Nobody’s a Moderate in the Republican Civil War

The Tea Party and establishment Republicans differ on style and tactics, not goals.

After his loss in Tuesday’s Virginia gubernatorial election, Tea Party Republican Ken Cuccinelli refused to make the traditional phone call to congratulate the winner, Terry McAuliffe.

No big deal, you might say. Cuccinelli has admitted in public that he didn’t win, and McAuliffe becomes governor in any case. The Outside the Beltway blog argues that the congratulating call doesn’t matter, because such gracious gestures are insincere anyway. And Kevin Drum threw the question out to his readers: Does symbolic politeness still matter or not? (Typically, the comment thread quickly devolved into insults that leave no clear consensus answer. And that’s a meta-answer, I suppose.)

But whether the absent phone call has any direct significance on governance, I think it is important. Congratulating the winner, no matter how much your defeat still rankles, recognizes that in the end we are all on the same side. We are all Americans, or (in this case) all Virginians. However bitter the campaign has been, however overheated the rhetoric has become, we all want the collective project we call “government” to succeed, whether our side gets to lead that government  or not.

That is more-or-less precisely what the Tea Party denies: We are not all on the same side. In President Obama’s case, Tea Partiers often don’t even admit that he’s an American. And they see election campaigns not as contests between differing views of how to move our country forward, but as apocalyptic battles between Good and Evil.

The Obama/Romney election, evangelist Franklin (Billy’s son) Graham warned last fall, “could be America’s last call to repentance and faith. … There’s still time to turn from our wicked ways so that He might spare us from His wrath against sin.” And the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer saw the shutdown/debt-ceiling showdown as evidence “the destruction of America” is on President Obama’s “bucket list”.

Like Cuccinelli, Ted Cruz did not even fake politeness when the President visited Cruz’ home state of Texas this week: “President Obama should take his broken promises tour elsewhere.” Where’s that famous Southern hospitality?

Tea Party strategist

Legitimate rivals merit politeness, but if the AntiChrist wins you don’t congratulate him on his victory or give him a chance to implement the vision the voters have endorsed. You continue the struggle wherever and however you can. And if you bring the temple down on your own head like Samson, you take satisfaction in the number of enemies who perish with you.

The Republican establishment. One popular interpretation of Tuesday’s election results was that establishment Republicans had flexed their muscles and proved that they (and not the Tea Party) are the GOP’s best hope for victory.

Christie and AntiChrist

There was some truth to that. Cuccinelli’s campaign suffered from a lack of money, in large part because big bankroll donors like the Chamber of Commerce wouldn’t contribute. The Chamber also figured in the victory of establishment Republican Bradley Byrne over Tea Party Republican (and birther) Dean Young in Alabama’s 1st congressional district.

And the biggest Republican winner of the night was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who had praised Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy and accompanied Obama on a photo-op tour of damaged areas late in the 2012 campaign: “It’s been very good working with the President,” Christie said. “He and his Administration have been coordinating with us. It’s been wonderful.”

Frontrunner? After his landslide win in a blue state, some pundits anointed Christie the early frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, while others were more skeptical.

But his potential opponents have treated Christie’s victory like a serious threat, barely even pretending to be happy about a Republican victory. Rand Paul gave Christie a backhanded compliment, saying that the Republican Party needs “moderates like Chris Christie who can win in New Jersey.” (Recall that “moderate” is an insult in GOP circles. It was Mitt Romney’s opponents who called him a “Massachusetts moderate“, which the Boston Globe characterized as “the two dirtiest words in the Republican lexicon”. Romney himself claimed to be “severely conservative“.) Rick Perry likewise questioned whether “a conservative in New Jersey a conservative in the rest of the country”.

Ted Cruz’ comments were even more pointed:

I think it is terrific that he is brash, that he is outspoken, and that he won his race. But I think we need more leaders in Washington with the courage to stand for principle.

So congratulations to the cowardly, unprincipled Governor Christie.

Moderate? For most of American history, moderate sounded reasonable and good, and to much of the electorate it still does. But what evidence is there of Christie’s moderation?

Traditionally, a moderate was someone who shared at least a few positions with the opposing party (like Democrat Joe Lieberman’s support for the Iraq War and waterboarding, or Republican Rudy Giuliani’s support for abortion rights and immigration reform), or shared goals with the other party but tried to achieve them by different means. (That’s what RomneyCare was about, and why Mitt Romney would have deserved the moderate label if he had truly run on his record. Mitt tried to achieve universal health care via private insurance and the free market. Obama’s embrace of that moderate-Republican approach should have earned him moderate status as well.)

I can’t think of any issue where Christie fits the bill. His position on marriage equality seems typical: He believes only in opposite-sex marriage. He vetoed a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage in New Jersey, and then sued to prevent same-sex marriages after a state judge ruled in their favor. He eventually dropped the suit and allowed same-sex marriages to proceed in New Jersey, but only after it became clear he would lose.

That’s not moderation, it’s pragmatism. He doesn’t waste his effort on losing battles.

He occasionally makes agreeable noises about gun control, but in the only real test he vetoed three popular bills, one being a version of something he had proposed himself just a few months before.

On contraception and abortion, he vetoed funding for Planned Parenthood five times. The anti-abortion Life News says he proved wrong the “media elite [who] claim Republicans can’t win on a pro-life platform.”

He believes in tax cuts for the wealthy and spending cuts for the poor. There’s nothing in his record resembling RomneyCare.

ThinkProgress goes into more detail on Christie’s conservative record.

Opposing the Tea Party doesn’t make you a moderate. Likewise, you’ll search Bradley Byrne’s web site in vain for any moderate policy. He just won’t say stuff as gratuitously offensive as his Tea Party opponent Dean Young, who wants anybody who supports marriage equality thrown out of the Republican Party

If you want to have homosexuals pretending like they’re married, they need to go to the Democrat Party.

Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, as well as Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander and Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell are all likely to face Tea Party opposition as they run for re-election. They all (eventually) voted to keep the government open and not default on America’s commitments, but they’re no moderates. Just because they won’t set themselves (or the country) on fire to protest ObamaCare doesn’t mean that they secretly support it.

So when they run against Tea Party extremists in the Republican primaries, I’ll be rooting for them. But that offer expires the morning after the primary. I respect their higher level of politeness and their caution about burning down the house we all live in. But they differ from the Cuccinellis and Cruzes and Youngs merely in tactics, not in goals.

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  • SamChevre  On November 11, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    I would articulate the moderate/radical distinction somewhat differently.

    Moderates think we’re basically on the right (train) track, but may want to move forward/backward along that track. President Obama is in this category; so is McConnell.

    Radicals left and right think we are on the wrong track–we don’t need to move a little, we need to sharply change the power dynamics. There are a lot of echoes of the early 20th century populists–less power to finance; less power to far-away entities; less power to supposedly-but-not-really neutral scientists and technocrats–on both the left-radical Occupy movement and the right-radical Tea Party movement.


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