Extremism in Defense of Moderation Is No Vice

By Thompson, Nicholas | The Washington Monthly, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Extremism in Defense of Moderation Is No Vice


Thompson, Nicholas, The Washington Monthly


The moderate Republicans are likable and often right. Why aren't they more influential?

A MODERATE REPUBLICAN CHAMPIONING early childcare can feel a little lonely sometimes. In late March, Vermont's Republican senator, James Jeffords, passionately addressed the Senate committee on Health, Education, Welfare, and Pensions which, as chairman, he had convened to discuss the state of childcare in the United States: "There is no question that America lags far behind all other industrialized nations in the treatment and provision of early education and childcare for preschool-aged children" His Democratic colleagues responded in kind. Liberal senator Paul Wellstone described the lack of childcare as "the one really huge indictment I can make of politics in America today."

Sen. Jeffords listened carefully to the expert testimony, occasionally nodding slowly and leaning to his left to whisper to Ted Kennedy, the committee's ranking Democrat. Jeffords couldn't have leaned to his right because the ranking Republican member, New Hampshire's Judd Gregg, was AWOL. According to a member of his staff, the Granite-State Senator "had office meetings with people from the University of New Hampshire." The next most senior Republican, Tennessean Bill Frist, wasn't there either. Neither was Tim Hutchinson, the Arkansas senator and Bob Jones University graduate who earned a 100 percent conservative voting record last year from The National Journal. In fact, the entire GOP side of the table was empty.

But Jeffords is used to being alone. He has broken with the Republican leadership repeatedly over his 25 years in office, from his solitary advocacy of Clinton's health-care proposal in 1993 to his early opposition to George W. Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut. Representing a liberal state that sends a Socialist to Congress every two years, Jeffords often seems closer to Kennedy than to Hutchinson.

Although both chambers of Congress are closely divided, the Republican leadership in the House, led by Texan Tom DeLay, has proved amazingly adept at getting its ducks in line and moving conservative bills through with assembly-line efficiency. But the founding fathers designed the Senate as a place for debate, and even Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the hyper-efficient majority leader who often irons his shirts after his drycleaners return them, hasn't managed to completely overhaul it. In this environment, and with a 5050 split, Jeffords could be a kingmaker, particularly teaming up with the three moderate New England GOP colleagues he eats lunch with every Wednesday-Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine.

Fiscally conservative, socially tolerant, moderately internationalist, generally pro-environment, tough on crime, and hungry for good government, the Mod Squad, as they like to call themselves, has the power to reshape the agenda in Washington. Chafee and Jeffords showed great courage recently by braving Dick Cheney's blandishments, and tempering the president's gigantic tax cut, batting the $1.6 trillion price tag down to $1.2 trillion in the Senate's temporary budget outline. But history has given the moderates the opportunity to do even more. Working with Democrats and other Republican senators with centrist instincts, the four New England moderates could build potent legislation from the center out and overhaul our childcare policies and much more for the good of our country. The question is whether they'll rise to the challenge.

The Center Cannot Hold

Moderate Republicans have had an impressive pedigree, reaching back to the party's founding by anti-slavery activists in the 1850s. Teddy Roosevelt clashed so strongly with the Party's old guard that he split off and founded his own Bull Moose movement. Henry Cabot Lodge, paterfamilias of a great New England aristocratic dynasty, didn't slide along with party leadership in the 1920s when he saw the oil industry reaching its hands into the White House; he helped crack open the Teapot Dome scandal and nearly brought down his own party. …

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