GOP Strife : Moderates vs. Conservatives?

There's an interesting post over at RedState on the rift between the "moderates" and the "conservatives" within the GOP.

The poster takes the position that blame for the rift lies largely with the "moderates":

I come down quite squarely on one side; I think the "moderates" as typified by the Republicans featured on these websites here; The Republican Main Street Partnership, The Real Republican Majority, GOP Progress, etc. are largely to blame for the split in the Republican coalition between the so-called "moderates" and social conservatives.
I think the poster is correct. Blame does lie on these groups. Then again, the blame also lies largely with the so-called "conservatives." They are the ones, after all, who coined the term "RINO" and who throw it around fairly liberally. There's blame to go around.

Hopefully, most folks realize that the "moderate-conservative" dichotomy is a heavily simplified--and I say OVERLY simplified view of the Republican party. I don't like the term "conservative," because I think it has lost whatever meaning it used to have and become a vague term generally describing a wide range of disparate, and often contradictory, ideas.


Is there a definition of "conservative" that fits our modern usage of the term? Is there, for example, a "litmus test" that characterizes a "conservative?" From where I stand, there isn't. If there is, I'd like to hear it. I know "staunch conservative" Republicans who are 100% focused on social issues and could scarcely care less about taxes and spending. These would generally referred to as "social conservatives." At the same time, I know other "staunch conservatives" who think the abortion debate is "much ado about nothing," but care deeply about the federal budget deficit. These are "budget hawks." I know yet other "staunch conservatives" who couldn't give a flip about social issues or the budget deficit, but they are hardcore about business-related issues like taxes, trade and government regulation. These are "Wall Street" conservatives. There are, of course, other classes of "conservatives."

In each case, these Republicans plant themselves squarely on the "conservative" end of the spectrum--for at least their particular issue. They're generally agnostic or conservative on other issues. So long as their pet issues are taken care of by the Republicans, they'll hang with the Republicans. If other group's issues are taken care of, that's fine too. That's how I, personally, define the "conservatives."

Who, then, are the "moderates?" I classify the "moderates" as those Republicans who are right-of-center on one or more issues (taxes, spending, regulation, etc.) but who are liberal on other issues (generally social issues.) The moderates aren't agnostic about all the wedge issues. They care a lot about at least one or two. They're just "right of center" on certain hot button issues and "liberal" on others. I think most "moderate" Republicans can be defined as liberal on the social issues (abortion, gay marriage, etc.) and right-of-center on fiscal policy. It seems that there are some Republicans who are liberal pretty much across the board. These folks also generally take on the mantle of "moderate." To be honest, I'm not sure why these folks are Republicans, but we should be happy to have them on board--even if they're a pain in the butt sometimes. Having said that, these folks DO NOT need to be occupying positions in the GOP leadership.

If you accept these two definitions, I think its fair to say that the GOP's problems don't arise primarily out of a split between the "conservatives" and the "moderates" (i.e., "liberal/conservatives.") For one thing, I don't think there are that many GOP "moderates" (as defined above). The GOP's problems arise primarily out of a Republican agenda which is opposed by a substantial proportion of the base. I don't know, for example, of any conservative Republican who lost his seat primarily because of his or her position on partial-birth abortion or stem-cell research. More than a few appear to have lost their seats over out-of-control spending, Republican corruption scandals and a perception that they were lapdogs for the Bush Administration agenda.

Anyone who's been watching politics for more than a campaign season knows that a party has to keep its interest groups happy if it plans to stay in office. Normally, this requires a delicate balancing act, particularly if the interest groups are lobbying for unpopular causes. The Democrats face a big problem here. They've managed to put together a coalition of interest groups whose particular issues just don't resonate with the public. Further, there are a lot of serious rifts between the factions that make up the Democrat base. Some of the most serious rifts in the Democrat Party coalition exist between minorities and labor. There is a substantial and ever-growing demand in the Black community for school vouchers. Teachers' unions, on the other hand, will come unglued if a politician even utters the word. In many districts, the Democrats can't win without the solid support of both of these two gruops. Given this, it astounds me that the Republican politicians don't force every Democrat politician to take a stand on vouchers and thereby pick which of his own constituents he'll be offending.

In contrast to the Democrat Party, the Republican Party should have an easier time keeping its coalition together. This is because of two reasons. First, many of the Republican "base" issues are generally popular among the voting public. Second, the agendas of the various Republican interest groups don't necessarily conflict with one another. Reagan managed keep the social conservatives and the Wall Street conservatives happy at the same time. Even the budget hawks stayed in rank despite massive deficits--because most of them cared about other issues on which Reagan was rock solid. In many cases, a single policy can further the interests of all of these groups simultaneously. In other cases, a single policy can go against the interests of all these groups simultaneously. It should be obvious that the second type of issue should be avoided, if possible.

I believe that the problems the Republican Party is currently facing don't arise out of a poor choice among competing "conservative" interest groups. I think it arises out of a decision to give the cold shoulder to too many of them. The Republican Party, led by the Bush Administration, has put forth a big government agenda which doesn't have a particular constituency within the GOP coalition. The Republican leaders have given the GOP base an agenda few within the coalition were ever asking for. In many cases, these policies fall into the category of those which go against multiple GOP interest groups simultaneously. Given this, the GOP leadership shouldn't be surprised when few are particularly interested in buying what they're trying to sell.

So, what is the point of all this? The point is, this inaccurate dichotomy between the "conservatives" and the "moderates" isn't going to lead us to any answers as to how to get the Republican engine running on all 12 cylinders again. We need to get back to square one and figure out just what it is that unites us as Republicans. Maybe there's not much. Maybe there's a lot. I believe the latter is closer to the truth. However many things there are that we can generally agree on, these things need to become centerpieces of the Republican agenda going forward.

Hopefully all of the above may seem as obvious to you as it is to me. Unfortunately, these very basic principles seem to be complete black magic to the current GOP leadership.

Posted by: Ragnar at 10:09 AM


1 I think a lot of Republicans -- most, actually, both the moderates and the conservatives -- need to reread Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative. Both factions have run off the tracks.

Posted by: rightwingprof at November 30, 2006 12:46 PM

2 Great article Ragnar :)

When I was about 10 years old, my best friend from school was all excited about who among our politicians was a 'communist'. Why? His Dad had been a member of the John Birch Society.

This family was the poster family for far right politics. The kid was my best friend because we shared activities, and sometimes went to church together. After school we would sometimes clear gophers off of farmland (a good deed, if you didn't know) and call it target practice.

I found out that Nixon was a 'communist', as well as Ike, FDR, Agnew, Jimmy Carter (I kinda agree there) and a whole slew of others. When Nixon resigned, Ford was his commie replacement

About the only good leader from either party was Reagan.

I eventually escaped that political orbit, and gathered information from a wider world.

Basicaly I mention this because it seems to me that nearly everyone is 'moderate' somewhere in their ideology. Most of us are 'communists' by my old friends definition. Just not as far right as we should be. Not 'conservative' enough.

I think there is a lot to think about in what your saying, so I'm going to think about it some more. Good work.

USA all the way!

Posted by: Michael Weaver at November 30, 2006 03:11 PM

3 I liked the article too Ragnar and anything I would add or address would only cloud the water.

Posted by: Buzzy at November 30, 2006 07:14 PM

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