Moderates Only Look Dead

The center, contrary to what you might conclude, is not vanishing.

Moderates, we all hear, are an endangered species. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., is the latest to be eliminated. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, announced her retirement in February. Bob Kerrey, a war hero and centrist Democrat who once represented Nebraska in the Senate, is running behind in a comeback bid.

The tea party, by contrast, is flexing its muscles in Indiana, where it helped conservative Richard Mourdock beat the once-invincible Lugar. Rick Santorum, who gave Mitt Romney a strong challenge, is well-positioned for a 2016 bid if Romney loses in November. Voters in North Carolina, which went for Barack Obama in 2008, approved a ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions.

With 40 percent of the electorate, Gallup finds, conservatives now represent the biggest ideological group. Only 35 percent of Americans admit to being moderates.

But the center, contrary to what you might conclude, is not vanishing. In fact, it's not too much to say that this year promises the triumph of moderates.

Start with the presidential campaign. Every four years, Republican voters have the chance to send an uncompromising conservative to the White House -- and every four years, they pass him up for a more pragmatic option.

In 1996, it was Bob Dole, followed in 2000 by George W. Bush, who insisted he was a "compassionate" (read: moderate) conservative. In 2008, John McCain, who spent much of his career offending the right wing, came out on top. This year, Republicans will nominate someone who previously has endorsed gay rights, abortion rights, gun control and a health insurance mandate.

Romney has done his best to reinvent himself as "severely conservative," but he still comes across as an unconvincing impersonator. He's moderate enough that at one point Santorum said that if Romney is the only alternative to Obama, "we might as well stay with what we have."

He had a point: Obama is not that far from Romney. Newt Gingrich is not alone in excoriating him as "the most radical, leftist president in American history," but that's history as hallucination. 

The most surprising fact about Obama's presidency is its continuity with that of his predecessor -- on the auto bailout, the Iraq war, Afghanistan, presidential power and the Troubled Asset Relief Program, to name a few.

His 2009 stimulus package was far smaller than liberals wanted and included a large array of tax cuts. His health care reform incorporated concepts once pushed by Republicans, such as an individual mandate. Bruce Bartlett, an economist who served in the Reagan administration, rates the president "moderately conservative."

The evidence of a sharply ideological, polarized citizenry comes mostly from primary elections that are anything but representative. Santorum won the Minnesota caucuses by persuading less than 1 percent of registered voters. When Gingrich won the South Carolina primary, he got less than 10 percent of those registered to vote.

Most Americans don't take part in primary elections. The ones who do tend to have an unusual if not unhealthy degree of interest in politics and abnormally strong opinions.

The defeat of Lugar and same-sex unions this week gives a misleading impression. Indiana tea partiers, who helped Mourdock to victory in the primary, may cost the GOP a Senate seat: Democratic nominee Joe Donnelly, who was trailing Lugar by 21 points in the polls, has been running even against Mourdock.

North Carolinians are not all that unsympathetic to gay couples. A survey by Public Policy Polling found that 53 percent favor granting them access to either marriage or civil unions. But most voters, it found, didn't realize the "marriage amendment" forbids both.

A lot of people who call themselves conservative should call themselves confused. Political scientists Christopher Ellis of Bucknell University and James Stimson of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have determined that only one out of every five professed conservatives actually favors conservative policies on both moral and social welfare issues.

As for the tea party, a New York Times/CBS poll last year found it to be the most disliked of 23 groups respondents were asked about—less popular than Muslims or atheists. The one-time tea party darling, Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, now has an ad publicizing his work with Obama.

The middle of the political road remains important, even if it doesn't get much attention. It brings to mind what Yogi Berra said about one restaurant: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

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  • NotSure||

    At least the author admits the truth that the current and previous US presidents are pretty much the same, however I disagree with the author if this is actually good thing. I can't comment on domestic politics, but when it comes to world politics they are nowhere close to being moderate in any sense.

  • ||

    Didn't see him say it was a good thing. Just saw that he reported that it was a fact.

    If a reporter reports that fifty children were killed when it went over a cliff, does that mean he's saying that fifty children being killed is a good thing? No, he's just reporting a fact.

  • NotSure||

    When "moderate" is used it almost implies good and "extremist" and "fringe" almost always means bad.

  • plu1959||

    As for the tea party, a New York Times/CBS poll last year found it to be the most disliked of 23 groups respondents were asked about - less popular than Muslims or atheists.

    Really? Was this poll taken only in midtown Manhattan?

  • Suki||

    That would invalidate the poll. They must have added San Francisco and Seattle to make it fair.

  • Tulpa the White||

    That only means that they had the highest percentage disapproving of them. Note that it's not stated what the other 20 groups were.

    I seriously doubt more than 25% of Americans would say out loud that they "disapprove" of Muslims or atheists. So it ain't a high bar, since pretty much every Democrat hates the TP with a passion, guaranteeing at least 35% disapproval.

  • Dave C||

    I don't know why Reason insists on carrying this dork Chapman's columns. They're an embarrassment.

  • Suki||

    "The Ride of the Moderates" sounds like a great book title.

  • Longtorso||

  • Marshall Gill||

    Dave, he has some kind of horrible blackmail against one or more of the editors. I suspect something like knowledge of a murder one of them committed. Either that or he has some kind of wicked drug connections.

  • ||

    No, actually it's because Steve Chapman writes a syndicated column for the popular press that is more consistantly libertarian than almost any other one out there. He is writing for the vast unwashed not for great minds like ours.

    As I said above, nowhere does Chapman make a value judgment about the politics he's reporting on in this article.

    He simply reports what he perceives voter preferences to be. If you disagree with what he says argue the facts but don't ascribe beliefs to him that are not in evidence in the article.

  • Marshall Gill||

    Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams run circles around the man. I did not attribute any beliefs to the man in my comment based upon this article but doing so only takes a second.

    Bruce Bartlett, an economist who served in the Reagan administration, rates the president "moderately conservative."

    He could have chosen anyone to quote, but he didn't. Instead he found a quote attempting to portray Obama as something he clearly is not.

    Newt Gingrich is not alone in excoriating him as "the most radical, leftist president in American history," but that's history as hallucination.

    But of course, Chapman doesn't say which President was to Obama's left. Considering the fact that Obamacare is an attempt to socialize 1/6th of the US economy, the argument that he is the most leftist ever can't be completely without merit. Chapman calls it "hallucination". Is that characterization just laying out the facts? Newt hallucinating and Bruce Bartlett the voice of wisdom isn't opinion but fact?

  • hk||

    Obama is clearly a radical Keynesian with horrible ideas. His solution is massive amounts of debt.

    If this is the norm then most of our Presidents believe in radical levels of debt that hurt us in the long wrong.

    This is not what I consider "moderately conservative".

  • hk||

    *long run

    My bad. :)

  • BarryD||

    To borrow from Dad, "If all your friends jumped off a cliff, so you do, too, then you're a moderate!"

  • Tulpa the White||

    So why don't they just let people in the popular press read Chapman and hire a better writer for this site?

  • Ron||

    You may not like what he writes but in this case he's telling it like it is and of course thats what is wrong with this country the Republicans just want to get along and the Democrats and the media are fine with harassing the republicans into compliance.

  • Bee Tagger||

    As for the tea party, a New York Times/CBS poll last year found it to be the most disliked of 23 groups respondents were asked about - less popular than Muslims or atheists.

    I would hope this is true for most political parties/ideologies. "Muslim" and "Atheist" by themselves are not descriptive of how the person looks to achieve governmental power over you and what they will do with that power.

  • ||

    You know someone - maybe current or former Reason editors - really should write a book about how more people are eschewing partisan labels and declaring their independence. They could call the book something really catchy, like, say, Thunderball

  • ||

    I have it on good authority that one of the Reason writers penned a tome discussing evolutionary theory of a certain strain of political microbe that mutated from R. publican to L. ibertarian. Or perhaps I need to transpose that. What's unclear is the culture medium used to achieve this remarkable feat of science.

    It's currently awaiting peer review.

  • Suki||

    I posted this under the wrong comment: "The Ride of the Moderates" sounds like a great book title.

  • Longtorso||

  • BigT||

    The problem with both Romney and Obama is that they are conservative on the wrong things - war on drugs, gay marriage (yesterday notwithstanding), immigration, searches, police powers, intrusive 'defense' - AND liberal on the wrong things - spending, size of govt, environment, etc. They are both the polar opposites of Ron Paul, and libertarianism in general.

  • sarcasmic||

    What's the point of having power if you're not going to abuse it?

  • hk||

    Well put.

  • Tulpa the White||

    BO is way more liberal than Romney on those wrong things. I know that Romney isn't an economic libertarian but let's not totally elide the differences.

  • Bardas Phocas||

    What makes a good man go neutral?
    Lust for gold? Power? Or were you just born with a heart full of neutrality?

  • sarcasmic||

    People who call themselves neutral are just pussies who want to be friends with everyone and are afraid to commit to one side or the other.

  • Muad'Dib||

    They are the biggest scum of them all that stand for nothing. They must be completely void of principle and integrity, but I suppose that's par for the course. I don't know how 'bipartisan' became popular. That term should be re-coined the worst of both worlds.

  • ||

    So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. -- Revelation 3:16

  • JoshSN||

    In terms of Congress, if anyone wants to disagree with the author, this is the only resource you'll need.

    http://voteview.com/political_polarization.asp

    Neither the U.S. House nor the U.S. Senate has been this polarized in any year since the end of Reconstruction (130+ years).

    There has only one been a time when there were fewer moderates, and that was in the Democratic Party, right after Reconstruction.

  • BarryD||

    ...and of course, "moderate" in that case meant that they were moderately in favor of widespread lynchings.

  • BarryD||

    ...and opposed radical extremism, like, say, the 13th Amendment.

  • mybarber||

    I have no use for 'moderates'.They always look for ways to expane the governments power.Of course,the only 'moderates' the press hates to see go are Republicans.

  • Huck||

    What I want to know is which group - liberals, conservatives, libertarians -
    are most likely to be square jawed? Which are most likely to be pear shaped (bodies, not jaws, but maybe that, too).

  • ||

    Just to be clear, about 90% of people who call themselves moderates are actually liberals who either don't want to admit it or don't understand the terminology.

  • Reverendcaptain||

    Pretty sure I would be considered a moderate by people who decide these things (and anybody that thinks "moderate" means you don't hold strong opinions simply doesn't understand the language) but anybody that would call Obama a moderately conservative has to be an idiot. So I'm not sure why the writer of this piece would quote them.

    Anyway, every time I think I want to identify myself as a libertarian I run across something like this that reinforces my belief that libertarians don't actually want to take on the responsibility of governing. They enjoy bitching too much.

    Obama is a liberal. Get over it.

  • Tulpa the White||

    Bartlett also said that gay marriage was the #1 liberty issue in America.

    So I guess BO has his vote now, despite the awful liberty behavior of BO in every other area (if one even thinks gay marriage is a liberty issue in the first place).

  • sweeterjan||

    Most Americans don't take part in primary http://www.ecouteursdrdre.com/elections. The ones who do tend to have an unusual if not unhealthy degree of interest in politics and abnormally strong opinions.

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