Moderate Republicans-remember them? With their quaint fiscally conservative, socially liberal outlook and their patrician accents? You’ve been reading their political obituary every six months for at least the last quarter-century.
But in recent weeks, you can’t turn on the television without seeing their 21st-century equivalents, John McCain and Rudolph Giuliani. And then there’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Pataki and Michael Bloomberg, all pro-choice and pro–gay rights, in control of the biggest local governments in the nation. Even former New Jersey Governor Thomas H. Kean-a throwback to old-fashioned blue-blood Republicanism-has emerged from political oblivion to head the Sept. 11 commission. Four Republican Senators are blocking tax cuts on Capitol Hill, and another, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, just survived a vigorous primary challenge from his right.
“Some of the more extreme, litmus-test types of Republicans are becoming so visible that some of the moderates are saying, ‘We have to act,” said Christie Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey and former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. After watching a conservative Congressman, Patrick Toomey, nearly unseat Mr. Specter over the Senator’s occasional straying from the party line on taxes and social issues, “you understand that there’s something very wrong. That’s not what the Republican Party is about,” she said.
“That’s what’s ginning up the moderates to get a little more radical. It’s time for a radical moderate,” said Ms. Whitman, whose manifesto, It’s My Party Too, is due out early next year.
In the public eye, in the Senate, and in a handful of key primaries around the country, it’s the moderate Republicans’ moment-though whether this is a renaissance or a death spasm remains to be seen. At its core is a handful of men loosely grouped around Mr. McCain. The Arizona Senator and Mr. Giuliani, who returned to the front page during his testimony before the Sept. 11 commission, are long-time friends. Secretary of State Colin Powell, apparently ascendant after a series of debacles at the Pentagon, and his deputy, Richard Armitage, are close to Mr. McCain. And New York’s newly feisty Mr. Bloomberg supplied Mr. McCain with a private jet when the Senator’s wife suffered a stroke last month.
These men are also linked by their popularity. Mr. McCain’s “straight-talk” 2000 primary campaign made him the darling of independents and many Democrats, as well as a minority of Republicans. Sept. 11 made Mr. Giuliani a national hero. And Mr. Powell consistently wins higher public-approval ratings than any other member of President Bush’s cabinet, according to public polls.
“The irony is that the most popular Republicans in the country right now are McCain, Giuliani, and Powell,” said John Avlon, a former speechwriter for Mr. Giuliani and the author of Independent Nation , a study of centrism in American politics. “These guys have all been considered heretics at one time or another by the rigidly conservative Republican establishment.”
Mr. McCain turned moderates’ concern over federal budget gaps into an open conflict in a May 20 speech to the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic organization. “The current version of the Republican Party is engaged in an outrageous spending binge,” he said.
His speech, said one moderate Republican strategist in Washington, represented a step towards an open rift in the party.
“The hard right within the party has reached its apex and is on decline,” the strategist said. “After 2004, regardless of the outcome of the election, you’re going to see a major battle within the Republican Party for its heart and soul. This is all about 2008. This is the coming Republican division.”
This is, of course, also the old Republican division, dating back at least to 1912. That’s when ex-President Theodore Roosevelt angrily led his delegation off the convention floor of the Chicago Coliseum and into the Progressive Party. His third-party candidacy ruined the chances of his onetime protégé, William Howard Taft, for re-election. In the 1930’s, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia crossed party aisles to join Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. A generation later, Governor Nelson Rockefeller got a heartbeat away from the Presidency, but no closer, with a record of extravagant spending and vocal support for the civil-rights movement. Working with him were a trio of fellow party members destined to be labeled (whether they liked it or not) as Rockefeller Republicans: John Lindsay, Jacob Javits and former State Senator Roy Goodman. Now, however, the days of Rockefeller Republicanism seem like so much ancient history. The long-time breeding ground of moderate Republicanism, the Upper East Side, now has no Republican elected officials.
Other Republicans with liberal views on gay rights and abortion, however, continue to hold a prominent place in the party: Governor Pataki, Mayor Bloomberg and former Mayor Giuliani.
Looking across the Hudson, the heirs to the Rockefeller Republican tradition fix their gaze on Senator McCain as the new standard-bearer, even though Mr. McCain has a pro-life voting record.
“If he were to be Vice President with Kerry, I would be very pleased,” said Marian Javits, the widow of the Senator. “That’s my ticket.”
Of all the issues roiling American politics today-war, gay marriage -it would have been hard to predict just three years ago that the relatively dry realm of fiscal policy would send Mr. McCain and his small band of Senators into open rebellion.
“There is increasingly no cover for moderate Republicans,” said the Republican consultant Roger Stone. “The glue that used to hold Republicans together was fiscal, but this administration is on a spending spree that makes Lyndon Johnson look like a small-timer.”
Mr. McCain has been an awkward ally of Mr. Bush since their primary fight four years ago, but he couldn’t contain his scorn for the Republicans who control both houses of Congress in his Progressive Policy Institute speech.
“Name one thing that Congress has told the special interests and their fat-cat lobbyists to do without since this war began,” he challenged his audience. Citing the sacrifices of soldiers and their families, he said, “It is time for others to step up and start sacrificing.”
House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois lumbered promptly into Mr. McCain’s line of fire with the rebuttal that “If you want to see sacrifice, John McCain ought to visit our young men and women at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] and Bethesda [Naval Hospital]. There’s the sacrifice in this country.”
But the public showdown between the Speaker and the decorated veteran and former prisoner of war was hardly a fair fight. Its lesson, Mr. Stone said, was this:
“Don’t get into a public pissing contest with a guy who has 100 percent name ID and a 70 percent approval rating when your name is Denny Hastert.”
So as Mr. Hastert fumed, Mr. McCain and three Republican allies in the Senate-Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee-blocked a budget that didn’t pledge to offset tax cuts with either spending increases or other tax hikes, despite support for the plan from the White House and the House of Representatives. The move won praise from the head of the Concord Coalition, a once-powerful caucus of deficit hawks whose influence has been pushed to the margins.
“What [the four moderates] are doing in the Senate is really terribly important,” said the coalition’s executive director, Robert Bixby. In contrast to other largely symbolic recent moderate dissents, “they’re not just making a stand. They are actually trying to change policy,” he said.
Across the Republican divide, Stephen Moore, the head of a key tax-cutting lobby group, the Club for Growth, admitted concern at the state of the Senate.
“The problem is you have McCain, who is this renegade,” Mr. Moore said. “I would agree that there is a revival of the moderates in the Senate.”
Mr. Moore noted that while several moderate Republicans have announced plans to retire from the House of Representatives, “it’s a Senate of Lamar Alexanders-and that’s not a compliment,” he added, referring to the Tennessee Republican whose conservative credentials are considered doubtful.
Polls, however, typically show that self-described moderates make up less than half of Republican primary voters, Mr. Moore noted.
“When you talk about the leadership, Bush is about as centrist as you’re going to get,” he said.
But it’s Mr. Moore’s rivals, the Main Street Republican Partnership, who have been crowing lately. A Republican group that pushes for balanced budgets and stays out of fights over values, the partnership’s executive director, Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, said she’d seen a surge in support since the Club for Growth stepped up its campaign to move the party to the right, and the group’s political action committee has more than $1 million in the bank this year (still a fraction of the Club for Growth’s budget). She noted that Mr. Specter’s victory in Pennsylvania was sweetened by the fact that his challenger, Mr. Toomey, gave up his House seat to be replaced by a less conservative Republican.
“We’re starting to get much louder,” Ms. Resnick said.
The moderates’ apparent revival runs counter to a well-documented trend toward polarization in American politics, and it may not last. The closeness of the Senate, Mr. Bush’s current political weakness, and the election-year tendency to move to the middle are all lending strength to the centrists.
But the real question for the Republicans will arrive after the November election. If Mr. Bush loses, the party will face an internal crisis. If he wins with Mr. Cheney as his running mate, he will have no obvious successor. Loyal conservatives, like Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, Governor Bill Owens of Colorado and Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, are angling for a future Presidential nomination, but two New York moderates also have their eyes on that prize. Mr. Giuliani has denied that he has any office in mind, but he certainly hasn’t allowed the spotlight to leave him for long. Mr. Pataki spent the evening of May 21 at a Lincoln Day dinner in Belknap County, N.H., a hint of his own aspirations.
“The party is fraying, it’s cracking,” said the moderate Republican strategist. “It’ll hold through November, but not long after that.”