April 1, 2006
My last two columns have examined the most significant political development on Capitol Hill in many years -- namely, the decision by many Republican moderates to untether themselves from their party's predominantly conservative mainstream and set off in their own more decidedly liberal direction.
"The moderates," Congressional Quarterly noted last year, "are not known for fighting to the bitter end." Rather, they have acquired a reputation for "caving to pressure from their leaders to preserve their ability to get desired committee assignments and favors in appropriations bills." Indeed, despite their misgivings, moderates ultimately cried uncle on the president's tax cuts, renewal of the Patriot Act, last year's modest retrenchment of federal spending, and the addition of two conservative justices to the Supreme Court. The marriage had its rocky moments, but the warring spouses ultimately found ways to persevere.
Over the last six months, however, Republican moderates have all but filed for divorce. Most notably, they mounted an open assault on the president's miniscule spending cuts, adding $16 billion in social welfare spending in the Senate and then threatening to do the same in the House. Their tone, moreover, is more overtly confrontational than during previous spats. Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.) described the president's proposal to modestly reduce spending on failed welfare programs as "scandalous." A House moderate even referred to his conservative Republican colleagues as "the other side." Oops.
Is this intentional? According to Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership (which represents moderate Republicans), it is: "We live in swing districts where the president is not polling well." Indeed, she acknowledges, moderates actually welcome the opportunity to oppose the president's budget because "It may let us show we're not just like Bush, and help us get reelected."
Edmund Burke notwithstanding, let's assume for a moment that lawmakers live solely to get elected and re-elected, rather than, as Delaware moderate Mike Castle himself once put it, "to make tough choices and … set priorities." Is today's political environment measurably worse than the one that prevailed, say, during the no-holds-barred days of 1995 and the Contract With America? As I noted in a previous column, back then today's wobbly-kneed moderates were among the loudest cheerleaders for the most far-reaching budget proposal in decades.
As the late, great sportscaster Warner Wolf used to say, let's go to the videotape:
Why, then, have the moderates behaved so disparately under such remarkably similar circumstances? After all, they prevailed in election after election, even after casting presumably difficult votes. New Hampshire moderate Charles Bass said it best. "It is rare," he told the Boston Globe, "that someone suffers fatal political consequences for voting in good faith to curb the growth of government."
One explanation is that the president and Hill leaders have done precious little to discipline moderates who veer off the Republican reservation. Ironically, those fatal political consequences may be imminent -- not because the moderates have cast tough votes, but because they have avoided them.
Michael Franc who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations.
First appeared in My Party Too