No label in politics suffers from greater misunderstanding and abuse than does "moderate."
To ideological true believers "moderates" are untrustworthy people without firm principles. To demagogues like Rush Limbaugh moderates are gutless wonders who by his reckoning "can't be brave" because they "don't have opinions." Even to their admirers, moderates are a distinctly colorless lot who lack the fiery resolve of Ronald Reagan's conservative revolutionaries "raising a banner of no pale pastels but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand."
Once upon a time I counted myself among these "Moderate Republicans" whose political obituary Geoffrey Kabaservice has now written in his wonderfully informative and provocative new book.
In Rule and Ruin, the Yale professor of history describes what his book's subtitle calls: "The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party from Eisenhower to the Tea Party."
In particular, Kabaservice delivers a eulogy to that once formidable but now extinct species of political creature whose ranks included such Republican luminaries as Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, Dwight Eisenhower, William Scranton, George Romney, Nelson Rockefeller and the whole of the WASP East Coast Establishment.
For more than half a century, says Kabaservice, Republican moderates like these "battled to the death against segregationists, Birchers, Rat Fink neo-fascists in the Young Republican National Federation, and purge-minded exclusionists in the Club for Growth."
The goal of these right wing factions was to transform the GOP "into an organ of conservative ideology and purge it of all who resisted that true faith," says Kabaservice, noting that moderate Republicans were the primary "enemies and targets of conservatives" while Democratic liberals were mostly "a secondary consideration" for right wing true believers.
While Republican moderates have long been consigned to history's downward trajectory, it's only been in the last decade or so that movement conservatives succeeded in "silencing, co-opting, repelling or expelling nearly every competing strain of Republicanism" so that the phrases "liberal Republican" and "moderate Republican" are practically "oxymorons," writes Kabaservice.
A uniformly ideological party like today's GOP is "unprecedented," says Kabaservice, since a party consisting almost entirely of a single belief system "is unlike any that has ever existed in American history."
And since the modern Republican Party is historically sui generis, Kabaservice says it is not surprising that the contemporary GOP is also antagonistic to its own history and heritage. That was made abundantly clear when conservatives actually attacked Teddy Roosevelt's legacy after President Obama paid homage to the "Rough Rider" in a speech last December on the same Osawatomie, Kansas spot where TR declared his own progressive "New Nationalism" platform.
The problem for moderates begins with the fact that few people understand just what it is exactly that makes a moderate, moderate.
To most people, "moderation" is vaguely perceived as a belief in a set of political convictions and policy prescriptions that reside somewhere equidistant between the extremes of far right and far left. Moderates, in short, are passive and reactive people who take their political bearings from what other people believe.
But this is wrong. What separates moderates from extremists isn't ideas and beliefs. It's commitments and responsibilities.
It's true that right wing extremists want to eliminate all taxes on the rich, destroy unions, bomb Iran, eliminate regulations against air pollution and for workplace safety, make it harder for minorities and students to vote and give Catholic bishops control over women's sex lives. But these ideas are not what make someone an extremist. What really defines extremists as extremists is their commitment to the advancement, and ultimate supremacy, of just one particular economic, racial, religious or other subgroup over all other groups within society.
The Tea Party is a perfect example. The Tea Party pretends to be a movement concerned about subjects of general interest, such as federal deficits and government spending. But it's real purpose is to advocate on behalf of the social prerogatives and government programs that benefit the Tea Party's overwhelmingly older, white, evangelical Christian -- and mostly male -- membership.
What sets moderates apart from these extremists, on the other hand, is the moderate's commitment to the health, prosperity and stability of the society as a whole, in what the moderate perceives to be his or her responsibility as custodian of that going concern called the American Republic.
It's a custody that moderates within the Republican and Democratic parties share equally, which explains why moderates from both parties have always been able to work productively together in the past, despite their disagreements over specific issues, and why extremists make a virtue of refusing to compromise - on anything. This explains why moderates in both parties prize civility and bi-partisanship, while hypocrisy is endemic to right wing politics. This also explains why Republican and Democratic moderates have been able to work together in the past to find solutions to the nation's problems while extremists happily abandon even their own long-held policy positions once they are embraced by "enemies" on the other side.
On specific issues, Republican moderates might agree with Tea Party radicals that budget deficits are unsustainable and so in the national interest need to be reined in with spending cuts. But unlike Tea Party radicals, Republican moderates did not become promiscuous "fiscal conservatives" only after a liberal black Democrat was elected president -- and after standing idle and mute for eight long years while their own Republican Party cut taxes, launched needless wars and doubled the national debt.
Unlike right wing Republicans, in other words, Moderate Republicans do not agree with Dick Cheney that deficits don't matter just so long as they are Republican deficits that benefit other Republicans.
David Stockman was one of the first of many fiscally conservative Republican Moderates who got "taken to the woodshed" when he challenged Republican orthodoxies that benefited certain favored Republican constituencies but also caused federal deficits to explode when supply-side tax cuts for the wealthy failed to pay for themselves as promised.
Stockman is a fiscal conservative who believes in God, Country and Balanced Budgets -- in that order. And when America's public debt was recently projected to reach $18 trillion, Stockman found it "unseemly" that Republicans like Mitch McConnell would make such a stink about sparing the wealthiest Americans even a modest 3% tax hike, if raising their taxes might help stabilize the nation's finances.
Like a lot of moderates who believe in country before party, Stockman points the finger of blame squarely at his own party: "This debt explosion has resulted not from big spending by the Democrats, but instead the Republican Party's embrace, about three decades ago, of the insidious doctrine that deficits don't matter if they result from tax cuts."
If moderate Republicans are fiscal conservatives for the best of intentions they also tend to be social liberals for the very same reason - that in a complex, multi-cultural society like ours the accommodation of differences should count among the cardinal conservative virtues that help keep a diverse nation thriving and intact.
Moderates were among the strongest advocates of good government, says Kabaservice, for while they might be skeptical about centralization and bureaucratization in general, moderates did not pretend to hate government the way conservatives do.
Interested in making government effective and efficient, moderates did not use fiscal policy the way Grover Norquist and his right wing affiliates do -- to destroy government by cutting the taxes that make government possible in the first place. And because moderates "believed in disinterested consideration of the issues," they were able to work with Democrats to solve problems while also maintaining "a level of balance and civility in politics that has long since vanished," Kabaservice writes.
So long as moderates prevailed in both major parties, American politics exhibited two distinct phases - a campaigning phase as the parties vied for power, and a governing phase as the winning party took charge of the levers of power.
However, especially during the past 30 years since Ronald Reagan's victory empowered right wing radicalism, the campaign phase of American politics never comes to an end. That was never more true than after the 2008 election when a vanquished GOP did not retreat to lick its wounds and rethink its strategy for the next election but instead staged angry nationwide protests, called Tea Party rallies, against the verdict our political system had rendered.
If there is a structural weakness or (let us not be afraid to call it by its proper name) a naïvete in political moderation it's the misplaced, and too idealistic, hope that individuals can rise above self-interest and sacrifice for the common good. But as the fate of moderates within the Republican Party has shown, appeals to abstractions like "the Nation" or "Democracy" or "the Common Good" are no match for the instinctual blandishments right wing leaders are able to make to people's racial, religious and "tribal" identities.
The Founding Fathers were instinctive moderates given their preoccupation with "breaking and controlling the violence of faction" -- which only makes it doubly ironic, as well as comic and tragic, that the Tea Party has adopted the Founders and all their works as symbols of their own assault on America's political traditions.
To judge by the fractured American history the Tea Party gets from unlettered tutors like Glenn Beck, one suspects Tea Party followers are less obsessed with the Founding Fathers for their actual ideas as they are by the self-flattering opportunities a study of them provides to bask vicariously in the reflected glow of the Founder's fame and glory.
Conservatives have always been much better at winning elections than either governing or making policy because these are entirely different disciplines. Governing requires patience and prudence and puts a premium on experience and expertise while campaigning pays dividends to those who are skilled at identifying enemies, distilling issues into simplistic slogans or engaging in scorched earth, divide and conquer tactics that can ultimately prove self-defeating if ones objective is to lead a nation instead of merely pitting one faction against all others.
While Fox News would have us believe that the present dysfunction in American politics is due in equal measure to extremists on both left and right, Kabaservice insists the leading suspect of our present dysfunction "is the transformation of the Republican Party over the past half century into a monolithically conservative organization."
Comparing American politics to an ecosystem, Kabaservice says the disappearance of moderate Republicans as an influential voice in American politics "represents a catastrophic loss of species diversity."
This should concern all of us, he says, since a nation as large and complex as the United States "requires both Republicans and Democrats to be serious and responsible governing parties."
If moderation remains long absent from one party "the consequences are likely to be dire, says Kabaservice, since one of the likeliest ways America might in fact be destroyed "would be if one of its two major parties were rendered dysfunctional."
And yet, says Kabaservice, "this seemed to be the direction in which the GOP was heading as the 2012 election approached."