Editor’s Note: A non-final version of this column was posted in error earlier today. This is the final version.
In addition to fulfilling my duties as a law professor, I write this column on Justia’s Verdict every other week, as well as posting essays twice each week on the blog Dorf on Law. Often, my topics arise organically from the headlines, and from legal and economic developments that I follow as part of my professional responsibilities. Along with those up-to-the-moment kinds of columns, however, I (and, I suspect, all people in my position) keep a list of topics for possible future use, which provides a roster of promising topics for future writing.
My list of topics has, for the past several years, included a simple question: “What would it take?”
The more complete version of that question is this: What would it take for supposedly “reasonable” conservatives finally to give up on the modern Republican Party? When we hear about one or another Republican politician referred to as “a moderate” or “a pragmatist,” one has to ask how such a person—if he or she really is, indeed, not an extremist—would continue to associate herself or himself with a party that continues to move further and further to the extreme right.
This question has some personal resonance for me, in addition to its importance to the national political debate. When I was growing up, both sides of my family were solidly Republican. For example, my paternal grandmother had voted for every Republican presidential candidate (along with a straight Republican ticket in non-Presidential contests) in every election since 1924. Her father, brother, and eldest son were Presbyterian ministers. In 1984, however, she looked at the religious extremists who had taken over her party, and she voted for a Democrat for the first time in her life. My mother did the same, and she never looked back.
At the time, I thought that this was the quiet death knell for Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party. Even though Reagan easily coasted to re-election in 1984, the core of the Republican Party that I knew had always been populated by middle-class moderate conservatives who abhorred extremism. Surely, I thought, if people like my family were repulsed by the extreme religious movement conservatives who had taken over their party, millions of others in the same position must have been reconsidering their commitments, too.
Obviously, that did not happen. Instead, the Republican Party has moved inexorably to the right. Republicans continue to evoke Reagan’s name, but they now view people who hold Reagan’s actual views as outright communists.
Reagan’s policies were actually quite conservative, of course, and his presidency began the long slide toward extreme inequality in America that grows worse every day. So there is nothing about Reagan’s legacy on which we should look back fondly. The point is instead that, as the years have passed, the extremist views that drove my moderate conservative family away from the Party of their time have themselves become unacceptably non-conservative in the current Republican Party.
Again, however, we must ask: What would it take? As Republicans have grown ever more extreme, what would have to happen to induce people who claim not to be insane finally to leave that party?
Hesitation in the Face of Ultra-Extremism Does Not Make a Person a Moderate
Given the decades-long rightward march of the Republican Party, it is important to emphasize the words that I used in the title of this column: extreme and ultra-extreme. Even though Beltway pundits like to refer to the slightly less extreme Republicans as moderates, this is a gross misuse of language. There is nothing moderate remaining in the Republican DNA anymore.
This is a party, after all, in which every aspirant for President in the 2012 primaries rejected any increase in taxes, even if those tax increases were accompanied by huge cuts in government spending (on programs that help vulnerable people). Even some of the most unobjectionable, highly-qualified nominees to the federal bench are now regularly filibustered by Senate Republicans, including Senators whose names are regularly mentioned as the supposed moderates in their party.
Republicans’ reactions to the Affordable Care Act are especially telling. A program that was originally designed by a right-wing lobbying group, and which was championed and enacted by a Republican governor (Mitt Romney), is now regularly denounced as the worst law ever passed (even by supposed pragmatic gray-hairs of the party). A program that was specifically designed to keep for-profit corporations at the center of the U.S. healthcare system is now described—even by those who are not in the Tea Party wing of the party—as a “government takeover of health care.” This is delusional thinking, and there is nothing moderate or pragmatic about it.
Members of Congress and Senators who continue to caucus with the Republicans, therefore, are not part of a “big tent” inside of which a wide variety of views is tolerated. Instead, they are participating in an organization that savages social programs, that fights civil rights, that is obsessed with sexuality and “promiscuity,” and on and on.
Again, these views are not confined to some mere fringe elements of the party. As I noted in a Verdict column last year, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor specifically demanded that Democrats agree “to reduce programs for the poor, including eliminating nutrition and education financing.” That was one of many facts that forced me to conclude, with great reluctance, that the leadership of that party has actually become sociopathic.
Even in the aftermath of the Republican-led government shutdown and the Party’s renewal of the debt-ceiling debacle last month, the Republican leadership is not changing its extremist messaging. A proposed federal law that would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is still being opposed by the overwhelming majority of Republicans. Most people, including myself, were surprised to learn that this law had not been passed decades ago. The slightly less extreme Republicans, however, report that they must explain to other Republicans that the law will not, as they seem to believe, require employers to pay for sex-reassignment surgery, and other bizarre rightwing myths.
Although seven Senate Republicans voted this week to allow that bill to come up for a vote—itself a reminder of how Republican extremism has become normal in Washington, with every bill being filibustered as a matter of course—their 38 Senate colleagues and nearly all House Republicans are opposed to the bill. House Speaker John Boehner shamed and embarrassed himself, saying that the bill should be defeated by claiming that it “will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs.”
The party that views everything through the lens of “makers and takers,” celebrating Labor Day by honoring not workers but their bosses, is not merely the hostage to a small group of ultra-extreme Tea Partiers. It is extreme to the core, with “moderation” counting as nothing more than, for example, the extremely conservative governor of New Jersey actually doing his job, even if it means cooperating with the Obama Administration in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
The Democrats and the Center-Right
Moreover, it is not as if the only alternative is the Red Army. Democrats, at this point, have adopted virtually the entire Reaganite, small-government agenda. They do not argue with the idea of government austerity, and they have signed onto, as one sad example, an appalling evisceration of the estate tax.
President Obama has repeatedly tried to cut Social Security benefits. Before the recent shutdown, the Democrats’ opening offer to keep the government operating was to continue last year’s levels of spending, leaving in place the disastrous spending cuts to which President Obama and the Democrats had agreed as part of the first debt ceiling crisis in 2011. Their “win” in ending the shutdown was thus merely a validation and continuation of conservative spending priorities.
Today’s lead editorial in The New York Times notes that Democrats have completely abandoned any effort to fight for public investments in education, infrastructure, and so on that might help to reduce the continuing levels of unemployment that do such great harm to millions of families. And even the proposals that have been offered (and quickly dropped) by the Obama Administration have been far too small.
The supposed “left wing” of the Democratic Party, moreover, is comfortably in the center of traditional American policy views. As I noted in a Verdict column in 2011, the supposed leftist “firebrand” Elizabeth Warren is reviled on the right (especially on Wall Street, which is supposedly the “reasonable” counter-balance to the Tea Party among Republicans) not because she opposes capitalism, but because she wants to make capitalism work for more than only the financial insiders.
It is surely true that Democrats are to the left of Republicans, but it is simply false to say that any Democrat today is an extreme liberal in any context other than by comparison to the extremists and ultra-extremists who currently occupy the Republican Party.
Signs of a Reawakening of Republican Reasonableness? Be Skeptical. Be Very, Very Skeptical
There have been, of course, people who have left the Republican Party in response to its growing extremism. Bruce Bartlett is a prominent example of a person whose early career involved stints in some of the most conservative corners of the Republican Party, but who gave up in disgust after years of watching his party abandon its principles in favor of something truly unrecognizable.
Bartlett’s views, however, remain essentially conservative. Although he now writes with great fervor about why ultra-extremist Republicans are disastrously wrong, his views on taxes, deficits, and so on are hardly the stuff of neo-Marxist seminars. Similarly, conservative apostate David Frum was driven from his party not for holding liberal views, but rather because he dared to publicly state that Republicans were making fools of themselves by, for example, getting into a lather about light bulb standards.
Of course, there are career consequences to breaking with one’s longtime allies. Even so, Senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican caucus early in George W. Bush’s presidency, declaring himself an Independent and thus allowing the Democrats to become the majority party in the Senate.
Similarly, former Republican Florida Governor Charlie Crist is now planning to run for his old office as a Democrat. Crist has recognized that his brand of solid conservatism fits comfortably into what the Democratic Party has become in the Obama era, and he is now trying to unseat one of the most extreme Tea Party-backed politicians in the country.
Elections held earlier this week in a few states are now feeding into news stories that the non-crazies are retaking the Republican Party. A major primary battle in Alabama, to fill a safe Republican seat in Congress, saw business interests pour money into the campaign of the non-Tea Party candidate. The victory by the deeply-flawed Democratic candidate in the Virginia governor’s race over a religious extremist has Republican elders grumbling again that they are losing winnable races by running extremists in “purple states.”
There is even scattered evidence that some of the extremists who are staying in the Republican Party are rethinking some of their views. Ohio Governor John Kasich, once an important lieutenant in the Gingrich revolution in Congress, now laments the Republicans’ “war on the poor,” noting the obvious point that current conservatives believe “[t]hat if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy.”
Similarly, Bruce Bartlett’s most recent New York Times column notes the hopeful development that a prominent Wall Street boss, William Gross of Pimco, has broken ranks and supports higher taxes on the wealthy. I noted in a Dorf on Law post more than two years ago that the denizens of Wall Street should be especially appalled by the economic insanity of many, many Republicans in Congress and in state-level offices.
The problem, again, is that what counts as “pragmatic” and “moderate” in these conversations is actually nothing of the kind. The Republican establishment, which is so worried about losing elections, is still perfectly happy with the no-new-taxes pledge that nearly every Republican has signed. This is an establishment, after all, that is represented in public by Karl Rove, whose arch-conservative views have only hardened over the years.
I am hardly the only person who suspects that the ballyhooed rift between Wall Street and the Tea Party is about tactics, not the content of their respective views. Even so, I do find it easy to believe that the extreme conservatives whom Rove represents really do not care at all about denying basic civil rights to gay people, as their ultra-extremist compatriots in the Tea Party movement want to continue to do.
The point is that these supposedly non-crazy pragmatists continue to make common cause with the ultra-extremists, supporting their agenda 99% of the time, and only challenging their candidates when there is an extremely pro-business alternative available.
The Democrats, meanwhile, are the comfortable home to people whose views used to constitute the center-right of the Republican Party. What would it take for these purported moderates and pragmatists to join forces with actual moderates and pragmatists? If they have not long since run away in disgust from their ever-more-extreme party, what claim do they have to being viewed as reasonable people?