Where Have You Gone, Nelson Rockefeller?

Last December fifteenth, Republican Congressman Jack Quinn stepped before the cameras in his district office in Buffalo, New York to announce that he would be voting to impeach the President of the United States. Quinn was the quintessential GOP moderate—just the type the White House had been counting on. Only a month before, he'd handily won re-election with the overwhelming backing of the local AFL-CIO. And for weeks he had been on record as opposing impeachment. The very day before his announcement, Quinn held a morning meeting with his Labor Roundtable and assured them he continued to support censure, not impeachment. But just hours later, evening editions of the Buffalo News reported that Quinn had changed his mind.

"I don't know why he did it," recalls Bob McLennan, head of the Letter Carriers local, who was there that morning. "We thought he'd at least contact us if he decided to change his vote. A lot of us feel we were lied to. People were pretty outraged. They couldn't believe it. Some of my members were saying things like, 'we'll get rid of him in two years.'"

The fact that any Republican could hold New York's Thirtieth District is itself something of a miracle. Centered on the city of Buffalo, the Thirtieth has over 100,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, more than any other district in the country held by a Republican. Quinn's ability to survive as a Republican in an economically depressed and heavily Democratic district had often forced him to balance the views of constituents with the dictates of party loyalty. But impeachment tripped him up. "On impeachment he just couldn't perform the balancing act," one longtime observer of Buffalo politics told me in early February. "It's his first real challenge. I'm not sure it's fatal. But the Democrats see an opportunity."


The Ghost of Gingrich

Today, all across the Northeast, Midwest, and the West Coast, Democrats are spotting similar opportunities to unseat vulnerable GOP moderates who voted to impeach Bill Clinton against their constituents' wishes. So now that GOP hard-liners have driven the party into such a political ditch, party moderates are raising their voices with mounting confidence and candor. The weekend after the Senate acquitted Bill Clinton, the Republican Leadership Council (which openly models itself on the centrist Democratic Leadership Council) met in Miami and excoriated the party's national leaders for its feckless record of legislative accomplishment and harsh, confrontational image. Only days later, another moderate pressure group, the Republican Main Street Partnership, issued a similarly stern rebuke in an open letter to the GOP. In each case, the message is the same: if the Republican Party wants to avoid a generation in the political wilderness, it has to focus on the fiscal conservatism which unites Republicans and avoid those divisive social issues which scatter them apart. They even have a name for it: compassionate conservatism.

When the National Governors Association convened in late February, those oft-mentioned pragmatic Republican governors were virtually falling over themselves to endorse the poster boy of compassionate conservatism, Texas Governor George W. Bush. And even those moderates from the Northeast and Midwest who were forced to walk the impeachment plank only last December are doing a bit of muscle-flexing. With the GOP House majority at a razor-thin six votes, they reason, the GOP caucus's conservatives will have no choice but to cater to their once marginalized views.

But this rush to close the book on the era of Gingrich Republicanism misses one crucial point. If the impeachment debacle made one point undeniably clear it was just how little is left of the moderate wing of the GOP. This is not to say that there are no moderates. There is a caucus of moderates in the House, a handful of moderate Republican senators, and the nation's state capitals have numerous examples of governors who have enjoyed success with a mix of fiscal conservatism and social tolerance. There is also a growing number of moderate pressure groups trying to nudge the party back toward the political center. What the moderate wing of the GOP lacks, however, is a backbone of activists and financial supporters which would allow it to assert itself against the party's militant conservative core. While party pragmatists may be looking for a new center, the GOP's grassroots base remains firmly in the hands of its ultras.


All Grass, No Roots

It may seem strange, if not impertinent, to argue the demise of the GOP moderates when every major northeastern state has a Republican governor. But one of the anomalies of the 1990s in the Northeast is the way the GOP has been able to prosper in state wide offices while having increasing difficulties winning congressional, senatorial, and presidential elections from those states. In fact the "federal" Republican Party in the Northeast has come to mirror the southern Democratic Party of the 1970s and 1980s. Northeastern voters send Republicans to the state capitals in healthy numbers, but are far less willing to vote for Republicans at the national level—where conservatives dominate congressional GOP caucuses. And when they do send Republicans to Congress they are, like the southern Democrats of a generation ago, only those who make a virtue of their independence from the national party.

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The process which has left the moderate wing of the national Republican Party so enfeebled has been at once regional and ideological. Living as we do in an age when the Republican Party is deeply identified with southerners, it is easy to forget how astonishing a historical development it is that the party could have become so beleaguered in the Northeast. The Republican Party began more than 140 years ago as a novelty in American politics—a sectional party of the Northeast and Upper Midwest. Today the GOP is weakest in precisely those parts of the country. As many commentators have noted, the electoral maps of the 1896 and the 1996 presidential elections look almost identical—the only difference being that the two parties have changed places. Democrats now have the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and the West Coast, while the Republicans have the South and the Mountain States—precisely the opposite of the case 100 years before.



But there is more at work here than a mere swapping of electoral bases. As recently as a quarter century ago, a substantial contingent within the Republican Party could legitimately be called moderate to liberal. In New York there was Senator Jacob Javits, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and Mayor John Lindsay of New York City. The Senate also included Ed Brooke of Massachusetts, Clifford Case of New Jersey, John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky, Charles Percy of Illinois, Mark Hatfield of Oregon, and several dozen Republican moderate liberals held seats in the House. But a series of internal transformations have made the Republican Party increasingly synonymous with political conservatism. As the Republicans began picking off electoral votes in the post–Jim Crow South, the party became increasingly southern in character and right-leaning ideologically.

The conservative takeover began in 1964 when Barry Goldwater defeated Nelson Rockefeller for the presidential nomination, and was complete by 1980 when Ronald Reagan won the presidency and remade the party in his own image. Through a process of retirements and electoral defeats, the GOP's liberal wing disappeared. The last Republican who could reasonably be described as liberal, Senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, was effectively expelled from the party (and the Senate) in 1988. Perhaps the clearest sign of just how conservative the Republican Party has become is that almost any Republican who does not oppose abortion rights is now considered a moderate.

Relatively few of the long-serving moderate GOP representatives from the Northeast have gone down to defeat. But the additions to the GOP ranks in the House have almost all been conservatives. And the declining position of the moderates is perhaps best illustrated by the change within the Republican leadership. In 24 of the 30 years before Newt Gingrich ascended to the speakership in 1995, the position of Republican minority leader was held by two moderate Republicans from the industrial Midwest, Gerald Ford and Robert Michel. Since 1995, however, the GOP leadership has been made up exclusively of conservatives, predominantly from the South.

The slow but steady erosion of the Republican majority in the House that has taken place over the 1996 and 1998 election cycles has been not so much at the expense of moderates as at the expense of Republicans of all stripes from moderate districts. In 1996, 20 House incumbents lost re-election—17 Republicans and 3 Democrats. The disproportionate number of Republican defeats was in large part due to the magnitude of the party's victory in 1994. But the pattern of just who lost and why is revealing. The three Democrats who lost came from the border states of Missouri and Kentucky and the deeply Republican state of Utah. Fifteen of the 17 Republicans came from the North east, the West Coast, and the Upper Midwest. Another came from the liberal-leaning Research Triangle district of North Carolina. And most of the Republican losses were directly attributable to their opponents' successful effort to tie them to Newt Gingrich and the Repub lican agenda.

The results of the 1998 election paint a similar picture. In a generally incumbent-friendly year, only six incumbents were turned out by the voters—five Republicans and one Democrat. The five Republican congressmen were solid conservatives, with an average voter rating of 93 percent from the Christian Coalition in 1998, and an average lifetime rating of 86 percent from the American Conservative Union. But they came from Kansas, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Washington—each, with the exception of Kansas, have leaned Demo cratic in the 1990s. These Republicans, in effect, were too conservative for their voters.

Most long-serving moderates from the Northeast have been able to hold on in spite of the anti-Gingrich tide in the last two election cycles. But many came close to losing their seats in 1996 over the same question of association with Newt Gingrich and the national Republican Party. Consider Nancy Johnston, one of the marquee moderates, who has represented Connecticut's Sixth District since 1982. When Newt Gingrich's popularity was plummeting, Johnson had the misfortune of chairing the House Ethics Committee that was then investigating ethics accusations against the speaker. Whatever the reality of the situation, Democrats were able to portray her as carrying water for Gingrich right at the time when his face was being splashed on Democratic campaign commercials across the country. She just barely emerged with her seat.

Johnson recovered in 1998, winning 60 percent of the vote against Charlotte Koskoff, the same candidate who almost beat her in 1996. But her vote for impeachment just after the election seems certain to make her vulnerable again in 2000. Some Connecticut political observers suspect that Johnson may not run for re-election in the next election cycle. But if and when she does retire from the seat, it seems likely that it will be filled by a Democrat. And the future looks to be more difficult, not less. Connecticut is set to lose one of its six House seats in the 2000 redistricting, and it is generally expected that that loss will be at the expense of the two Republican districts in the western part of the state.


Caught in the Middle

In response to this hemorrhaging of support for the GOP in the regions which were once the home of the moderate liberal wing of the party, a number of pressure groups have formed to give the public a different sense of what the party and its agenda can be. The aforementioned Republican Main Street Partnership (RMSP) was founded in 1998 by Republican Congressman Amo Houghton (one of the four holdouts against impeachment) and a group of other current and former GOP officeholders. The organization's executive director, recently retired Wisconsin Congressman Steve Gunderson, describes a Repub lican agenda that many moderate Democrats would find appealing. Many Republicans, like Jack Kemp, invoke the name of Abraham Lincoln with a breezy disregard for almost anything the sixteenth president stood for. But when Gunderson does, it actually means something. Gunderson envisions a Republican agenda of what might be called a business-friendly progressive nationalism.

In place of the Democratic mantra of diversity, Gunderson speaks of "social integration"—which for him amounts to a tolerant program of national unity with a frank and genuine outreach to traditionally excluded groups. On the issue of education, Gunderson skillfully splits the difference. He does not take a stand against school vouchers, but insists that since the overwhelming majority of children will almost certainly remain in the public schools, public policy should focus on strengthening public education. He agrees that education is a state and local responsibility, as is now de rigueur among Re pub licans, but insists that creating a strong, educated workforce is a federal responsibility. The cynical might consider this an almost Clintonian effort to be on every side of every issue. But such a judgment would be as flawed as it is uncharitable. It is actually an effort to frame important public questions in a way that emphasizes broad areas of agreement rather than vexing points of division. Much of Gunderson's approach to public policy is a rejection of the "wedge politics" that he believes has characterized the Republican Party for much of the last generation.

But there is a glaring problem for moderates like Gunderson. As the RMSP's chairman, former Maine Governor Jock McKernan, freely concedes, the Demo crats' positions have moved very close to theirs on a number of issues. In an era when the Democratic Party seems firmly planted in the center and the party's left wing has been relatively quiescent, voters who like Gunderson's brand of moderate Republicanism might just as easily take a half step to the left and vote for New Democrats. Today, for better or worse, there is more than enough room in the Democratic Party for the sort of cautious reformism that Gunderson and McKernan advocate. And by going with the Democrats, voters don't have to worry about giving majorities to the GOP's ideological die-hards.

If anything, Gunderson's own recent history seems to capture perfectly the problem moderates face. Soon after the 1994 election, Gunderson—who has been openly gay since his homosexuality was revealed in a 1994 New York Times Magazine article—announced that he would not be seeking re-election. Not long after, however, the retirement of one Republican congressman and the death of another placed Gunderson in line to become next chairman of the Agriculture Committee—a boon for his district's large population of dairy farmers. His constituents prevailed upon him to run for another term and Gunderson eventually agreed to do so if he were spared any opposition in the primary. The other Republican in the race, a conservative, refused to bow out, however, and after the deadline for filing passed, a Gunderson write-in campaign commenced. But in July, Newt Gingrich told Gunderson that conservative activist Paul Weyrich was planning to run independent expenditure issue ads against him on the theory that having an openly gay man become chairman of the Agriculture Committee would "legitimize homosexuality." Gunderson bowed out, asking the organizers of the write-in campaign to cease their activities. Not surprisingly, when Gunderson did retire from the House in 1996, he was replaced by a Democrat.


Squeeze Play

Many of the moderate Republicans intent on steering the party back in their direction see the impeachment debacle as a signal opportunity. But the irony is that the back-room politicking of the impeachment drama demonstrated just how weak the grass roots of the moderate wing of the GOP have really become. One of the most striking developments of the month before the impeachment vote was the way that so many moderates—many of whom had spoken out publicly against impeachment—jumped on the impeachment bandwagon.

If Bill Clinton's ability to stay high in the polls challenged our notions of the laws of political gravitation, the moderates' collective decision to get behind impeachment posed a similar challenge to our conventional understanding of political cause and effect. Coming from districts where impeachment was deeply unpopular, and being temperamentally inclined toward moderation, what could explain the sudden change of heart? A handful of decisions in favor of impeachment might be explained away as "votes of conscience." But the wholesale decision on the part of all but four of the moderates to get behind impeachment calls for a less idiosyncratic, more fundamental explanation.

Opponents of impeachment and much of the Washington press corps had a straightforward account—the fierce pressure being applied by Tom DeLay, the majority whip who acted as the de facto speaker in the interregnum between Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert. DeLay was reportedly bullying wavering Republicans by threatening to take away committee chairmanships, cut off their campaign funds, and even run well-financed primary opponents against them in the 2000 election cycle. There was truth in each of these allegations. And even when threats were not openly articulated, members knew DeLay's reputation well enough to understand the price of straying from the fold on such an important issue. "All you need to do is look at the whip [DeLay]," as one longtime GOP campaign consultant put it. "Is he a forgive-and-forget kind of guy?"

But if the portrait of DeLay as enforcer created a resonant image of the impossible situation in which the moderates found themselves, it also created a misleading impression about just where the pressure was coming from. DeLay and his associates, it turns out, were not so much applying pressure as focusing and coordinating the pressure from individual members' districts. Even if ideological Republicans made up only a minority of the voters in an individual member's district, that representative was simply unwilling to offend that minority constituency. So many of the moderates held off announcing their impeachment vote until the very end because they hoped that the case would settle down to some obvious, moderate middle ground. DeLay's genius was to realize that by polarizing the debate to the maximum extent possible—by taking censure off the table, by characterizing the House vote as a mere procedural indictment—he could break the backs of moderates who were too electorally insecure to risk offending these bedrock supporters.

One of the four moderates who voted against impeachment, Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut, agrees that the pressure was intense. But it came principally, he says, not from the leadership, but from "legitimate pressure from my constituents, from the Republican town committees and financial contributors." Many of Shays's fellow moderates were dying for some compromise, "but the leadership denied them." Shays, for his part, thinks the question before Congress was sufficiently serious that the leadership was right to demand an up or down vote on impeachment. But the underlying point remains the same: it was the party's activist base and not the leadership who cleared the way for impeachment.

If it had only been DeLay and others in the GOP leadership practicing classic strong-arm tactics, the situation for the GOP would not be so dire; a discredited leadership can simply be replaced. But the weakness of the moderates went far deeper. Their wholesale capitulation was not a series of individual personal failures, but a structural one. DeLay and his associates managed a classic squeeze play in which the wavering moderates were subjected to a pincer by a base constituency that was unwilling to accept any compromise on impeachment and a leadership that was intent on casting the drama in the most polarized of terms. In the end, the moderates simply lacked a political infrastructure of activists and financial contributors who could sustain them in standing up to the right wing of the party.


Across the Great Divide

Prospects for party pragmatists would look a lot brighter if impeachment had been an exceptional, one-shot event. But it wasn't. It is not simply that the ideologically driven social conservatives who still dominate the party and much of the congressional leadership would rather be righteous than be a majority. Many do not yet truly realize that such a trade-off is unavoidable. Although moderates can still win nomination in some districts, mostly in the Northeast, conservative control of the national party weighs on them like a millstone. Ever since Gingrich's Contract with America, the Repub licans have succeeded in nationalizing party politics. But of course this success becomes a real liability for moderate Republicans in swing districts, since it makes it easy for Democrats to declare that a vote for a Nancy Johnson is a vote for Dick Armey and for Tom DeLay as the congressional leadership.

If party moderates had stood back from the drive to impeach the President, their new call to do away with the party's divisive and abrasive image might have rung true. But in voting to impeach the President the moderates effectively impeached their own credibility as an independent voice within the Republican Party.

In the final analysis, the future of moderate Republicanism does not rest with votes taken to impeach Bill Clinton or with any of the other personalities involved. The seeming decline of the moderates and the national Republican Party's tarnished image in many sections of the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast are rooted in two deep-seated developments in our recent national politics. The first of these is the increasing ideological polarization of the two political parties—the degree to which conservative has become increasingly synonymous with Republican, and liberal with Democrat. The nationalization of congressional politics—with which Newt Gingrich has been so closely associated—has played a critical role. But it is part of a broader wave of ideological polarization, at least on the Republican side.

The second cause reflects deep cleavages in American society over the last quarter century. Soon after Richard Nixon won the White House in 1968, a young aide named Patrick J. Buchanan penned the president a memo in which he elaborated on the benefits of what he called "positive polarization." If "we can cut . . . the country in half," he told the president, "my view is that we would have far the larger half." Many have rightly questioned the civic ethics of the strategy Buchanan was proposing. As a matter of political insight and strategy, however, it was brilliant. In the intervening years, Republicans found numerous ways to pursue Buchanan's advice and numerous means of exploiting America's social and cultural divisions. Yet somehow over the last generation, in the inchoate alchemy of social and cultural change, the Republican part became the smaller. Republicans still have more than enough examples to which they can point to demonstrate their contention that they are the new majority party: for example, majorities in the House and the Senate and a decisive lead in governorships. But while many Americans like fiscal and regulatory moderation, far fewer constituents than the right imagines favor the social intolerance at the core of the Repub lican Party. Given the current political landscape, these deeper cultural trends are eluding the GOP—and its moderates have no real home there anymore.

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