The Moderates' Last Refuge: Deny the Damage

by Neil H. Buchanan

In my Verdict column last week and in two follow-up Dorf on Law posts (here and here), I have again discussed the puzzling phenomenon of the moderate 21st-century Republican.  Pundits tell us that such beings exist.  I have friends, colleagues, and family members who claim to be examples of that species.  Yet, based on anything that I can imagine constituting a worldview that counts as politically moderate, the Republican Party in its current form offers moderates nothing to cling to, whereas the Democrats are quite obviously their natural home.

In my recent writings, I have considered a number of possibilities.  Maybe Republican moderates do not really exist, but some people falsely claim to be moderates, for self-esteem purposes.  Maybe political affiliation is such a major part of how a person sees his place in the world that many people are simply incapable of considering going over to the other side.  (Admittedly, this is difficult for me to understand on a personal level.  Not only did I switch from being a Republican to a Democrat in my teen years, but I switched from being an Ohio State fan to a Michigan fan in my twenties.  Talk about breaking deeply felt ties!)  In yesterday's post, I suggested that it is not just a matter of loyalty to a label, but that moderate Republicans are manipulated by their party's attack machine to view Democrats as not merely "the guys that I'm against" but as the very definition of evil, making defection unthinkable.

Any discussion of these topics is made especially difficult by the sloppiness with which political pundits slap the label "moderate" on nearly anyone.  In the 1990's, Dick Cheney was labeled a moderate by many pundits, apparently because he had not yet developed his scowl.  That notion, in which moderation essentially means not screaming or snarling, is still a staple of political commentary.  For example, in one of his desultory politics-as-horse-race columns on which The New York Times wastes far too much space, the reporter Nate Cohn recently wrote that Marco Rubio could defeat Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, even after losing early primaries and caucuses, because "there would still be plenty of room for a candidate who could appeal to the supporters who remain: the party’s mainstream conservative and moderate voters and elites."

Whatever one might say about the possible existence of moderate Republican voters, the notion of moderate Republican elites is risible.  Even so, as I mentioned in yesterday's post, even some true conservatives should now be seriously considering whether they can stomach the party anymore, especially if Trump or Cruz is the nominee.  At various times (e.g., here), I have mentioned conservative writer David Frum, who has publicly broken with the movement conservatives who took over his party.  Nothing that Frum has written before or since the split, however, leaves any doubt that he holds very conservative views.  Maybe there are others like Frum, in the conservative punditocracy or even among Republican officeholders, who are only moments away from bolting from the party.  Perhaps.

There is, however, one other argument that I have come across, offered by a scholar who identifies herself as a moderate Republican, but who has no intention of leaving her party.  Her basic argument goes like this: The people who have taken over the Republican Party since 1980 are buffoons with nothing good to offer the country or the world, but they do not truly represent the party.  These pretenders, especially in their recent, highly virulent form as extreme religious and nativist reactionaries, will soon run out of steam and be replaced by reasonable moderates with liberal-ish social attitudes and pro-business conservative economic views.  In other words, Republicans will soon return to being like the George Bush who ran in the 1980 primaries against Ronald Reagan.

Why, one might ask, has the influence of the supposedly illegitimate radicals not already run its course?  Here is where the story becomes fascinating.  Supposedly, it was actually those liberal-activist judges who enabled social conservative extremism, by taking culture war issues out of the ballot box.  If, the theory continues, the moderates in the Republican Party knew that their voices and efforts were needed actually to defeat extremely conservative social policies in real elections, then the battle would be joined.  But because the courts have illegitimately taken control of social policy, social conservatives are enraged and have taken over the Republican Party.  Meanwhile, moderates in the party sit on their hands, comfortable in the knowledge that the extreme conservatives will continue to be thwarted by those judges -- whose usurpation of political decision-making is the original sin, in the eyes of the moderates, but who can now be expected to follow through on their activism.

Of course, one might reasonably ask why a Republican moderate who is truly pro-choice (to say nothing of those who are at least pro-birth control) has not noticed that the marauders who have taken control of their party have been doing everything possible to appoint judges who will endorse the culture warriors' views.  What happens when that work is completed?  Apparently, that is when the sleeping moderate giant will wake up and prevent the state legislatures and Congress from passing those bad laws in the first place, proving that we never should have needed courts to prevent extreme outcomes.

It is neat theory, in its way.  Among its many flaws, however, is how much resemblance it bears to what economists call long-run equilibrium, in which the only thing that matters is that the balance of interests reaches a stable conclusion in the end.  And the proper retort to this political version of "it will all turn out OK in the long run" is the same as Keynes's comment about the economic version of the theory: "In the long run, we are all dead."

In fact, the Keynes quote is even more apt in this context, because the range of short- and medium-run damage that is being done in the political realm even more obviously involves life-and-death matters.  Keynes, after all, could be interpreted as saying essentially, "Well, I don't want to wait that long."  I think he also was saying that the economic damage from doing nothing in response to depressions was very much about life and death, but in any event that further implication is unavoidable in the context of assessing what happens while we wait (and wait and wait) for the Republican experiment with extremism to flame out.

Even now, when Roe and Casey have not yet been overturned, consider what is happening in terms of reproductive rights.  While we wait to see whether the Supreme Court will strike down Texas's law that effectively shut down the vast majority of clinics in the state that were still willing to provide abortions, millions of women are being prevented from exercising what are still constitutionally protected rights.  States have passed 288 restrictions on abortion since 2011.  Real consequences are happening while we wait for the long run to arrive.

Meanwhile, the same extremists are moving on other fronts, and succeeding.  Funding for all manner of social welfare programs, from Head Start to infant nutrition programs, has been cut.  Voting rights are being curtailed.  The "moderate" Republican presidential candidate Marc Rubio is talking about ripping up the Iran nuclear agreement.  He and his brethren (and Carly Fiorina) are all talking about starting new wars in the Middle East.  These, and nearly every actual policy that the Republican Party now stands for, are supposedly anathema to my moderate Republican colleague and those of like minds.  Yet we are apparently not supposed to worry about the damage that is being done in the meantime, because it will all work out in the end.

Finally, consider the ultimate issue that matters in the long run.  The immoderate politicians who run the Republican Party are in full agreement that we should do nothing about climate change.  Many, of course, deny that it exists at all, or if it does, that humans are causing it.  While we wait for the moderate Republicans to mop up after the supposedly inevitable demise of their party's pretenders, the world's prospects for the long run are looking worse and worse.

In the end, I simply return to the question that I have been asking for years: What would it take?  I certainly understand all of the reasons that people offer for hesitating about changing their political views and assumptions, but it was obvious long before now that this is no mere phase in Republican politics.  Or if it is, the end of the long political tantrum is still nowhere in sight, and far too much of the damage is irreversible.