Political Animal


May 09, 2012 12:20 PM The Slow But Very Steady Demise of Republican Moderates

By Ed Kilgore

On the eve of Richard Lugar’s landslide loss in an Indiana Senate primary, Nate Silver published an analysis of the recent turnover in Senate Republican ranks sorted by their relative ideology. The word “relative” needs to be stressed; using DW-Nominate ratings, Nate splits the GOP Senate Caucus as it existed after the 2004 elections and assigns half of it the “moderate” label. That’s how you get Rick Santorum listed as a “moderate.”

In any event, while Nate’s major point is that “moderates” have succumbed since 2004 in much larger numbers than “conservatives,” the thing that jumps off the charts is how few of the “moderates” actually were “purged” in primaries. Yes, there was the famous duo of 2010 (Bennett and Murkowski), to which you could add Arlen Specter, who switched parties in the face of a certain primary defeat, and perhaps Kay Bailey Hutchison, who was humiliated in a 2010 gubernatorial challenge to Rick Perry and then promptly announced her retirement. But the vast majority of the Republican moderates leaving the Senate since 2004 either retired or were defeated in general elections.

It is striking if not surprising that not a single one of the 11 “conservatives” who’ve left the Senate since 2004 lost a primary, and only two (John Sununu and George Allen) lost general elections. The steady drift to the Right in the GOP Senate Caucus is more a matter of generational replacement than of “purges,” supplemented by the concentration of “conservatives” in states relatively invulnerable to general election swings.

If you want to understand fully how long this “drift” has been going on, you could check out a piece I wrote way back in 2001 (when Jim Jeffords’ defection from the Caucus cost Republicans control of the Senate) looking at the composition of the Senate Republican Caucus 25 years earlier, in 1976, when nearly half were genuinely “moderates” or even “liberals” (Javits, Case, Brooke, Weicker, Schweiker, Mathias and Percy) by then-prevailing standards, and the chamber itself was presided over by vice-president Nelson Rockefeller, the very bete noire of movement conservatives.

I mention this primarily because some political observers still seem to think the current ideological rigidity of the Republican Party is a sudden phenomenon created by the startling appearance of a Tea Party Movement in 2009. The often-unstated premise is that the GOP can be returned to its senses by a healthy general election defeat or two—or perhaps a win if it forces Republicans to come to grips with the responsibilities of governing.

Sorry, but I see no reason to think any sort of “course correction” is inevitable. The latest ideological lurch of the Republican Party came after two consecutive cycles in which the party was beaten like a drum. But it also drifted to the right during every recent Republican presidency; there’s a reason that GOPers were muttering about the “betrayals of conservative principle” their chieftains were exhibiting during W.’s, second term, his father’s one term, and yes, even Ronald Reagan’s second term. Like the tax cuts for the wealthy that are their all-purpose economic policy proposal, a shift to the right has become the all-purpose response to any political development over more than three decades. The Tea Party Movement is simply the latest incarnation of the conservative movement, which has been thundering against RINOs all the way back to the days when they actually existed.

There’s nothing new here, folks. There may be limits to how far the ideological bender of the GOP can be taken, but the idea that it will end next year or the year after is completely without empirical foundation.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • stormskies on May 09, 2012 12:36 PM:

    I think we need to start calling the Repiglican party something else because whoever these people are are not what Repiglicans have been. These current creeps are much more along the lines of the John Birch Society, and the psychological types this correlates too: a reality based on total delusions and illusions that has zero to do with actual reality, and then trying to force everyone else to 'believe' in their delusions to the point of passing all kinds of laws to make people be and do what they want them to be and do.

    These people are much more aligned with the 'brown shirts' of Hitler's Germany for example.

  • T2 on May 09, 2012 12:46 PM:

    the off-the-wall crazy of the current group of "Republicans" ( because I don't really consider them Republicans, rather some new breed) have come up since Obama was elected. Yes, arch-conservatives, NeoCons and Big Corporate Interest Groups populated the horrid Bush years, but the fully insane type that we see now is a recent thing...tipped over the edge by a black president. It's plain to me it is a race thing, primarily. I mean, the damn Deficit didn't matter at all when Bush was president, did it. The Debt Limit was effortlessly raised...and on and on. Black guy comes in, GOP goes berserk.

  • Dale on May 09, 2012 12:57 PM:

    Look back even further--to the candidacy of Barry Goldwater (who would be a moderate if he were around today).

  • boatboy_srq on May 09, 2012 12:58 PM:

    Nate splits the GOP Senate Caucus as it existed after the 2004 elections and assigns half of it the “moderate” label. That’s how you get Rick Santorum listed as a “moderate.”

    That's Silver's first, and biggest, mistake.

    "Left" and "Right" aren't defined by the center. There are specific policy items that define those positions. Comparative placement on the scale is reasonable ("more conservative than...") but the positions themselves are fairly well-defined, and not malleable to the context of the moment.

    The GOP hasn't been "moderate" since Gingrich's Contract On - er, With - America. The doctrinaire demands of the Teabaggers has only accelerated the process. Anyone who's followed GOP politics for the last 20-odd years should know this. Mainers didn't elect Snowe, for example, for her common-sense, but for her (then) comparative conservatism; it's a testament to how far the GOP has swung to the right that she's gone from middle-of-pack conservative to the least conservatist GOP Senator in that timespan.

    There's little chance of "course correction" here. But there is chance of either schism or implosion, as the GOP veers ever Rightward and p####s off more and more constituencies. Sooner or later it will either cease to exist - or be more easily identified by another, less savory, three-letter acronym.

  • Peter C on May 09, 2012 1:07 PM:

    We use this to our advantage by asking Republicans to comment on the pronouncements of their fellow party members. Make them all own the entirety of the Republicans Brand or condemn bits of it and face a backlash in primairies.

    The Republican Brand is increasingly distasteful, increasingly sanctimonious, increasingly callous, increasingly bigoted. They tried 'being all maverick-y' in 2008, but now they are eating their own and their public face is not the party maverick, but the party core. They need to either fight with themselves or be the brand, and I think none are really courageous enough to fight their core.

    So, we fight the whole distasteful, sanctimonious, callous, and bigoted brand and make them circle the drain together.

  • c u n d gulag on May 09, 2012 1:10 PM:

    Goldwater's candidacy started the Conservatives looking at getting in politics from the bottom-up. And so they started running for local elections, and moved up from there to district and state offices.

    Reagan included the Religious Right, with their Manichean world view (good v. evil, right v. wrong, us v. them), and we were off the intolerance races.

    In Manichean world views, there are only black and white - no shades of gray.

    And that's where we're at today - with no end in sight.

    We either destroy the current R party, or, if we lose, we will be, "The Domionist Christian Corporate (read - Fascist) States of America."

    And we won't be able to do what we're doing now, since that will be both sacreligious and traiterous.

    And I'll "see you in the Gulag."

  • gdb on May 09, 2012 1:13 PM:

    The further-and-further right move of the Repubs has been going on so long-- and has been so successful-that A single defeat is NOT going to bring about change in Repubs. The repubs have also been successful in moving Dems further and further to the right. In fact,neither BHO-- nor most any Democrat in a leadership position (e.g. Reed, most Senators, Pelosi is a partial exception) is making the case at all strongly or effectively for Liberal values or Keynesian economic policies.

    In brief, there IS no effective counter being made to far ideological positions. Until that happens, Progressives can only "suck it up". In real-world terms, it is not clear to me whether that day comes quicker-or at all-- for the US if BHO wins in November. A BHO loss (almost certainly due to a US economic crisis event between now and November) combined with Republican control of House and Senate would sure concentrate a lot of Dem minds into considering what ineffective/
    unnecessarily conservative economic and political positions they have been supporting for over a decade. A BHO win may put that off that day for a generation.

  • Itinerant Pedant on May 09, 2012 1:20 PM:

    Ed, you just put into words what I've been groping (mentally) towards for some time. These "tea party" candidates are nothing new. I look at them and I see the same college-Republican, frat-boy pricks I've been seeing ever since I went to college in the 80s. They're not going to go away anytime soon.

    At all, really. The entire movement is best described as frat-boy behavior with better suits and bigger budgets. Not going away.

  • Dave H on May 09, 2012 1:32 PM:

    "Slow and steady"? Dude, name three moderate GOP Congressmen or Senators.

  • Anonymous on May 09, 2012 1:47 PM:

    "Yes, arch-conservatives, NeoCons and Big Corporate Interest Groups populated the horrid Bush years, but the fully insane type that we see now is a recent thing...tipped over the edge by a black president. It's plain to me it is a race thing, primarily. I mean, the damn Deficit didn't matter at all when Bush was president, did it. The Debt Limit was effortlessly raised...and on and on. Black guy comes in, GOP goes berserk."

    sorry but your analysis doesn't work. the first three members of the house lunatic caucus to pop into my head, in order:

    louie gohmert: elected 2005.
    michelle bachmann: elected 2007.
    virginia foxx: elected 2005.

    the fourth name, and by far the craziest member of congress hands down is allen west, himself, black.

  • TCinLA on May 09, 2012 2:00 PM:

    Lately, I have been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, "No Ordinary Time" about Franklin D. Roosevelt's running of the country and the war. What I find remarkable in the reading is the fact that the Republicans of that era sound very much like those of today, in their reflexive opposition to damn near everything Roosevelt was doing; coupled with their ideological soul brothers of the Southern Democrats, they were able to defeat many things the President proposed. The Republican Right has always been the way they are, and I think one can make the case that "Republican liberals" have always been an endangered species most notable for their mere existence. The Republican Party today has only made more obvious what has existed all along.

  • Anonymous on May 09, 2012 2:04 PM:

    stormskies and Itinerant Pedant: John Birch Society and former Young Republican pricks. Yup, and I've said it before myself. It's the modern TeaParty/Repub coalition. Half still fighting hippies, half still fighting commies, blacks, and gays.

    Why now? To grossly oversimplify, reactionary movement against what's happening socially (gay and women's rights, and an n...... in the White House). Plus big bucks supporting them from corporations and rich guys. Not too complicated really.

  • emjayay on May 09, 2012 2:09 PM:

    Oooops, Anonymous right above was me. And I see another Anonymous farther up mentioned the black guy in the White House thing. Someday maybe I'll have something original to add......

  • esaud on May 09, 2012 2:43 PM:

    One of the biggest reasons the republican Party has drifted so far to the right is that the media has endless tolerance of any horrible associations the party makes.

    Barry Goldwater was the last conservative to put distance between himself and the nutters like the John Birchers or right wing religious figures. He new they were intolerant and unyielding.

    Even though Nixon wasn't all that conservative, he was the one who crossed the line of decency. His "southeern strategy" was deeply immoral, but no one in the media cared.

    And now we have a ridiculous double standard where Romney can seek endorsements from feral pigs like Ted Nugent (really, it ought to be political suicide to go anywhere near him), but Democrats are called out for pointing out that Ann Romney never had a job.

    I really see no end game here. There is no limit to how horrible the GPO can become. It's really scary.

  • INTJ on May 09, 2012 3:06 PM:

    If we accept it as true that the disappearance of the RINO's signals a rightward movement of the Republicans, the disappearance of the Blue Dogs (often referred to as "traitors" by progressives, especially those who voted against the ACA) must therefore signal a leftward movement of the Democrats, but, strangely, we never hear that correlary. Just 2 years ago, there were 54 Blue Dogs in the House. There are now just 24. Five of them are not seeking reelection, and another six are said to have tough challenges ahead. Complain all you want about Republicans, but they are only half of the story.

  • dianne on May 09, 2012 5:10 PM:

    We should indeed be asking the Repubs to own every crazy pronouncement they and their cohorts make - but we are just commenters on a blog. The media has to be the ones asking and they don't. When a preacher calls out Romney saying he can't even be trusted to stay steady when a "yokel" like him applies a little pressure then what will he do when China does likewise and not one single word (that I have heard) is mentioned in the media about that mind boggling comment then we have no hope of anyone in the media calling out any of them.

  • delmar Jackson on May 10, 2012 11:21 AM:

    For decades, Most of the USA in every poll claims they want less immigration and our laws enforced.
    However, If a GOP official is pro immigration, the media claims he is a moderate.
    Lugar had one of the worst immigration voting records in washington, in fact, of the GOP, he had the worst as defined by Numbersusa.
    Lugar kept his foot on the neck of the working poor here now for decades as he helped flood the USA with massive immigration decade after decade.
    My God, we will miss such a moderate friend to the working class American.

  • manapp99 on May 10, 2012 11:31 AM:

    "The latest ideological lurch of the Republican Party came after two consecutive cycles in which the party was beaten like a drum."

    So the GOP was beaten like a drum until they embraced TEA party ideals. Then they beat the Democrats like a drum. Sounds like the American voters agree with the ideological lurch. Decades of "moderates" compromising on important issues like entitlement spending is what got us into this fiscal mess. Why would we want more moderates? To go back to the failed policies they brought us?

  • PatrickHenry on May 10, 2012 1:52 PM:

    Where or where have all the Blue Dog Demoncrats gone? All that's left in the Demoncrat party are the socialist brown shirts.

  • The Obnoxious American on May 10, 2012 2:58 PM:

    It's really funny to read idiotic articles like this that continue to claim that the GOP is somehow radical and have moved farther to the right, always written by the most extreme and partisan liberals.

    Meanwhile, our 2008 presidential candidate was the single most moderate Republican John McCain, and this time around it's former blue state governor, and creator of Obamacare's predecessor, Mitt Romney. Ronald Reagan, who was a Republican and elected president over 30 years ago, remains a Republican hero, and a conservative ideal. Yet it's hard to imagine JFK ever running as a Democrat in today's political scene considering JFK's positions of lower taxes and strong national defense. And of course, moderate Joe Lieberman, former Dem VP candidate, had to independent, because he wasn't liberal enough.

    Keep talking about how "radical" this "crazy group of Republicans are." Then read up on the term projection.

  • Pa Deuce on May 10, 2012 8:38 PM:

    [your original hyperbolic comment was deleted not in least part because the Progressive wing of the democratic party aren't marxists. they are in fact capitalists. they do not believe in a command economy, they do believe in private property, and they don't believe in banning guns among other things. your agitprop is better suited to another site where the readership indulges in these fantasies - mod.]