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