The Steady Demise of Republican Moderates

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The Steady Demise of Republican Moderates

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.