 bid, but in reverse.

This piece has been corrected. The DFL is the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, not the Democrat Farmer-Labor Party, and the 2008 Republican National Convention is being held in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, not Minneapolis.

You may also like