Politics

01.10.13

Wanted: Moderate GOP Activists

Nothing would do more to fix American politics than if wealthy Republicans bankrolled a network of moderate GOP organizations, says Michael Tomasky.

I see that Brent Bozell, who never runs out of ways to spend rich conservatives’ money, now has an outfit called For America, which is mounting a pressure campaign against Mitch McConnell over his role in the fiscal-cliff deal. The online ad buy will be targeted to Kentucky and will ask, “Mitch McConnell, which side are you on?”—that of socialism or that of Kentuckyism? What struck me when I read this was, How come there isn’t a group that is taking out ads against Rand Paul, McConnell’s junior colleague, one of just five GOP senators who voted against the bill, asking him which side he’s on—the side of bare-minimum fiscal sanity or the side of ruining the economy for the sake of making an ideological point? Of course there isn’t. But there must be. In fact there is nothing—nothing—our political system needs more than a strong and well-financed moderate-Republican pressure organization.

Think about it. Why is our politics so stuck right now? Because one of our parties has gone bonkers. Oh, sure, the Democrats aren’t altar boys. Fine. But High Broderism is blessedly dying as more and more establishment types come to see that it’s basically the GOP that’s throwing the wrench in the works.

There is little sign, of course, that this behavior is abating. True, we got a cliff deal, but the Washington GOP as a whole is still extremely right wing, and one leading reason why is that Republican House members and senators live in fear of facing primary challenges from their right. Barney Frank put it imperishably in an interview with New York magazine last spring, in a couplet that everyone who cares about Washington dysfunction should bear in mind: “[People] say, ‘Are you saying they’re all Michele Bachmann?’ And my answer is no, they’re not all Michele Bachmann. Half of them are Michele Bachmann. The other half are afraid of losing a primary to Michele Bachmann.”

That explains it all. Politicians think first, second, and third about getting reelected. For most Republicans, the only pressure they ever feel is from the right. It’s kind of hard to believe, given how far right most of them are to begin with, but it’s true.

Now imagine, though: what if half of them were afraid of losing a primary to a more moderate challenger? The change in their behavior would be dramatic.

You may roll your eyes, and yes, I readily confess that this is a big and very long-term job. But making the party as right wing as it is was a big and long-term job, too, and someone did it. Moderate Republicans, and even mainstream conservative Republicans who want to see Washington function again, should get together to form and fund a network of organizations that will pursue four goals:

First, just make moderate Republicanism visible again. Launch a public-awareness campaign. Get a television show. Or at least get a stable of people to go on the other shows. Let Americans know that the viewpoint even exists.

Second, start an organization to recruit young people, activists of all ages, and potential candidates. Start college campus clubs and newspapers or magazines. Host big conferences in Washington and elsewhere. Give people a sense of an extant community.

Third, start running some primaries against some hard-right people in districts where victory is possible. Admittedly, there are many states and districts where there’s no chance in blazes that a moderate could beat a conservative. Many state parties have been captured lock, stock, and barrel by the Tea Party, even in liberal states (Maine). But there are some places where moderates could win. And the Tea Party may be fading.

Fourth, set up a big think tank in Washington to advance more moderate policy ideas and, just as importantly, to urge moderation in tactics as well—that is, more civility, such that every single vote isn’t a matter of warfare.

These are long-term propositions, and expensive ones. A decent think tank will run you $30 million a year at least. The whole effort will need probably $60 million a year for a decade. That ain’t cottage cheese, although it still isn’t remotely what the right wing spends on political infrastructure (roughly $250 million a year, last I remember). Mike Bloomberg could finance all this himself and barely notice.

The two-party system isn’t broken. Just one party is.

But this is what can change the country. I’m even tempted to say “this and only this.” Some Democrats and liberals want to think we can crush the right, but that isn’t possible. And even if the Democrats keep winning presidential elections, there remains the question of what they’ll be able to accomplish at governance. As long as the GOP is almost wholly owned by the far right, the answer is not all that much.

No—our political dysfunction will end when the Republican Party returns to normalcy. The only way that change can happen is from within. I wish that these centrists would stop playing around with these silly outfits like No Labels and the disastrous Americans Elect from last year and realize that their “solution” misdiagnoses the problem. The two-party system isn’t broken. Just one party is.

Fix that party, and things will get better. This will generally result, by the way, in more centrist legislation when a Democrat is president. But that’s totally fine by me. Better that a centrist bill have bipartisan support than a liberal bill have only liberal support, with conservatives hoping to tear it to pieces.

The big question hanging over all this is: Are there even enough moderate Republicans around in America anymore? It depends on what you mean by moderate. I mean someone who is fiscally conservative and socially moderate, but more than that, who has enough of a civic-republican streak to want this warfare to end. I have to believe that there are millions of such people out there. They just have no one to report to, no place to go. If someone builds this, they will come.