Tuesday, the GOP took back the majority of the House of Representatives, which the media is framing as a major disaster for Democrats and triumph for Republicans. In their narrative, the election has been an outright rebuke of Democrat policy, profoundly damaging the party.
Yet there is one faction that has lost far worse in this election season than the Democrats possibly can: moderate Republicans. The rise of the Tea Party represents the peak of an ongoing decline amongst moderate figures within the GOP, a process which has continued inexorably for the last several elections.
The Democrats’ losses are attributable to voters taking out their frustration on the party in power; they have little, if anything, to do with Democrat policies themselves. Whenever the country is in dire economic straits, the ruling party is punished at the polls. Many commentators correctly point out that the Democrats’ losses will be greater than a ruling party usually faces during a typical midterm season, but these are not typical times for this country.
Two years ago, voters bore similar dissatisfaction, and they responded by voting against the party in power, the Republicans; then, as well, commentators predicted the demise of the Republican Party. Four years before that, in 2004, similarly dire predictions were made for the Democrats when Bush won his second term. This election is no more a rebuke of liberal governing principles than 2008 was of conservative ones. This type of hyperbolic rhetoric and analysis wrongly attributes the normal workings of democracy to ideological sea changes, rather than simple voter dissatisfaction. If the country’s problems continue, Democrats will likely find themselves back in control of the House and Senate in two to four years. Their loss, however large, may only be temporary.
The same cannot be said for moderate Republicans. Regardless of which party has triumphed in the last several congressional elections, centrists in the party have seen fewer of their members elected to Congress and their relative influence within the party decline. This year, moderate Republican Congressional incumbents and candidates have been defeated in primaries across much of the country, losing to radical Tea Party alternatives. From Congressman Mike Castle in Delaware to Charlie Crist in Florida to three-term incumbent senator Robert Bennett — who failed to receive the Republican nomination largely because he voted for TARP — this has already been a terrible season for GOP moderates.
Even old stalwart John McCain faced a challenger in the Arizona Republican primary this year. The difference between the senator’s positions during his presidential campaign in 2000 and his senatorial campaign and career in 2008 is stark. The old McCain was a centrist who promoted a pragmatic and moderately conservative agenda, often diverging from radical interests within his party. In other words, a maverick. In 2000, John McCain ran for President as a centrist Republican. In 2008, he moved to the right, and today, would stand no chance of being a GOP presidential candidate today as a moderate.
Based on the trend this election confirms, moderate Republicans may quickly become a politically extinct species. We shouldn’t welcome this change. Most of the great leaders of the party in recent history have been moderates, such as Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and George H.W. Bush ’48. Leaders such as these exemplified the bipartisan consensus that has been so crucial to effective federal policy in the last few decades.
We hear much talk of bipartisanship in Washington, but bipartisanship can only happen when moderates hold sway. That way, differences over policy are not so great as to be irreconcilable. While the Democrats’ loss is a temporary setback, the moderate GOP loss could become permanent, which would be a terrible loss for all Americans, on the left and right. Ronald Reagan famously said, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.” Ironically, moderate republicans may find his words eerily familiar today, even as their party celebrates victory.
Alex Steiner is a sophomore in Berkeley College.