The Demise of Moderate Republicans

A friend of mine recently stated that in their view,

There are many moderate Republicans in our government now. And there are also some conservatives. Some of them are running for president, but the majority in my opinion, are what I would call moderate.

As one who has extensively studied American political history, I would have to strongly disagree. Political ideology has moved further and further to the right over the decades. While moderate and even progressive views were once dominant in Republican circles, today they can scarcely be found.

The Progressive Republican Legacy

Teddy RooseveltA century ago the Republican Party had a vibrant progressive wing led by Theodore Roosevelt. After Roosevelt became president in 1901 following the assassination of President McKinley, he quickly established himself with his “Square Deal” platform as an avid trust-buster waging war on corporate power, and a committed conservationist.

Teddy Roosevelt served two terms as president, winning a strong majority in the 1904 election. When his successor, William Taft, elected in 1908, turned out to be not as progressive in his policies as Roosevelt had hoped, Roosevelt ran against him in 1912 on the “Bull Moose” ticket.

His party platform called for (among other things) strict limits on campaign contributions, a system of social insurance for the elderly, the unemployed and the disabled, minimum wage laws and an eight-hour work day, women’s suffrage, an inheritance tax, and a constitutional amendment to allow an income tax.

Woodrow Wilson was the Democratic nominee in 2012, and as Jules Whitcover reports in his book, Party of the People, “The campaign [soon] became a contest between the two [Roosevelt and Wilson] to claim the progressive mantle” (p. 308).

It seems remarkable to me that a century ago Republicans and Democrats were in an all-out contest to determine which had the most progressive policies. But that was then, and this is now.

The Progressive movement, which had split from the Republican Party, was quite widespread a century ago. Wikipedia reports that 21 Republican candidates ran as Progressives for state governorships in the 1912 campaign and over 200 Progressives ran for seats in the House of Representatives. A large number of candidates, many of them women, ran for House seats as Progressives in 1914, and again in 1916.

By 1918 the Progressives had rejoined the Republican Party seeking to influence it from within. It is a remarkable history, but one that seems totally foreign to the political landscape today.

The Moderate Republican Legacy

The socially progressive New Deal policies of president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (a distant relation to Teddy Roosevelt) helped America recover from the Great Depression in the 1930s, and the Democratic Party enjoyed overwhelming electoral success into the 1940s.

Thomas DeweyIn light of this reality, a platform of moderate policies represented the best foundation for Republicans to regain their influence in American politics. The Moderate Republican element was strongest in the Northeastern states, especially New York. Thomas E. Dewey, the Governor of New York from 1942 to 1954 was the Republican presidential nominee in 1944 and 1948.

Nelson RockefellerThe movement’s best-known representative, however, was Nelson Rockefeller, Governor of New York from 1959 to 1973, who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1960, 1964 and 1968, and served as Vice-President from 1974 to 1977 under President Gerald Ford.

Moderate Republicans supported many of the existing New Deal programs, although they remained critical of how they were managed. Rather than seeking to rescind them, they promised to run them more efficiently. Moderate Republicans supported limited government regulation of business and labor union rights. They supported large-scale spending on national infrastructure projects, the environment, healthcare and education. They took a liberal position on many social issues, and supported civil and voting rights for minorities.

Dwight EisenhowerEven Dwight Eisenhower, as president, recognized that it was in the party’s interest not to oppose popular New Deal programs. In 1956 he stated privately to his brother Edgar,

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.

Other Moderate Republicans of note were

  • Michigan Governor George W. Romney (1963-1969) – the father of Mitt Romney – who ran for the Republican presidential nomination against Richard Nixon in 1968 and later served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Nixon administration
  • Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush (1952-1963) – father of George H. W. Bush; and
  • Mark O. Hatfield, Governor of Oregon (1959-1967) and U.S. Senator from Oregon (1967-1997).

Decline of Moderate Republicanism

Barry GoldwaterModerate Republicans suffered a major defeat in the 1964 campaign when the “New Right” movement took over the Republican primary process through a well-orchestrated grassroots campaign and nominated Barry Goldwater as the Republican presidential candidate.

He was defeated in one of the largest Democratic landslides in American history. I reported on these events in some detail in my previous blog “The Republican Party’s Shift to the Right.

What happened after that? The following brief statement by historian Geoffrey Kabaservice summarizes it quite well:

[M]oderates had lost the fight for the soul of the Republican Party by the end of the 1960s. They couldn’t match the organizational power or ideological passion of the party’s conservatives. While moderate Republicans continued to hold office, their numbers dwindled rapidly. And the party’s conservatives not only grew in number but in ideological vigor. Midterm sweeps in 1994 and 2010 hastened this lurch to the right.

A few Moderate Republicans have continued to serve in elected office into the 21st century – most notably

  • Senator Olympia Snowe, who retired in 2013
  • Senator Susan Collins
  • Jim Jeffords, who left the Republican Party in 2001 to sit as an Independent
  • former Senator and current Governor of Rhode Island Lincoln Chafee, who left the Republican Party to sit as an Independent in 2007 and is now running for President as a Democrat.

The number of currently serving Moderate Republicans is exceedingly small. A recent article in the Washington Post calls moderate Republicans “an endangered species.”

The New Norm

According to historical standards, there are very few moderate Republicans serving in government now. One can’t simply look at all Republican members, see who stands in the middle of the pack, and label that person a “moderate.” The vast majority of Republicans today are grouped at the conservative to extreme conservative end of the spectrum.

Political scientists have measured the relative liberalism and conservatism of both Democratic and Republican members of Congress over many years. Here is their latest tally for the House membership:


This chart clearly shows that from the beginning of the 20th century through the mid 1970s the vast majority of both Democrats and Republicans in the House held moderate views. (Note the chart displays the percentage whose views were non-centrist; from the mid-1930s onward it was less than 10%). In fact, there was a great deal of overlap in their positions.

Then, in 1976, about the time that Richard Nixon began to implement his “Southern Strategy” to bring southern conservative white voters into the Republican tent, the number of Republican House members holding non-centrist views began to climb. It accelerated through the Reagan years and has continued upward ever since, while the number of Democrats holding non-centrist views has remained roughly the same.

According to this chart, today, nine out of ten Republican House members hold extreme rather than moderate views, while nine out of ten House Democrats still fall within the moderate camp. Remember, we are talking about what fits the historical norm of being moderate.

So how does one explain the broadly held notion that although some Republicans may hold extreme right-wing views, the vast majority are “moderates” holding centrist views? The answer lies in what has come to define the “new normal” for core Republican values.

These core values are frequently summarized as follows:

Standing for smaller government, lower taxes, a strong military, pro-life policies, and traditional family values.

What many people do not realize is that some of these core values are quite new to Republican ideology. During the 2012 presidential campaign Mark Fisher penned an excellent column in the Washington Post outlining the shifts in Republican Party policy over the decades.

He notes that

Republican Platform Convention ribbon 1950The Republican Party, viewed through its quadrennial platform documents, is consistently business-oriented and committed to a strong defence, but has morphed over the past half-century from a socially moderate, environmentally progressive and fiscally cautious group to a conservative party that is suspicious of government, allied against abortion and motivated by faith.

He adds that “Many positions Republicans often tout as traditionally conservative are actually relatively new to GOP ideology.” For example,

The quest for lower taxes does not define Republicanism until the 1980s, and matters of faith play almost no role in the GOP’s plank until the 1990s.

The platforms of 1980 and 1992, he says, mark the party’s big pivots. He points out that

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the GOP platform includes vigorous support for an equal-rights amendment to protect women. Then, in 1980, the party stalemates: “We acknowledge the legitimate efforts of those who support or oppose ratification.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, the party positions itself as a strong advocate for D.C. voting rights, in the Senate as well as the House. Then, in 1980, all mention of voting rights vanishes; the subject has not appeared since.

The first appearance of the abortion issue represents a party very much split between business-oriented moderates and religious conservatives: Abortion “is undoubtedly a moral and personal issue” on which Republicans disagree, the 1976 plank says. Four years later, the issue has been settled: The GOP seeks a constitutional amendment protecting “the right to life for unborn children.”

The watershed platform of 1980 introduces tax cuts and an increasingly critical attitude toward government. “The Republican Party declares war on government overregulation,” it says.

Antipathy toward high taxes strengthens, resulting in 1992 in an explanation of how lowering taxes on the wealthy would lead to job creation, adding a simple declaration: “We will oppose any attempt to increase taxes.”

By 1992, “family values” become a major theme. The platform states that, “the media, the entertainment industry, academia and the Democrat Party are waging a guerrilla war against American values.”

The ’92 plank [contains] the first to mention same-sex relationships, rejects any recognition of gay marriage or allowing same-sex couples to adopt children or become foster parents.

What is significant about 1980 and 1992 as “watershed” years for Republican policy?

reagan_revolution_pop_art_design_print-p228888510838619878tdcp_40021980, of course, marks the beginning of the “Reagan Revolution,” in which Ronald Reagan (building upon Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”) focused on appealing, not to the educated professional class of moderate Republicans in New England’s traditional Republican stronghold, but to a new coalition group. It brought together ethnic blue-collar workers in the industrial states, rural farmers and ranchers in the Mid-west and Western states, and especially southern white voters opposed to desegregation and recent civil rights legislation passed by the Democrats.

Guided by a detailed policy manual developed by the conservative Heritage Foundation (their Mandate for Leadership, 1980), Reagan began implementing a radically new agenda of “supply-side economics,” reduced taxes, increased privatization, deregulation, union busting, and small government. According to the Heritage Foundation, “Nearly two-thirds of the 2,000 recommendations contained in Mandate were adopted by the Reagan administration.”

Bush-Clinton debate1992 marked the election contest between the incumbent Republican president George H. W. Bush and the Democratic contender Bill Clinton. Strong conservative opposition to Bush’s re-nomination (his main opponents, Pat Buchanan, David Duke, and Ron Paul, were far to his right) forced the Republican Party to incorporate many socially conservative planks into the party platform with a strong emphasis on “family values,”

Other sections of the party platform called for a repeal of the tax increases Bush had approved during his first term, cuts to (and caps on) government spending, job creation and economic growth, and increased individual rights.

While these policies still comprise the main stay of Republican policy today (it shows which wing of the Republican Party has become dominant in recent years), I again emphasize that these is not traditional platform issues, historically speaking, for the Republicans.

I willingly grant that since this framework largely defines standard Republican ideology as it exists today, it does reflect the current Republican “center.” My objection is to calling it “moderate.”

Reaganism may still set the benchmark for Republican ideology. I don’t dispute that at all. It has definitely triumphed over other standards of traditional Republican values. In some quarters it has even acquired near ‘sacred’ status.

But let us be clear: it is not “moderate” by any means.

About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

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