GOP Needs Moderates, but Does it Want Them?

Washington Matters

GOP Needs Moderates, but Does it Want Them?

Republicans -- at least those whose job is to get Republicans elected -- know they need moderates. Before Sen. Arlen Specter bolted the party, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, was working mightily to help Specter stave off primary challenger Pat Toomey, who is far closer to Cornyn ideologically than Specter is. And he did so largely because Cornyn knew Specter was a far better bet to keep the seat than a conservative.

But if Republicans want moderates to run for seats in swing states they can't make their lives miserable when they actually win. We don't know why former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge turned down Republicans leaders, who were virtually begging him to run against Specter, but we can be pretty sure that the prospect of having to fight off both his own party and the Democrats didn't add to the allure of the job.

The same concern has to be giving pause to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who is widely expected to announce soon that he'll run for the state's open Senate seat next year. That should be good news for Republicans since Crist is one of the most popular Republicans in Florida. But if conservatives went ballistic over Specter and appeared ready to take his seat from him because he voted for the stimulus package -- after negotiating down the size by $100 billion -- how are they going to react to Crist? Crist didn't just support the measure but he actually appeared with President Obama to sell the bill to Floridians, and that was weeks before the cheaper compromise was reached.

In New Jersey, Democrats certainly understand the threat posed by moderates in the other party. Backers of Democratic Gov. John Corzine, whose popularity in the state ranks slightly better than that of Bernie Madoff, are trying to find ways to help a conservative Republican defeat the centrist in the race.

This love'em-hate 'em approach to moderates is nothing new to Republicans. Even former House GOP leader Tom DeLay, then the titular head of the social conservative movement, worked to get moderate Republican candidates elected, even if it meant doing so way out of view so opponents couldn't paint such a moderate as a DeLay disciple. But unlike Democrats, who grumble plenty about party apostates but generally tolerate them and certainly don't undermine them politically, Republicans treated moderate lawmakers like the enemy when they dared vote -- well moderately. GOP leaders wouldn't just lick their wounds and struggle on, they would punish such members or find ways to undermine legislation important to them.

That tactic of electing moderates but then trying to ignore them worked for a while when the GOP was in the majority. In fact, it helped keep them in the majority. But as the party grew more conservative, voters began turning moderates out of office. Those are going to be tough seats to get back, but probably essential if the party wants to become competitive again.

Clearly, Republicans understand the party needs to change. Some of its leading lights are touring the country to discuss key issues -- health care and energy, for example -- and to try to persuade Americans that the party has actual solutions to problems. But Atlantic Monthly blogger Marc Ambinder, who attended one of the first sessions, found an uncertain party trying to embrace change while rejecting most ideas that amounted to change. One person at the meeting told Ambinder he came looking for "new messages. New traditional conservative messages." "That's a bit of an oxymoron, but in a nutshell, it's exactly what the GOP is looking for: a new take on an old recipe," Ambinder says.

Politics is, ultimately, about power. Power is usually derived -- at least in a democracy -- from coalitions. Groups with similar, but far from identical, interests join together so they have the power to enact their ideas. Republicans understand the political laws of physics behind coalition politics -- they just don't want to live under those laws. As one internal party critic put it recently, you can't have a center-right coalition with out a center.