Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Why Moderates Are Extinct

The retirement of Petri, Ellis and Cullen suggests neither party has room for moderates.

By - Apr 17th, 2014 12:25 pm

The late John MacIver was always a large presence, both intellectually and physically, so when he talked about the “Republican big tent,” it had a lot of resonance. The rotund attorney was an influential GOP insider, so highly regarded that the conservative MacIver Institute took its name from him, but I doubt he would approve of its approach, which often seems intent on making the once big Republican tent ever smaller and more ideologically constricted.

Thus, the MacIver Institute would criticize someone like Republican state Sen. Mike Ellis (whom MacIver would have publicly defended) for daring to oppose school vouchers. The institute’s tone is less strident than that of right wing talk radio host Charlie Sykes, who assails insufficiently conservative Republicans as RINOs, Republicans In Name Only. But the intent is the same, which may be why Brian Fraley went from “Senior Fellow” at the MacIver Institute to managing editor of Sykes Right Wisconsin website.

Ellis recently announced he would be retiring after he was embarrassed by his comments in a secret recording made by conservative provocateur James O’Keefe, famed for using hidden cameras to entrap his targets (he was sued and agreed to pay a $100,000 settlement to one of them).  “The world has changed and I just don’t fit in anymore,” Ellis declared.

The world Ellis had long fit into had ample room for Republicans like former state senator Mary Panzer, who was respected by members of both parties for brokering deals that got legislation passed. Derided as a RINO by Sykes, she was challenged by fellow Republican Glenn Grothman, who as assemblyman had long chafed under the more moderate leadership of Gov. Tommy Thompson. Grothman trounced Panzer and any remaining “RINOs” were served warning that they, too, could be hunted down.

Emboldened by that success, Grothman recently announced he would take on veteran Republican congressman Tom Petri. Petri and Democrat Rep. Ron Kind had for many years had the two swing districts in the state, while the other congressional districts leaned clearly right or left. And so Petri and Kind at times voted in disagreement with their party. Back in 2003 I interviewed Petri about the Iraq War and his answer, while diplomatically phrased, made it clear that he didn’t support President George W. Bush’s policies.

Tom Petri

Tom Petri

But in 2010 the Republican redistricting plan made Petri’s district more Republican and Kind’s more Democratic. And so, when the challenge from Grothman came, Petri surely knew he would be attacked for many votes he took that fit his district of the past, but now seemed too moderate. And so another alleged RINO headed out to pasture.

We are long past the time when segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace could complain “there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republican and Democratic parties.” Today the parties are fiercely, ideologically opposed, and Tea Party Republicans are working to make the GOP ever more right-wing. The ongoing project to ideologically cleanse the Republican Party has worked well when it comes to winning a majority in the House of Representatives (even with a minority of the national vote in 2012), aided by aggressive redistricting in states where the GOP controls the legislature, but has made it increasingly difficult for the party to win the presidency.

The old days where politicians across the aisle would forge a compromise were nobly represented by Republican state Sen. Dale Schultz and Democratic state Sen. Tim Cullen, whose efforts to create a mining bill that might take environmental concerns more seriously got nowhere. Republican senators twice elected Schultz their majority leader (in 2003 and 2005) but nowadays he barely recognizes his party. Schultz has become an apostate who was also challenged by a more conservative Republican and decided to retire.

Cullen, who is also retiring, is Schultz’s Democratic counterpart, a bit suspect within his own party. Cullen, after all, served in the administration of Gov. Thompson. And when the Democratic senators decamped to Illinois to prevent the Senate from having a quorum and passing Act 10, Cullen was more relaxed about it and regularly returned to his home. He also made attempts to forge a compromise with Gov. Scott Walker on Act 10, which some Democrats were not happy about.

Still, there was no attempt to run a more liberal candidate against Cullen, probably because he wasn’t at odds with his party on most issues. While the Republicans are split into various wings (religious conservatives, Tea Party members, Libertarians, etc.) the Democrats are far more unified.

One issue where there has been disagreement is on school choice, but that has involved only a few black legislators in Milwaukee. The defeat of pro-voucher Democrat assemblyman Jason Fields by the more liberal Mandela Barnes was a clear case of ideological cleansing. The other issue where disagreement used to occur was abortion, but the 2010 Republican redistricting pretty much assured that the swing districts of moderate Democratic representatives Tony Staskunas and Peggy Krusick (both were anti-abortion) became more partisan. Krusick’s district became more Democratic and she was defeated in the 2012 primary by the more liberal Daniel Riemer. Staskunas’ district became more Republican and he stepped down and instead ran for the Milwaukee County Board.

One reason the Democrats have more unity is that there are so many issues where they all agree with a majority of Americans. A high percentage of Democrats favor same-sex marriage, raising the minimum wage, support for alternative energy and actions to combat climate change, funding for mass transit, extending unemployment benefits for long-term unemployed, more spending on education, background checks for gun buyers, higher taxes on the  wealthy and increasing the earned income tax credit, using federal funds to expand Medicaid (which Walker and some other Republican governors turned down) and legalizing medical marijuana. A high percentage of Democrats also oppose concealed carry, requirements to limit abortion (such as requiring women to get an ultrasound) and making Christianity the state religion.

You might think the last issue an absurd one, but one poll found that 47 percent of Republicans support a religious state.  On every one of the 15 issues above where Democrats are united, polls also show support from a majority of Americans, with Republicans divided and often nearly split in two. The reality is that the Democrats have a majority of Americans in agreement on a host of issues, which makes it easy to stay unified (the main disagreement is over tactics). The Republicans, by contrast, are badly divided on many issues, which makes it likely there will be continuing battle over the ideological soul of the party.

All of which leaves little room for moderates or fence-sitters in either party. To some degree that reflects an electorate that is more fiercely divided between urban and some suburban liberals and rural, exurban and some suburban conservatives. But this polarization has been aided, as Schultz and Cullen have both argued, by big-money campaign donors that are driving the parties further from the middle.

Today, Wallace would know precisely where the parties stand on a wide range of issues. But that division has made it almost impossible to pass any legislation in Congress. In Madison, by contrast, Republicans can pass whatever they want and ignore the minority, even if there are supported by a majority of voters on some issues. Compromise is dead and litmus-test purity is all.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

17 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Why Moderates Are Extinct”

  1. Mark Foley says:

    I wager John Kennedy and Nelson Rockefeller would each find himself without a supportive party today. Perhaps even Reagan and Lincoln. But if that’s the case, perhaps the moderates should form their own party. If they were able to win only a few seats in the U.S. or state senates, they could become the controlling swing votes. Soon, one of the main parties would desperately want to coopt them.

  2. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    MacIver, knew him well.. Did not care one bit about ideology, all he was was money. Fought against Reagan than as soon as he got nomination he came over cause he was rainmaker for law firm.
    Left has not had a moderate since Zablocki/Bob Huber died. Schultz/Ellis were worst leaders we ever had in Senate. Petri never led on anything. he called himself a “constituent congressman” or ear marker.

  3. Mike Bark says:

    The guys who are all leaving or being challenged all have one thing in common. They are all guys who have been in office FOREVER.

    Mike Ellis has 44 years in. Tom Petri had a life in politics. Dale Shultz ditto.

    All are out for a few different reasons though.

    Tom Petri was sort of always thought of the Republican version of Herb Kohl. Nice guy, but really has little to no impact in the Congress. Can you think of the last cause he championed? His being a back bencher I think has been amplified by the fact that Ron Johnson, Paul Ryan, Reid Ribble and Sean Duffy all just seem to be a bit more involved in the process. I do think Republican voters care about being a leader a bit more than their Democratic counterparts, which is why do nothing Democrats like Gwen Moore, Ron Kind, and Tammy Baldwin can look forward to a long career in Congress so long as they vote the right way.

    Ellis has always seemed to have diarrhea of the mouth and it caught up to him. I guess some will bemoan the loss, but had he ran again the same Democrats who love him for being a moderate would have bludgeoned him with that video and his challenger probably would have won.

    Dale Schultz just strikes me as one of those guys who is sort of like Buzz Williams. If people aren’t kissing his butt he loves to use his position as a swing vote to get back at people. It’s interesting that he said he’d win if he ran, but he’s been in office so long that he thinks he doesn’t have to run for office anymore.

    Moderates on the Democratic side have also been purged. Jeff Plale was defeated by Chris Larson. Jason Fields was purged. Tim Cullen has had enough although like some of the Republicans he’s an old guy and it might be his time.

    I do agree that Democrats may have less fissures in their party, but they also have solid blocks of voters completely locked down. African-Americans vote nearly 90% or better for Democrats despite the fact that as a group they aren’t huge proponents of gay marriage. They are close to getting the Hispanic vote to those margins. And despite the fact that the Republicans have made some inroads in the media and specifically in talk radio, the vast majority of it is still liberal and still can be used to propel an issue. I think one of the reasons we’ve seen an issue like gay marriage change so quickly in the polls is the media has constantly promoted it and has tagged anyone opposed to it as a hateful person.

    Now if someone would just run against Jim Sensenbrenner we’d be all set because really the big problem is politics has become a career for way too many people.

  4. Bill Kurtz says:

    Mike, other than his longevity, what’s your gripe with Jim Sensenbrenner? I’m a Democrat, but I always tell liberals he is far better than whoever will succeed him.

  5. Mike Bark says:


    The problem is longevity. In my opinion these people get entrenched in their position and become very complacent. So it’s difficult to solve any of the issues of the day because guys like Sensenbrenner figure they have a job for life. I haven’t seen him take any leadership on anything of late. In fact, the last time he made waves was when he was whining about Ron Johnson’s proposal on staff having to take Obama Care.

    I think we’d be better served if representatives went, stayed 8-12 years, and then got back out.

  6. tim haering says:

    Cullen fits my idea of a moderate Dem, like Wayne Wood or my political hero, Bob Ziegelbauer. Your analysis of Ellis and Petri convince me further that they were just cozy placeholders – Petri from the back-bench and Ellis [like RIsser] as gavelmaster. And your analysis eschews psychological observations, but I could never get used to Ellis always wearing tinted lenses, even indoors. Hopefully his replacement will show more openness. Lately I am enchanted with the idea of a fresh start, so all the institutional memory we lose here is a positive.

  7. Bill Kurtz says:

    Ziegelbauer as a moderate Dem? He was more conservative than a Warren Knowles Republican! He voted for Act 10, but he had voted like a Republican for years before that. I’d honestly like to know (not a rhetorical question) on what issues he differed from a Tea Party Republican?

  8. Mike Bark says:

    The real question is “what is a moderate”. For example, I’m very fiscally conservative and probably in step with the tea party on fiscal issues, but I’m pretty liberal on a lot of social issues and my views are probably more in line with the Democrats. So what am I?

    I think the media tends to say that moderates are Republicans who break with their party enough times on issues that they care about and the same standard isn’t applied to Democrats. The Media like Bruce Murphy and Steve Jagler bemoan the loss of moderates and bipartisanship only when it’s the Republicans calling the shots. When Jim Doyle was ramming through an unprecedented tax increase or the Affordable Care Act was being shoved through they were nowhere to be found.

  9. Bruce Thompson says:

    I think there is an element of selfishness among both small-tent Democrats and Republicans. They only want people who agree with them on everything to serve in the legislature, yet they need more than the small group of true believers to win elections.

  10. Observer says:

    Hmm, I see mention of the African-American vote, the Latino voter, the anti-establishment vote but no one mentions the young voter. I’m afraid I’ve yet to hear any of them supporting the GOP. I’m predicting they are going the way of the Whig or Federalist Party.

  11. stacy moss says:

    This sounds right. The Democrats by in large are not ideologically driven, hence they seem wishy washy compared to the Republicans. Dems want to make public policy. Hence they are essentially moderates who form around the consensus of the people.

    The old style Republicans just want to make money for their people (which then will trickle down to us people). But they
    out-flanked themselves when they teamed up with the fringe elements of modern thought (those who deny evolution or global warming or the science of economics).

    If the Dems ran parallel to the Republicans some would be advocating a radical restructuring of the way we distribute the winnings of capitalism.

    Why are their no fringe Democrats?

    Because they want to govern.

  12. Andy says:

    This sounds right. The Republicans by in large are not ideologically driven, hence they seem wishy washy compared to the Democrats. Republicans want to make public policy only when absolutely necessary.. Hence they are essentially moderates who form around the consensus of the people.

    The old style Democrats just want to make the rich and middle class pay for the lifestyle of anyone who doesn’t want to work for a living (Which will eventually eliminate all but the extreme wealthy just like in the former communist countries). But they out-flanked themselves when they teamed up with the fringe elements of modern thought (those who approve murdering unborn babies and will do anything to end freedom of religion in this country).

    If the GOP ran parallel to the Dems, some would be advocating a radical restructuring of the way we distribute the winnings of capitalism.

    Why are there no fringe Republicans?

    Because they want to govern.

  13. East Slider says:

    As far as the “young vote”, I know more than a few in the 18 to 30 group that are voting GOP all the way, but that’s just an anecdotal sample. There are a few other points there though. First off, its a very common pattern for people to grow more conservative as they get older, that’s been happening probably since the beginning of modern politics. I’m thinking right now of one friend in particular, whose parents are both die hard libs and who had always told me he was a 100% Democrat, Obama backer, etc. First, I think that the nearly 6 years so far of Obama’s ineffective, blundering reign have certainly disillusioned many of those who saw him as close to God-like back in 2008, who fell completely for his slick presentation and excellent speaking abilities (provided he had a working teleprompter of course!) They’ve seen how this candidate, who came in with such high hopes from so many of his supporters, has accomplished so little and is looking more and more like just as much of a tool of Wall Street and big business as any of his predecessors were. Sure, he may have switched his tune on same sex marriage, which so many younger people (including myself) have supported for a much longer time, but its pretty clear to everyone that Obama’s sudden switch was based totally on political calculations, not at all on a switch in his personal ideology.

    Another issue of many that I discussed with this friend in particular were his views on what role the government should play in helping the poor get out of poverty. His original thought was that us in the GOP “didn’t care at all about the poor” that we’d just cut off all benefits and let them starve! Once I explained that wasn’t the case at all, but that we objected to the waste in government programs, the fact that how so many programs were set up just fostered long term, even life long dependancy on the gov’t, etc and that we needed new solutions, he started coming around quickly. He sees clearly how so many of the programs are really just jokes, how Quest cards are so often used not for putting decent food on people’s tables but for at best, buying super overpriced bags of chips and soda at convenience stores and often worse, are just sold for 50 cents on the dollar or less for drugs, something so many older libs still seem totally blind to. Another one was realizing how when the government will basically pay the way for a woman, or girl that gets pregnant without having any chance of being able to support that child and from a guy that’s sure as hell never going to be there to help raise the child, let alone ever even consider getting married and actually having a real nuclear family and growing old together, that its no surprise that we’ve seen the explosion in “unplanned” pregnancies among not only the poor but the middle class as well now and how that’s something that just cannot continue if we expect this country to thrive for the long term. He mentioned one ex girlfriend in particular, who is now pregnant (not from him) and isn’t sure who the father between at least two guys, who’s in her mid 20’s, still living with her parents, along with her older sister who already has a kid and they’re both hooked on heroin, They sell their Quest cards for heroin every month on the day they get them, have no job prospects and no plans for the future and don’t really care that much either! They know that life could sure be a lot better, but they get everything handed to them, between the gov’t benefits and the parents, so there’s really no consequence either. That’s when the reality of liberal handout policies really come clear, something I think most older libs are still in total denial about but a lot of us younger people fully realize, that what’s going on now cannot continue and will never work.

  14. Observer says:

    East Sider, when you throw out the term “Libs” many people stop reading.
    You have one second hand story.
    How many Quest cards go for the purchase of heroin? I, 10, 100, 1,000?
    If 999,999 people were getting Quest cards to help them survive and it is only one person that screws the system, would you punish the others?
    I’m also curious as to your take on the Earned Income Credit?

  15. Andy says:

    Observer, while I too do not have numbers, the abuse of the quest cards is rampant. Have an honest conversation with anyone living in lower income areas and they’ll back that up. Anyone who denies this happens is only fooling themselves. Despite being one of the most important to many people, the SNAP system is also one of the most abused forms of assistance.

  16. PMD says:

    Food stamp abuse amounts to $3 billion a year. Oil companies get $4 billion a year in tax subsidies. Corporations avoid $150 billion a year in taxes through loopholes and avoidance schemes. Surely everyone here is as outraged by the latter two as they are by the first.

  17. Observer says:

    I have no doubt that there is fraud but I reject the solution that we end any programs that have fraud attached to them. Besides Quest folks we’d have no planes, weapons, politicians, or doctors. So what do you two propose?

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