The Washington Times

The time has come for a foray into the tangled thicket of Washington politics that forms the habitat of that most elusive of creatures, the “moderate Republican.” Neither fish nor fowl, or perhaps both, this species played an especially important role in last week’s House approval of a 10-year, $792 billion tax cut package.

The ranks of moderate Republicans in the House are generally said to number about 40, which is a little less than a fifth of the GOP conference. The GOP’s unusually thin majority means, however, that the House leadership is unable to get things done even on party-line votes without the concurrence of most members of the moderate group.

Who are they? What do they think? What do they want? Here’s how The Washington Post’s Eric Pianin and Michael Grunwald described the moderates in their front page story on the House tax vote:

“GOP moderates have a reputation for capitulation on Capitol Hill, and yesterday’s deal is likely to revive that reputation. . . . There are two schools of thought on the 40 or so Republicans moderates, who meet for lunch every Tuesday but rarely manage to coordinate their strategies.

In one view, they are the wimps of the House, invariably yielding to the conservative wing of the party on key legislation. In the other view, they are a quietly influential check on the far right of the GOP, subtly shifting the party toward the political center in a nonconfrontational way.”

Now, as it happens, only in The Post’s universe can it be said that there are precisely “two schools of thought” on the moderates. The idea that they are “wimps” is a Democratic view, expressed especially when the moderates decline to fulfill Democrats’ fondest hopes. In this case, they did not torpedo the GOP leadership by defeating tax cuts. On a previous occasion, they mostly voted to impeach President Clinton.

The idea that the moderates are “quietly influential,” meanwhile, is the moderate Republican view of moderate Republicans. One can often find moderate Republicans quoted at length by The Post explaining their quiet influence, as indeed in this story.

I am familiar with at least two more schools of thought on the moderates, schools that have, perhaps predictably, escaped the attention of The Post. These would be views found among the 80 percent or so of the Republican conference that does not fall into the “moderate” camp, and held as well by virtually all members of organized conservative groups and most of the politically attuned rank and file of the GOP.

In the mainstream Republican view, the House GOP moderates prefer an accommodationist, go-along-to-get-along approach to politics – an approach that, in the view of the (conservative) mainstream GOP, pays little heed to the conservative principles that made the GOP a majority. The term of art is “a squish,” meaning someone who stands firm on nothing.

There is a harder-line view as well, found among the 50 or so House members and their allies who constitute the hard-line “conservative wing” of the GOP. It’s essentially that the GOP moderates are cowardly traitors who have subverted the Republican Party’s conservative message. Some would even say that the party would be better off without them.

There’s some common ground to these views. Yes, the moderates often in the end vote with their party’s conservative majority; likewise, they do so only after exerting influence behind the scenes; and the influence they exert usually runs in a direction away from the principles conservatives prefer But a few points of qualification are necessary:

First of all, they are Republicans. They are not members of a third party in tactical alliance with Democrats. The “reputation for capitulation” of Democratic fancy (by the way, is that a good way to describe moderate Republicans if you want to encourage them to defect from their party brethren?) is really no more than the tendency of Republicans to be more at home with Republicans, as Democrats are with Democrats.

“Moderate” is a sensibility, not a set of issue positions. It is not centrism – though it obviously has the effect of pulling the right to the left. It indicates a wish to be responsive to the needs of the other side; where possible, to split the difference and make a deal. At all times, this sensibility eschews lines in the sand.

Moderates are principled, but their principles are not ideological. What looks to the ideologically minded, right or left, as inconsistency in the positions they take is, to moderates themselves, simply the result of the consistent case-by-case application of pragmatic decision-making.

Finally, the smaller the GOP majority, the greater the influence of its moderate members. It’s an interesting fact of politics that there are two ways the moderates can lose influence: either by the GOP’s loss of the majority or by a substantial increase in the GOP majority, particularly if the increase takes the form of new conservative members.