Ted Frier

Ted Frier
April 02
Ted Frier is an author and former political reporter turned speechwriter who at one time served as communications director for the Massachusetts Republican Party, helping Bill Weld become the first Bay State Republican in a generation to be elected Governor. He was Chief Speechwriter for Republican Governor Paul Cellucci and Lt. Governor Jane Swift. Ted is also the author of the hardly-read 1992 history "Time for a Change: The Return of the Republican Party in Massachusetts." So, why the current hostility to the Republican Party and what passes for conservatism today? The Republican Party was once a national governing party that looked out for the interests of the nation as a whole. Now it is the wholly-owned subsidiary of self interest. Conservatism once sought national unity to promote social peace and harmony. Now conservatism has devolved into a right wing mutation that uses divide and conquer tactics to promote the solidarity of certain social sub-groups united against the larger society while preserving the privileges of a few.


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FEBRUARY 21, 2012 2:23PM

Republicans (and we) face "Rule and Ruin" without moderates

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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."

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It baffles me why people are so outraged with Pres. Obama because of his continuous attempts to reach compromise. He ran on that. It was very clear that he was going to do that. I have been angry and disappointed with it myself, but I am not surprised given the conditions and the fact that he is a moderate Democrat, so I don't feel "betrayed".
The difference between the Republican party of today and the party of twenty or thirty years ago is quite striking. Today's Republican party is often described as "all fringe and no center." Oregon, my home state, is typically considered to be a "liberal" state, but not too many years ago liberal Democrats often voted for moderate Republicans. Sometimes it seems like half the buildings in Oregon are named after Mark Hatfield, a Republican senator, and Tom McCall, a Republican governor, was a widely respected environmentalist.

Cut to today, and everything is different. Moderate Republicans no longer exist. The same Democrats who used to vote for moderate Republican candidates now tend to see the Republican party as a kind of disease. Today's Republican candidates don't represent anything but a very narrow ideology, and they have absolutely nothing useful to say about most of the important problems facing the state.

Today's Republicans cannot govern the state, because they hate the very thing they are supposed to govern -- namely, the government. Here's an interesting example:

Several years ago the local community college swimming pool needed some major repair work. The pool was used for college swim competitions, and physical education classes. It was also used in the summer by thousands of kids. One of the members of the community college board, a Republican Newt Gingrich disciple, had an interesting solution for the pool. His idea was to fill it in with dirt. Yes, not fix it, but fill it with dirt.

Forget swim meets. Forget PE classes. Forget kids using the pool in the summer. Fill the pool with dirt. This is how modern Republicans think about the government and public services.

I admire the President's attempts to reach across the aisle and do what he can to to change the polarity in Washington. Like many, my only frustration was that it took him a long time to realize he did not have a negotiating partner on the other side that was interesting in bargaining in good faith on anything.


Sounds like Oregon is a lot like Massachusetts, a blue state that will elect Republicans or Democrats it considers to be reasonable and more concerned with getting things done than scoring political points. That was my experience working with Republican Governors Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci and the heavily Democratic legislature. For much of the 16 straight years the GOP controlled "the corner office" there was a pretty good working relationship between the two parties. Thankfully, the more radical Tea Party mentality has not overtaken the Mass GOP, but I wouldn't be surprised if it did since the party has always been pretty weak and so always a candidate for takeover by more committed elements.
Thank you for this insightful post. I consider myself a moderate, but because I'm an educator in WI who is battling to defeat an extremist, Gov. Scott Walker, I'm labeled a crazy liberal.

I recently wrote a post about my moderate Republican grandfather whose story makes today's Republican leaders look like a bunch of lunatics. I don't know if it's possible to post a link since I'm new to Open Salon, but the title is "My Grandpa's Republican Party is Dead and Gone."

Again, thank you.

I found it and very nice post. I responded in more detail at your site, but we can't say it enough how today's GOP differs markedly from the one our grandfathers knew.

By the way, good luck against Walker in Wisconsin. Glad to see more than a million signed the recall petitions. I had a few choice things to say about his efforts to destroy democracy on behalf of Koch Brothers Oligarchy back during the big protests last winter. The GOP's efforts to dis-establish their Democratic opposition speaks volumes about the true nature of their party.
Moderation is not a virtue of itself, however.
As I explain in my essay, "Defining a Second Progressive Movement,' liberals/moderates and Progressives differ because liberals/moderates seek social stability by balancing contending interest groups--which invariably discriminates against poor and disadvantaged people--while Progressives do all they can to make society better for as many people as possible, as much as possible, as fast as possible.

Here's the link I wanted to post:

Hi Ted,

Joel shared your post with me, and I enjoyed it as much as he did. You've articulated the value of moderate voices--a message that seems so common sense but is lost in our world of sound bites and party loyalty.

After Joel wrote about his grandfather, I wrote about mine. You might enjoy reading it: http://open.salon.com/blog/kristenraney3/2012/02/07/niels_nielsen_the_story_of_a_republican_immigrant

You'll also see a a letter I wrote to Scott Walker on the anniversary of his unveiling of the budget repair bill (if you want to check that out).

Kristen Raney

Thanks for the wonderful insights. We've both shared you on Facebook already.
Once again, you are dead on, and I have be chanting this mantra for thirty years or more. You know the history at least as well as I do, but it bears repeating.

I mark the beginning of the end of the Republican Party not to Reagan -- tho he certainly hastened the decline with his racist appeals to the basest of the base in the American electorate -- and I include most of the Reagan Democrats in that base -- I say, I mark the beginning of the end to 1948, when the Republicans began to welcome racist Dixiecrats into their Party with open arms.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the next move was to embrace the despicable Southern Strategy, authored in response to something so awful as actually allowing people of color to exercise their Constitutional rights and vote. The third strike was to invite in the Onward Christian Soldiers and Prosperity Gospel Heretics.

Having sold its soul to the worst of us, there was no place left for the rest of us -- and certainly no place for the best of us -- in the Republican Party. Thus, there was no longer any room at the in (not missp) for moderate Republicans like Chuck Hagel and Jon Huntsman, either of whom in another time might well have been worthy Republican nominees for the Presidency.

Any Party that pushes to the forefront so sorry a list as we have seen this time around -- Trump, Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Paul, Gingrich and Santorum -- would seem to be doomed for the ash-heap of history. But alas, at least 25 million and perhaps as many as 40 million voters would vote for any loser on that list before voting for a proven quantity like Obama -- and I say that while disagreeing with him vociferously on many issues. But whatever his shortcomings, he is at least sane, which is more than can be said for the others mentioned.

Romney is the only sane one left on the Republican side, and he may well be rejected not because of his waffling or his policies, but because of his religion. So much for the freedom of religion the rtwingnut loonies keep rattling on about.

As I've said many times before, the present Republican Party is nothing more than the reincarnation of the American Independent Party -- and thus, it is a national disgrace.
Thanks Hannah and Kristen, I look forward to reading your letter and essays. And Hannah, I knew that in defining moderate the way I did I ran the risk of having it be confused with stale proceduralism -- bi-partisanship or compromise for the sake of bi-partisanship or compromise -- or what Professor Theodore Lowi called "interest group liberalism" which, as you say, comes down to a bargaining process of interest groups. I hoped here to make clear that a moderate is someone whose first priority is the nation or society as a whole instead of their own narrow family clan or interest group. That, I think, makes more room for the kind of principled progressivism you may be talking about.

And Tom, thank you again for your kind words. You are absolutely right about the South. Southern conservatism is a poison that has killed every political party it has ever touched -- Whigs, Democrats and now Republicans. And the reason is that Southern conservatives will not be part of any political coalition -- or nation even -- that they do not control directly. The mentality that has recently set new records for Senate filibusters is the same one that dragged this nation to civil war 150 years ago. Southern conservatism is politically immature in that it literally cannot engage in a politics other than one of brute force or war by other means. To understand the species I highly recommend Tom DeLay's farewell address (what I like to call his parting shot) that he gave after being forced from Congress in disgrace and in which he praised the "principled partisan" while offering nothing but sneering contempt for "those preening self-styled statesmen who elevate compromise to a first principle." You mean preening statesmen like James Madison?

When Southern conservatives were Democrats and could not get their way they merely packed their bags and split -- as they did in 1861, 1948 with the Dixicrats and 1968 with Wallace and the AIM. Republicans were stupid enough to think they could absorb Southern conservatism, tame it, and put it to use for their own purposes as just one part of the GOP coalition. But within just 20 years the pig swallowed the python as Republicanism became indistinguishable from Old South conservatism -- which is why Republican leaders on cable last night were fighting with one another over who is, and who is not, a Christian.
According to my research Evangelicals were embraced by Reagan and at that point the captains of industry, people in the highest political and military ranks, and Ecumenical Fundamentalist formed their unholy alliance. The big money is supporting the cultural wars, how else can they contain us? As always the writing is top drawer, but a little long ;-) rating it.