GOP Moderates, Conservatives Clash

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:

  • Districts: With the exception of Connecticut, virtually all of the districts represented by moderates who were serving in 1995 are at least as Republican-leaning as they were a decade ago. Redrawn district lines in New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Michigan, in particular, conferred larger margins of victory on Bush in 2004 than for his father 12 years earlier.
  • Congressional approval rating: It’s easy to forget that the Contract With America Congress labored in an extraordinarily hostile environment. Throughout 1995, the approval rating for Congress remained mired in the low to mid 30% range. During the week the House passed its historic budget, for example, only 34% of Americans approved of the job Congress was doing, while 57% disapproved. Today, the approval rating is lower, but not by much, at 27%.
  • Presidential Approval Rating: Not only was the congressional approval rating for the new Republican-controlled Congress in 1995 quite low, but President Clinton’s approval rating was considerably higher, in the high 40s/low 50s range. The level of disapproval of his policies during this period — between 36% and 41% — mirrors the approval rating for President Bush today.
  • Public’s state of mind: The sour public mood that so worries today’s moderates is nearly identical to the one that prevailed in 1995. Today, 68% tell Gallup that they are dissatisfied with the way things are going; in 1995 the angst meter registered at 66%.
  • Economic conditions: Despite a strong economy, 65% of Americans insist that economic conditions are either "fair" or "poor." Back then, ironically, the even higher level of economic anxiety (70% said economic conditions were either "fair" or "poor") emboldened Republicans to act aggressively.

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.