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."