Is There Really More to Say About the Republicans' Supposed Moderates?

by Neil H. Buchanan

Note to readers: I have lightly edited this column at approximately 9:10pm on October 24 to incorporate the news of Senator Jeff Flake's surprise announcement that he will not run for reelection next year.

America's pundit class is terrified of the idea that there are no more moderates in American politics.  More accurately, the typical pundit (from moderate left to moderate right) is concerned that there seem to be no moderate Republicans left standing.

Simply recognizing this new reality would be threatening to the typical mainstream political writer, however, because admitting what has happened would make it necessary to saying something unacceptable: the two parties are not equally wrong about everything.  Because admitting that out loud is forbidden, these arbiters of political good taste both refuse to see moderation among Democrats and imagine moderation among Republicans.

Supposedly, polarization in both parties is driving all of our problems, and if everyone could simply learn to compromise, we would all be better off.  As themes for opinion columns go, this is safer than puppies, apple pie, or baseball.

Every now and then, I cannot ignore the twaddle any longer, and I rouse myself to writing a column that says, in essence: "Is anyone actually paying attention, or are they merely saying what they think everyone else thinks everyone is supposed to be saying?"  That question, far too often, is rhetorical.

Consider the news this week that the congressional committees investigating Russian interventions in the 2016 campaign on Trump's behalf now appear unlikely to reach definitive conclusions about what happened last year.  When Republicans try to sweep things under the rug and Democrats cry foul, that is described as "partisan fighting."  If only there were moderates out there!

We are thus going through another moment in which mainstream pundits are talking about Republican "moderates" and wringing their hands that those good people are unwilling to fight Trump's extremism.  As always, the problem is that there truly are no Republican moderates remaining in office, and those who are anointed the saviors of reasonableness simply do not fit the role.

Early this year, I described this as "the moderation game."  In that column, I offered Democrats a different strategy.  Rather than saying that there is nothing particularly compelling about moderation -- If you believe in something, say so! -- I concluded that Democrats should instead say: "You know what?  Moderation is good.  We've been moderating our positions for years, but Republicans have merely become more extreme.  We're now the only moderates in town."

Again, the problem with the moderation game is that it takes as an unexamined presumption the idea that the two parties (which, such pundits always remind us, we are "stuck with, like it or not") are both irredeemably extremist.  Even the very best columnists sometimes fall into this safe zone of punditry.  Consider The Washington Post's usually excellent Jennifer Rubin, who wrote this a few months ago:
"Democrats and Republicans are farther apart than ever, each side pulled by its ideologically most extreme elements. 'Compromise' has been demonized while partisanship has been raised above fidelity to the Constitution and concern for the common good. Hyper-partisanship is self-reinforcing, alienating moderates and driving an insurmountable barrier between red and blue, progressive and conservative. Each side self-segregates in its own community, listens to its own news and becomes convinced that the other side is, bluntly put, nuts."
The problem is that anyone who has been reading Rubin's own work in The Post would know that this is nonsense.  Rubin is a fierce NeverTrump conservative, and she spends day after day documenting just how insane the Republicans have become. When she wants to pretend that the Democrats are just as bad, however, she is reduced to complaining about "that party’s tilt toward Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Western European-style democratic socialism."

I have no doubt that lifelong conservatives have a muscle-memory revulsion against the word "socialism," but Rubin is better than that.  Among other things, she both knows that adjectives (in this case "democratic") mean something, and more importantly, she can actually look at policies rather than labels.

After all, Sanders's brand of democratic socialism (which I find reasonably appealing, although that is hardly the point here) is decidedly milquetoast compared even to Tory Britain, much less what we find in Denmark, France, or other such countries.

And when Rubin gets around to describing "what a Republican anti-Trump agenda should look like," she lays out something that looks suspiciously like the Obama and (Hillary) Clinton policy universes.  Yes, there will be some fights among Democrats over how how high to set the minimum wage, and the path to universal health coverage will expose some true cleavages in the party.  There is, after all, a range of views in any national party.

But if we want to live in a country where people have arguments about policy details without worrying about whether the very foundations of our system of government are under attack, virtually all of the Democrats in the country would be able to make constructive contributions.  Almost no elected Republicans could make that claim.

Consider the fight over health care -- a fight that, we should all remember, the Republicans could very well decide to wage again at any moment.  Senator John McCain has received a great deal of well deserved praise over his anti-Trump positions over the summer and fall.  He took crucial stands in a hair's-breadth victory against mindless cruelty, joining two other Republicans and all Democrats to defeat Trump and the rest of the Republicans.

I did argue after McCain's famous thumbs-down vote in July that his colleagues might have set up the vote to make McCain look like the hero.  That is, there might have been several more votes against the Trump/McConnell bill, but I surmised that some Republicans deferred to McCain to allow him to have the spotlight to himself.

That might have been true, but even if it was, McCain's importance would not have been diminished.  One can, after all, be both a camera-loving grandstander and a hero.

Yet what we have seen since July indicates that there really is almost no one else in the Republican Party who is willing to stand up even for simple decency.  Susan Collins has been the closest to a moderate in this world, but she is hardly a middle-of-the-roader.  (And it is worth remembering that McCain stated his opposition as a matter of procedure, not substance.)

In a fascinating recent column on Dorf on Law, William Hausdorff points out that Republicans have supported Trump 93 percent of the time.  (I believe that almost every Republican opposed Trump on a Russia sanctions bill.)  For a party that is supposedly fighting for its very soul, there is not much fighting going on.

Hausdorff also shows that the standard theories regarding who will oppose Trump do not hold up against the evidence.  Proximity to one's own reelection, for example, seems to explain nothing.

Consider also the list of Republicans whose names are occasionally mentioned as possible moderates.   The idea that Bob Corker, Ben Sasse, or Jeff Flake (who has decided not to run for reelection in 2018) could be described as moderate is utter nonsense.  Each of them makes news (as McCain often does) by saying things that sound critical of Trump, but then (unlike McCain on health care, but nothing else) they support everything Trump wants.

Flake is an especially good example of the phenomenon, because his voting record is one of the most extreme in the Senate (a body that includes Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul).  Yet because Flake recently wrote a book calling for civility, that somehow makes him a moderate.  ("Please be civil while I vote to destroy the environment and shower tax cuts on millionaires and billionaires.")

Last month, Flake appeared on Stephen Colbert's show, explaining why he was willing to vote for the most recent Republican assault on health care (Graham-Cassidy).  Looking ever so pious, Flake explained that he did not like the bill, and he would prefer a bipartisan long-term solution, but he supported Graham-Cassidy because "people in Arizona are hurting, and that's who I'm responding to," and "we've got to make sure that everybody has insurance."

This is gibberish.  Nothing in Graham-Cassidy was even intended to solve the problems currently affecting Flake's constituents, and no one ever claimed that it would make sure that everyone had insurance.  At best, it would have (like all of the earlier iterations of Republicans' health proposals) taken away health care coverage from at least twenty million people.  At least.

To be clear, I do admire Flake's decision to stand on his principles and not pander to the Trump base in order to win the Republican nomination for his Senate seat next year.  And I certainly welcome his willingness to be bluntly honest about how bad Trump is for the country.  I hope he keeps it up.  But the idea that Flake has somehow been a force for anything remotely resembling moderation or policy restraint is simply fatuous.

I do understand that things are rather desperate for people who reject Trump, and they are thus eager to give anyone the benefit of the doubt based on even a smidgen of evidence of reasonableness.  But the Republican Party, very much including its U.S. Senators, simply does not field moderate candidates anymore.  And they might soon be joined by Alabama's Roy Moore.

At some point, it will be necessary for people to stop pretending that the Republicans have not become what the Republicans have most definitely become.  Wishful thinking will not turn things around.