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Middle as the left's mantra

By W. James Antle III
web posted May 21, 2001

William F. Buckley Jr. used to refuse to use the phrase "moderate Republican" to describe the likes of Nelson Rockefeller and Charles Percy on the grounds that "moderate" had "become a base-stealing word for GOP liberals." So it remains today, with many on the left responding to public perceptions of liberalism by cloaking liberal positions in centrist garb.

The Clinton years of course were predicated on the notion that liberalism should be tempered of its worst - at least from the perspective of political popularity - excesses and that the Democratic Party should redefine itself along the lines of the New Democrats' "moderation."

The basic governing notions of liberalism, complete with the expansive view of the potentialities of government and resistance to solid constitutional checks on federal power, remained intact. Gone were the presentations of liberalism most offensive to public opinion, the overt McGovernite counter-culturalism and appeals to income redistribution that might threaten the middle class rather than "the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans." Bill Clinton's was a liberalism that sought a more efficient welfare state and more cost-effective tax collection, but didn't favor dismantling big government or lowering taxes.

Yet the effort to sell liberalism as centrism was not limited to Clinton. The description of all non-conservative stances as moderate has been evident in media accounts of numerous recent political skirmishes, to the demonstrable and likely deliberate advantage of liberals. Increased domestic spending, costly environmental regulations and an education policy dictated by left-wing teacher's unions all are frequently described as moderate. One might think from reading certain press accounts that the opposite of conservative was not liberal, but moderate.

Anna Quindlen's recent Newsweek column "The Middle is The Message" is an almost comical illustration of this trend. She starts by darkly warning the Republican Party, which her journalistic career has not exactly manifest much concern for, that abandonment of hard-line conservatism in favor of a move to the center was necessary for electoral success. Why? Because a couple of people nobody has ever heard of have decided to switch their political affiliations from the GOP to the Democrats, allegedly over President George W. Bush's decision to reinstate the Mexico City policy banning federal funds to organizations that perform or promote abortions abroad.

Such anecdotal evidence is meaningless. At any point, one can find people who are switching parties and pretend that they represent a political sea change. Why are these two relative nobodies a more important harbinger of political fortune than the hundreds of Democratic elected officials who switched to the Republican Party while Bill Clinton was president? The majority of Americans who oppose taxpayer-funded abortion includes many who are pro-choice and the Mexico City policy is but a logical extension of that stance. Moreover, while there are many pro-choice Republicans, the number of single-issue pro-choice voters who are aligned with the GOP is already negligible.

Persuasive polling data exists that suggests single-issue abortion voters, that is people whose candidate preferences are actually dictated by the abortion issue, are predominantly pro-life. This is certainly and overwhelmingly the case within the Republican Party. Voters within the GOP who are pro-choice are primarily interested in issues other than abortion, which is what common sense would indicate anyway.

I would be willing to guess that more people over the past 16 years have left the GOP due to Newt Gingrich's personality than over abortion, especially side issues like whether federally funded family planning groups will be allowed to counsel people overseas to obtain abortions or lobby for legal abortion in Third World countries. Besides, if Quindlen's story means anything, it merely demonstrates the shift of socially liberal voters to the Democratic Party and of conservatives to the Republican Party that has been observed for over 40 years. One-time Republicans like former New York Mayor John Lindsay and Sens. Donald Reigle and Hillary Rodham Clinton became Democrats while longtime Democrats like Ronald Reagan, William Bennett and John Connally became Republicans.

Quindlen nevertheless obtusely pretends something diabolical is afoot here that will lead to a moderate counter-revolution against President Bush and the Republicans. Bush deceived the moderate electorate into believing that his GOP was something other than hopelessly right-wing, "...so we find ourselves here, with the former guru of the Christian Coalition running the state party in Georgia, an anti-abortion activist running the federal Office of Personnel Management and arsenic replacing the vegetable ketchup as the GOP nutritional additive of choice." Of course her examples are nothing but rhetorically pleasing nonsense. Ralph Reed is a seasoned political veteran whose stint as executive director of the Christian Coalition was his only foray outside of secular politics, and was characterized by efforts to mainstream the religious right and help it work in tandem with the more secular elements of the conservative movement. Kay James is an accomplished government official and educator whose active opposition to abortion is but a single aspect of her career. And Bush's arsenic standards are certainly defensible on the grounds of any intelligent cost-benefit analysis.

U.S. President George W. Bush stands with President of the University of Notre Dame Rev. Ed Malloy (L) and Patrick McCartan (R) as he attends the commencement ceremony at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana on May 20
U.S. President George W. Bush stands with President of the University of Notre Dame Rev. Ed Malloy (L) and Patrick McCartan (R) as he attends the commencement ceremony at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana on May 20

Bush has left intact many regulatory initiatives of his Democratic predecessor on the environment and a whole host of issues that were opposed by conservatives including this writer. His first commencement address as president, at the University of Notre Dame, praised President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty for establishing a federal welfare commitment. He has named social liberals to a number of positions in his administration, ranging from Christine Todd Whitman at the EPA to Paul Cellucci as ambassador to Canada. He selected openly gay Scott Evertz to head his national AIDS policy office. To the disapproval of many on the right, Bush's administration contains many people who are pro-choice and favor any number of liberal to moderate positions. For this he receives no points for moderation.

What makes Quindlen's own positions moderate anyway? On the environmental regulations she can at least cite public opinion. But if a majority in the polls defines moderation, then opposition to affirmative action should be considered moderate rather than conservative. Moreover, how can one side be "moderate" on an issue like abortion, when most polls show the public to be deeply divided and conflicted. A moderate might try to split the difference between pro-life and pro-choice, but by definition couldn't be hard-line pro-life or pro-choice. Sounds like selective centrism to me.

Dwight Eisenhower is quoted as calling for the GOP to "in all things that deal with people, be human, be liberal," while being fiscally conservative. He was actually referring to certain forms of social welfare spending he hoped the GOP would make more efficient rather than oppose outright, but this quotation glosses over an important fact. At the time this remark was made, the GOP was the minority party and could only win the presidency when it nominated a war hero. Every other Republican president elected since World War II has run to the right, Republicans gained parity in voter registration in the post-Reagan era and took control of Congress during a decade when the party was more homogeneously conservative than at any time in its history. When Rockefeller, Percy and George Romney were party leaders, Republicans lost most elections.

So much for being saved by the center. Let us not forget the less remembered half of Barry Goldwater's famous quote: "Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." Especially, I might add, when there is nothing moderate about it.

W. James Antle III is a former researcher for the Rhema Group, an Ohio-based political consulting firm. You can e-mail comments to wjantle@enterstageright.com.

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