Op-Ed

McManus: The death of the moderate Republican

They were an endangered species in Congress even before this year's election. Now they're even closer to extinction.

Republicans just lost eight seats in the House. But if you'd wandered into the House of Representatives last week without reading the election returns, you might have concluded that the GOP won big on Nov. 6.

"We have the second-largest Republican House majority since World War II," California Rep. Tom McClintock told reporters last week. "The American people agree with the positions of the Republican Party and heartily disagree with the positions of the Democratic Party."

And if that's how you see things, why compromise?

Take taxes. Exit polling showed that, though most Americans don't like higher taxes, they'd accept a tax hike on the wealthy to reduce the federal deficit. Not House Republicans.

"We have a mandate to fight it," said Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho. "I think that's what the American people elected us to do. We will continue to fight it, and we will fight any member of the [Republican] conference who decides it's a good idea to raise taxes."

It's not surprising that House conservatives see things their own way. Even if the country as a whole voted for President Obama this month, conservative House members did just fine in their own districts.

Thanks to the inexorable forces of polarization, most House Republicans won reelection easily, and with margins bigger than Obama's, as they like to point out. ("I don't consider a 51% victory much of a mandate," sniffed Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas.)

Of 216 House Republicans who ran for reelection, only 14 were defeated, a mortality rate of just over 6%.

Members of the tea party caucus did even better than that; only about 5% were defeated. (The losers included Allen West of Florida and Joe Walsh of Illinois, two especially fiery members whose constituents ran out of patience.)

Which Republicans lost their seats? Moderates and moderate conservatives, disproportionately.

Among the incumbents who ran for reelection, 48 were members of a group called the Republican Main Street Partnership, nonradical conservatives who sometimes call themselves "center right." Seven of those 48 lost their seats — a mortality rate of 15%, more than twice as high as Republicans in general.

When you add retirements and other departures, more than a dozen moderate conservatives won't be coming back next year.

Moderate Republicans were an endangered species in Congress even before this year's election. Now they're even closer to extinction.

"Our party isn't appealing to a national audience anymore," mourned Rep. Charles F. Bass of New Hampshire, a moderate conservative who lost his seat to a liberal Democrat after seven terms in the House. "The party is getting more and more dogmatic. The flexibility is gone."

"You know how many pro-choice Republicans are in the House today?" he asked me. "One — Richard Hanna [from Upstate New York]. There used to be eight."

Since 1994, the GOP has been increasingly dominated by a conservative wing that demands orthodoxy on social issues as well as fiscal matters. Moderates often face primary challenges backed by well-organized national conservative groups. (That's how Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, a moderate conservative icon, lost his job this year.)

Gerrymandering has produced more districts that are markedly conservative or liberal, with fewer swing districts in the center.

"It's happened in both parties," Bass noted. "It's easier to run to the far left or the far right."

The tea party movement hasn't helped either. "They've been good for the debate but not for the party," Bass said.

This year, in an evenly balanced district, Bass found himself fighting charges from tea party activists that he wasn't tough enough on taxes and spending — and, at the same time, fighting charges from Democrats that he wasn't critical enough of his party's leadership. On election day, he lost narrowly to a well-funded Democrat.

 

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