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Moderates! Ugh! What Are They Good For? Occasionally Something.

Matthew Yglasias worries that a Christine O'Donnell win over Mike Castle in Delaware's Republican Senate primary might push America's political culture to the right.  That is based on some shaky assumptions (like the one that the two parties are probably fated to divide time in power about equally - a possible outcome, but not at all certain), but it is worth thinking about conditions a conservative primary challenge against moderate Republicans might push the Republican Party to the right in the short-term, but shift the political culture to the left.

Within our present context, a "moderate" member of the Senate or House of Representatives (of either party) is usually an opportunist looking for attention and continued reelection to Congress.  That doesn't mean they have no principles at all.  They would probably continue to support democracy against Nazi or Communist tyranny even if support for dictatorship polled in the low fifties.  But within the current parameters of American politics, whatever principles they might have don't usually come into play in a decisive way.  Whether taxes go up or down five percent, whether there is a health insurance mandate, or whether cap-and-trade passes matter primarily to the extent that they impinge on the moderate's survival and prominence.  They will vote with their party when it is popular to do so and ostentatiously break with their party when the polls (either nationally or in their own constituencies) go sharply in the other direction.  When the polling is ambiguous on an issue of great public concern, they will usually demand bribes for their states or districts, as well as private and public stroking in return for their supporting a watered down version of their party's agenda.  They are a vain and infuriating bunch and no sentiment should be wasted on them.  Conservatives should seek to replace "moderate" Republicans with conservative Republicans whenever possible.

But in cases where a Republican conservative can't win (either because the constituency would not elect one or because the more conservative candidate is fatally flawed), a Republican moderate is usually preferable to a liberal Democrat.  Republican moderates can usually be counted on to vote for the popular parts of the Republican agenda whereas a liberal Democrat would be a vote against.  Moderates (of either party) can usually be induced to vote for policies that are supported by the majority of their party but are only marginally popular (or marginally unpopular.)  Winning their support can often be a painful, irritating process, but the presence of a moderate of your party rather than an ideologically opposed member of the other party can make the difference between a major policy shift or a stalemate.  Imagine how different the health care issue would have played out if Democrats had opted for ideological purity and nominated losing liberal Senate candidates in non-left-leaning constituencies like Indiana, Louisiana, and Nebraska and instead of "moderate" Democrats like Evan Bayh, Mary Landrieu, and Ben Nelson, we instead had conservative Republicans.  I'm not too concerned about about the short-term consequences of Republicans losing the Delaware Senate seat.  For 2011-2012, it is likely to be about the same stalemate whether the Senate Republicans have 49, 50, or 51 votes.  But it would be a shame if having a liberal Democrat Senator from Delaware rather than a moderate Republican prevented the passage of a major conservative reform of health care (or taxes or whatever) on the off chance (or maybe a little more than an off chance) that a Republican President was elected in 2012. 

Categories > Politics

Discussions - 6 Comments

What does "can't win" mean in the aftermath of Scott Brown?

Does it have any relevance at all in this midterm cycle?

Feingold is in the fight of his life in Wisconsin; Boxer very well might go down in a very Democrat California; and Patty Murray is about to be ushered out the door in the Pacific Northwest, {again, another area not known to be a Republican stronghold}.

That being the case, Sestak going down hard in an increasingly blue Pennsylvania, ------------------ why shouldn't O'Donnell be given her chance in Delaware, in an election cycle very much tilted against Democrats.

Castle is a political empty set, ----------- and as for the committee chairmanships, -------------- when we possessed the chair of the judiciary committee when Ginsburg was nominated, what good did that do?

Who here thinks that if we were in the majority that the Republicans would have shot down the "wise latina woman," or blasted out the water the demonstrably unqualified Elena Kagan?

Even with a majority, -----------the GOP would have approved them.

And wasn't it McCain who agitated for campaign finance "reform," and did so in his position as committee chair.

Does the Republican caucas in the Senate DESERVE majority status? Wouldn't they blow it by forcing their Republican peers in the House to buy into one "bipartisan" agreement after another? Wasn't it the House that stayed strong in the first months of the Obama administration, while Republican Senators fell over themselves in their eagerness to cut a "bipartisan" deal with our "first black President."

I'm inclined to think that a Republican majority in the Senate would only prove a menace to the best interests of the country, the party, and our Presidential hopes come 2012.

Thirty years ago, around a quarter of the Democratic Congressional caucus and about a tenth of the Republican caucus held views on public policy closer to the median opinion of the other party's caucus. A few year's back, the National Journal published a rank ordering of members of Congress according to their voting records. The parties are now fairly neatly sorted into two camps, in between which is a small interstitial zone with fewer than ten members of the House in it. The most liberal Republican therein was a man named Shays who (per the National Journal) held to views that put him near the precise center of opinion in Congress.

If people's policy preferences exist on a spectrum but their electoral choices are binary, you are going to have a certain number of voters and pols whose preferences will be somewhat distant from the median of whichever camp they join. It is not a political pathology, just the way things necessarily are. Politicians of modal preferences on high politics are perfectly capable of subverting the public interest for political patronage to the home state (see the careers of Alphonse d'Amato or Theodore Stevens).

Actually, a “stalemate” might be preferable than either current party having too much power. The best thing that could ever happen to this country would be for the federal government to become unable to do anything at all, and get used to not being comfortable in their seats. Maybe the less we make our gov’t like a lifetime career for professional politicians, and more like a temporary civic service, the better off we’ll all be.

Dan, sorry I'm late getting back to you but I was out of town. There is no exact analogue to Scott Brown in the Delaware race. Castle is more liberal than Brown (especially on cap-and-trade) and O'Donnell more conservative. Though if Brown had had O'Donnells policy preferences and (more importantly) her personal issues, he would have been toast - as she probably is but we'll see and I can hope for a pleasant surprise.

You are of course right that a Republican-controlled Senate probably would have confirmed Obama's Supreme Court picks, but it is certain (or as certain as anything could be in this crazy mixed up world) that Obamacare would not have passed in its present form. And anyway I don't see how having one more liberal Democrat rather than a moderate Republican (who votes with conservatives about half the time helps with judges, taxes, spending or anything else.

Mechelle, if there is a stalemate, marginal income tax rates go up across the board, entitlements continues to eat up the budget, the individual health insurance mandate goes into effect, government bureaucrats will have the power to push provate health insurers into a death spiral, and that is just off the top of my head.

Pete, Good.

Maybe things have to get REALLY bad before most people wake up and get involved in their government, and we make some REAL changes in how things have been done for the last 100 years or so. As long as things are still barely tolerable, the staus quo is going to continue.

While everyone is stressing about how many elephants, rhinos and donkeys are trying to squeeze up to the trough, nobody seems to notice that the barn is about to collapse on all our heads.

Mechelle, no reason why we HAVE to go the Greece route and I think there are viable strategies aside from waiting to pick up the wreckage of who-knows-what. For one thing, it isn't clear to me that limited government would be the most likely outcome of the scenario I outlined.

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