The Moderate's GOP Survival Guide


AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Former Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, who made waves in her 2010 campaign when she said she "dabbled into witchcraft."

Karl Rove and big Republican donors are trying to rescue the GOP from more Christine "I am not a witch" O'Donnell-type embarrassments by funding a new group dedicated to stopping terrible candidates from winning Republican nominations. The impulse is a healthy one, but it’s going to take a lot more than some attack ads to stop extremist candidates. 

After all, most of the ugly Republican candidates from the last two cycles were relatively underfunded in their primaries; a little more money thrown into the pot against them is unlikely to make a difference, and it might, as Salon columnist Steve Kornacki has argued, even backfire if it winds up drawing Tea Party activists into a fight they might otherwise have ignored. At best, it will help on the margins.

The larger question is what Republicans who want to defeat The Crazy could do to reclaim their party. It’s a big question: The fear of primary defeats at the hands of ideological extremists or incompetent candidates has been the dominant consideration in Republican politics—and perhaps electoral politics—in the last couple of election cycles. It matters not just when a Todd Akin or a Sharron Angle wins, but also when strong general-election candidates pass on winnable races because they fear a defeat in the primary.  It also makes perfectly sensible, conservative incumbents do their best to embrace whatever the nuttiest voices are saying in order to save themselves from a primary challenge. 

So what can moderate GOP leaders do?

The first thing is basic: They have to stop educating their rank-and-file voters to accept crazy stuff. That means cutting out the teleprompter jokes, the winks to birthers, the claims that Democrats are anti-American—all of it. It means that if a backbench member of the House yells out “you lie” during a presidential speech, he gets cernsured instead of praised. 

That’s going to mean some short-term sacrifices for long-term gains. It may be hard to go in front of a conservative crowd and resist an applause line calling Barack Obama a socialist. But these are applause lines because Republicans have been using them for at least 40 years whether the target is Bill Clinton (Whitewater, travelgate, mysterious deaths); Hillary Clinton (the Vince Foster “murder” and more); or Ted Kennedy (Chappaquiddick). Not to mention “San Francisco Democrats” and “Taxachusetts” and “Chicago politics” and “real America.” Republicans have been training their audiences, and now their audiences respond. 

A bit of this in moderation is perfectly harmless, and comes with the territory of partisanship. It’s just that it’s become such a large part of Republican rhetoric that it’s almost inevitable that it’s going to leak out from the merchandizing rooms of conservative events and the radio talk shows into the mouths of candidates on the campaign trail. 

Can Republicans shut it all down? Of course not. But they could choose to minimize it. That means politicians steering clear of it; it means those party actors who care about winning elections doing what they can to discourage it from those party actors who have different incentives (such as those hawking that merchandise or who can make a very good living selling to a group which is a large market but a small portion of the electorate). 

The second thing that Republicans could do to help sane conservatives win primaries is to start furnishing those conservatives with some of what House Majority Leader Eric Cantor tried, even if feebly, to do this week: real issues that have immediate material effects on large primary electorates, as opposed to purely symbolic issues. Not every Republican issue in the last few election cycles has been symbolic, but plenty of them have. Take, for example, the elimination of earmarks— a “reform” that doesn’t even cut government spending, let alone deliver anything that a Republican primary voter might value. Or the various constitutional amendments Republicans have pushed in the last 20 years, whether it’s a balanced budget, line-item veto, term limits, or marriage. 

What’s been missing are, to an amazing extent, issue positions which respond to problems most voters experience. This may pose a special challenge for conservatives, who after all tend to oppose new government programs, but note that George W. Bush did manage in 2000 to produce policies—including his education plan and faith-based initiative—which, like them or not, were not merely symbolic. Indeed, I think the largest contributor to the problem is that many Republican politicians have just become lazy: The symbolic stuff works so well (and, to be fair, also avoids some of the difficult choices that come with crafting policy) that they just haven’t bothered to go beyond it.

The drawback to relying on symbolic issues is that sane candidates are at a disadvantage. After all, they tend to be constrained by reality, and so they’re less likely to outbid the nuts when it comes to who loves the flag the most or who hates the “Ground Zero Mosque” the most; they’re more likely to slip up and admit that all candidates are patriotic or that not every Muslim community center is necessarily part of a jihadist plot. If the debate is on real policies with real consequences, however, reality-based conservatives are playing on ground that favors them.

Of these two tasks that would go a long way to avoiding the next Christine O’Donnell fiasco, developing policy positions is in some ways harder than ending the party’s tolerance of crazy talk. Democrats worked really hard to develop the Affordable Care Act! It’s so much easier to advocate for “American exceptionalism”—a symbolic issue—than it is to figure out a conservative response that would offer something to people who don’t like their health-care situation. On the other hand, at least policy development is in the hands of those who want to win elections—it doesn’t require shutting down the crazies on talk radio. 

Every party has bad candidates win nominations at times; every party, too, has recruiting failures (which may be an ever larger consequence of Tea Party victories in GOP primaries). But Karl Rove is right about one thing: It’s a problem for Republicans, and has certainly cost them several seats in the Senate. If they really want to fix what’s wrong with the party, however, it’s going to take a lot more than some money applied in the right places.


There are many tests for the "moderate" Republicans to pass before they can create a new image for the party. For example, will "moderate" Republicans speak out against the bill just passed in the North Dakota Senate that declares personhood from the moment of conception, effectively ending the choice of safe and legal abortion for North Dakota women? Will "moderate" Republicans speak out against invasive ultrasound procedures? Will "moderate" Republicans, so opposed to Obamacare, present an alternative that will give health care coverage to all Americans? These are a scant few of the many positions Republicans have taken that do not serve the needs of their constituents. The Republican Party created the Tea Party Monster. Now, they can't (or won't) control it. It's going to take more than a "makeover" for the Republican Party to become more relevant.

All action....everyone should read the Republican Party platform...until that is changed in a significant way, they are all talk...

The Republican message is not the problem; the product itself is. While the mainstream GOP leaders have not used the extreme language of the far right crazies, they still have an ideology about economic matters that is both FACTUALLY (see virtually all statistics over the last few decades) and MORALLY (for Christians, see Matthew 25:44) flawed, and they use the extreme symbolic rhetoric to keep their base voters, whose lives are NEGATIVELY affected by the REALITY of their policies, from noticing this.

We have seen that in the Muslim autocracies, the ruling elite's support of anti-Israeli and anti-American radicals redirects the anger their people OUGHT to focus on the autocrats themselves against FOREIGN targets instead, which resulted in the Arab Spring revolts (but unfortunately, due to this brainwashing, the old autocrats are on the verge of being replaced by new autocrats who will do the same thing). Something like this has been going on in America for several decades, starting from the Reagan ideology (come on, Ronald, is government ALWAYS the problem? really?) and its alliance with the Christian Right (which in fact is neither) and sublimated racism, and has swung even "moderate" Republicans far to the right, from Eisenhower policies back to Harding, Hoover and Coolidge policies.

When will the "moderate" ideologues realize that while government CAN BE the problem (and usually is when THEY have control of it), some critical problems can ONLY be fixed with the HELP of government. To start with, the New Deal, which they opposed for decades when it was actually WORKING for the majority of Americans, has been chipped away since the late 1970's so that the economy is WORSE for that same majority, and is the ONLY way to bring back full employment and REASONABLE levels of income and wealth inequality.

Instead, even "moderate" GOP leaders use terminology which falsely calls Americans who have earned retirement security, and those who need help to get back on their feet, "takers", and ALL millionaires "makers", to support eliminating government services that help more people than they hurt. The fact is that workers are "making" more product than ever before, but being paid less, both in absolute terms of purchasing power, and in comparison to the wealthy, so that workers NEED assistance more, and are thus accused of being "takers". And the so-called "makers" and "job creators" are getting far more reward for REARRANGING ORGANIZATIONS AND FINANCES, sometimes to the DETRIMENT of the entire country except themselves, and are in many cases the REAL "TAKERS" since they are not building anything with their own hands.

We need to stop demonizing progressive programs that work, stop putting hindrances on their working (e.g. the Post Office, which was established by the Constitution, but Republicans are forcing to operate in a money losing manner so that they have an "excuse" to kill it). When Republicans do THAT and return to the Eisenhower philosophy, Democrats will once again be ABLE to work together with them. And Republican voters will no longer be forced to choose between a far-right candidate nominated in the primaries by their crazy peers and a moderately leftist Democrat that their party tells them is the evil "socialist" boogey-man, but they vote for anyway to preserve sanity.

Why is there never any articles on how the Democrats can take back their party from the left wing nuts usually lumped together under the label progressives? Although I don't agree with either one on most of their positions; I don't see the far right as being any more damaging to society or our political system of governance than the far left.

The reason why Republicans were the weak party in two-party politics and failed three times before as Federalists, National Republicans, and as Whigs is because they think money controls political power. The Democrats went right after political power when Jefferson was elected in 1800 by declaring the Supreme Court to be more powerful with regard to legislation than Congress with a Supreme Court decision that said acts of Congress could be nullified by the Supreme Court. This enabled the Democrats to impose slavery on the United States through Supreme Court decisions like Dred Scott until Abraham Lincoln turned judicial review on its head by writing the Emancipation Proclamation and getting the thirteenth amendment passed by Congress, once again asserting the supremacy of the executive and legislative branches of government. The Supreme Court once again declared its supremacy with Roe v. Wade in 1973, so we are once again under a judicial dictatorship, which will last until independent voters are able to gain ballot access by declaring themselves protected by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Sadly, with the exception of Chuck Hagel I know of no other "moderate" republicans. The republican party once used to be a centris party with a bent towards conservatism. The democrats on the other hand were also centrist and tilted to the liberal. Today, the republican party as it once was no longer exists. I know of no way that the republican of today can, or, be saved from its excesses of today. Moderates the few that are left should look towards getting elected to office and then not be automatons who just bloc vote as they're told. For vibrant republican party to come about, it members who can think for themselves and who are able to carefully weig the needs of the constituents and of the nation. Until that occurs, the republican will become more and more irrelevant.

May I point out a fallacy in your otherwise sound argument? Chappaquiddick. The other examples of GOP right wing lies (Vince Foster "murder," for example) are of course valid, but the fact is that Ted Kennedy did cause that girl's death in an act of criminally negligent homicide (and drunk driving), did fail to try to rescue her when she might have been rescued, did try to cover it up -- and only avoided being charged and convicted of a serious crime because of undue Kennedy influence.

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