Culture

It’s Her Party…

Tuesday, October 2, 2018


More than a decade ago, I made the case that the Republican Party needed to embrace moderates rather than shun them, and that there was room in the “big tent” for Republicans like me. Today, a caustic combination of extreme ideology and the impulses of Donald Trump has made the party of Lincoln and Reagan almost unrecognizable. To be clear, the far right is not the same as principled conservatism, which does play a valuable role the Republican Party. But the valuable voices of the middle have almost disappeared—and that’s a problem for the GOP and the country. Unfortunately, I see the same rush to the extremes happening to the Democratic Party. If moderates on both sides can’t find a way to temper the fringes, the political dysfunction in which we currently find ourselves may be here to stay. 


I served as the Republican governor of New Jersey and worked for President George W. Bush as the EPA administrator, but I no longer feel welcome in the party I worked so hard for and the voters I represented. My Republican party valued liberty, believed that free enterprise and open markets improved lives, and viewed the United States as a shining city on a hill—a beacon of freedom to the world. 


Today’s Republican Party elected Donald Trump—a former Democrat whose conservative credentials were suspect even during the primary, but whose populist tendencies and unconventional

communication style captivated those on the far edges of the party and society who were frustrated by the failure of Congress to tackle the big issues. For others, because he lacked sincere political conviction, they saw someone who could be influenced and steered to the right. The result is a president who has turned the country inward, erected trade barriers, infuriated our staunchest allies, threatened to lock up journalists, and failed to condemn white supremacist groups. 


Two years into the Trump administration, it is clear, in spite of economic growth, that he is unfit to run this great country. So many who gave the president the benefit of the doubt during his campaign and took a “wait and see” approach fail to hold him accountable today as he undermines some of the very basic tenets of our democracy. Those Republicans, conservatives and centrists, who have criticized him for both legitimate policy reasons and for his temperament find themselves as targets from both the President himself and a far-right mob who throw around terms like “RINO,” “establishment,” and, most offensively, “cuck.” The online echo chamber makes this problem worse. This isn’t healthy for the party, nor is it healthy for democracy. 


But lamenting what the party has become isn’t enough. We have to ask ourselves how we got here and how we get back to a time when there was room in the “big tent” for a Republican like me. Not long ago those who disagreed on hot button issues like immigration policy or gun control could coexist in the party. That’s not the case today. 


Republican senator Jeff Flake of Arizona has been a stalwart for principled conservativism during his tenure in the House and the Senate. He is an intelligent, thoughtful senator who values civility. But his criticism of Donald Trump and a more moderate position on immigration—one issue out of dozens—have essentially forced him out of the U.S. Senate. He announced in an impassioned speech on the Senate floor that he will be stepping down from his seat next year. I encourage all Americans to read the transcript or watch the speech. His voice of reason will be missed in the U.S. Senate by both Republicans and Democrats. 


I still believe in the Republican Party’s ideals: respect for the individual, fiscal responsibility, pragmatic and realistic foreign policy, and environmental stewardship. And honestly, there isn’t another place for Republicans like me to go. The Democratic Party is changing too. Their reaction to the Trump administration has been to move farther left, electing candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the primaries. While I am encouraged that more young women are running for office, I don’t believe Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s policies or divisive rhetoric are the solution either. An overcorrection by the left to Donald Trump will not heal the country or bridge the divisions. What Donald Trump’s champions fail to see is that their retreat to the far right has only energized the far left. This could be costly for Republicans in November, and the pain will be even worse if young, newly elected leftists are driving the Democratic Party’s platform.


So how did we get here? In my 2004 book It’s My Party Too, I wrote that a shift too far to the right would alienate moderate voters in the party. Ideological purity might be satisfying for a few election cycles. But eventually, the votes for the far right won’t keep up with those moderates leaving the party or the new voters the Democrats are adding to their voter rolls. Majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives would be lost. Today only 29 percent of registered voters identify themselves as Republicans, 30 percent as Democrats and fully 40 percent as independents/nonaffiliated and that number is growing.



I also argued that long-term electoral success is reached by building majorities that move to the center—attracting new voters. Not only is that the best way to win elections, but it is also the best way to govern. I hoped my analysis of the Republican Party might spur some changes and that moderate members of the House and Senate would continue to have a valued role. Unfortunately, the party has moved farther right. That’s not to say that those on the ideological edges don’t also have a place in the party—they do. Rigorous, reasoned debate on issues is healthy. But there should also be a place for more moderates like me and others like Senator Flake. 


It hasn’t always been this way.  There was a time when bipartisan agreements to pass major legislation were heralded as good governance. Centrists in both parties played key roles in brokering such deals. Many would argue that deals and bipartisanship aren’t necessary when one party has a supermajority. But supermajorities don’t last forever. This is something that Republicans ought to think about before November.


To make any meaningful impact on this plight, individuals have to vote in primaries. Voter turnout has been abysmal, hovering between some 10–17%. Those who show up to vote in the primaries are often the most extreme, ideological members of each party. In order for candidates to win, they must move away from the center. Ultimately, the lack of voter participation has driven the

Republican and Democratic parties to the far right and far left, respectively. 


Last year in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio—a polarizing figure even for New York—won reelection with the support of only 8.5 percent of New York City residents. Primary voters matter. We decry the lack of civility, but divisive partisans like Bill de Blasio are elected as leaders because we don’t show up to the polls.


Many moderate Republicans face primary challenges by candidates who believe the incumbents are too liberal—even if they represent moderate districts. When the incumbent loses, and the more conservative candidate gets to the general election, he or she can’t beat the Democrat. So Republicans lose a seat that they previously held. This means one less moderate in the party, further exacerbating the problem. 


Voters and party loyalists should call for leadership that values civility, intellect and healthy debate that works to find common ground with the other side. Respected conservatives with

clout among the Republican base must also vouch for their more moderate colleagues and communicate to voters that they provide both ideological and electoral benefits to the party.

A Republican in Maine looks much different than a Republican in South Carolina. This diversity in the party is a good thing. It’s how you build majorities. Voters should also let elected officials know when they are doing a good job and when they don’t feel they are representing the best interests of their constituents. Public officials are elected to represent all the people in their district or state, not just those who voted for them.


Advocacy groups in Washington, D.C., have contributed to the problem with the development of electoral scorecards. These lobbyists, associations, and think tanks give ratings to candidates based on a handful of votes they find important. Limiting the use of these scorecards would be beneficial to moderates who vote with the party over 90 percent of the time.  But since the scorecards only take into consideration “key votes,” it makes the centrists seem like habitual traitors to their party. Organizations on both the left and right use these scorecards to the detriment of party moderates.


Besides encouraging the party organizations to embrace those closer to the center, what else can voters do? In any election cycle, voters can challenge candidates on their willingness to work across party lines to solve problems. For candidates for the House and Senate, ask if they would join the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of legislators who have pledged to put solving

issues above party loyalty if that’s what it takes to get things done.


As voters head to the polls in November, they can demonstrate that the middle matters and reject extreme candidates that don’t value dissenting views within their own party. Engaging the centrists is key to electoral victory. And this can be done without abandoning core principles. America is a country with diverse viewpoints that span the political spectrum. Those closer to the middle, the moderates in each party, serve an important function in government and must make their voices heard for the health of our political parties and our nation.


 


This piece was originally published in Avenue’s October 2018 issue.


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