|Room on the Right for Middle Ground|
By Quin Hillyer
Wednesday, October 23 2013
In the wake of conservatives’ abject surrender in this month’s budget talks, the sniping between “moderates” and “Tea Partiers” has reached epic proportions. In public print (or cyber-print) and in private conversations and chat-rooms alike, it seems as if far more energy is expended politically cannibalizing each other than in attacking the left or in actually helping conservative superstars such as Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli.
It doesn’t need to be this way.
There is ample room on the right between “squishy” and “RINO” (a now-idiotic and clichéd acronym if there ever were one) on one side and purist conservatives on the other. Not all disputes over tactics should be seen as tests of philosophical purity. What is needed is a resurgence of some real Reaganites – attitudinally and tonally as well as philosophically – to bridge the chasm between Tea and Total Capitulation.
The “all-or-nothing” caucus on the right has a history, alas, of overselling, or over-yelling, its charges of political cowardice. For example, when the Budget Control Act of 2011 first established sequestration as a fallback enforcement mechanism, rightist critics scoffed or, in many instances, just plain ignored it as if it were meaningless. When conservative groups went apoplectic over the supposed “sellout” that marked the less-than-total renewal of the Bush tax cuts on Jan. 1, 2013, those of us who said the coming sequestration was real were subjected to visceral verbal abuse.
But, as we have now seen, we were right. Sequestration worked to actually cut the budget, at least from its bloated new Obama baseline. For the first time since the Korean War, total government spending now has dropped (albeit slightly) for two consecutive years. Sure, sequestration doesn’t come close to solving the debt problem, but (legitimate national-defense concerns aside) it is clearly a significant step in the right direction.
Likewise, even the most solid of conservatives were denigrated as a “surrender caucus” for daring to suggest that different tactics, or at least a fallback plan, be considered in the recent budget battle. This stands in marked contrast to the approach of Ronald Reagan, who was willing to bargain and adjust (a 25 percent tax cut instead of 30 percent, for instance) his purist demands in order to move overall policy in his direction.
On the other side, the contempt from the “establishment” for anything Tea Party-ish often has gone beyond vituperation and into viciousness -- especially from Senator John McCain, who gets nastier with each passing year. And when even the increasingly establishmentarian Rep. Paul Ryan says he has been sandbagged by the moderates, it’s clear that the McCain wing of the party is hostile to the truth that Republicans wouldn’t even own the House majority without the efforts and enthusiasm of Tea Party conservatives.
Clearly, a serious divide exists between right-of-center camps. But divides can be bridged. Cooler heads can prevail. Again, Reagan’s example is apropos. The centrist wing of the Republican Party then – Lowell Weicker, Mark Hatfield, Bob Packwood, Arlen Specter, John Chaffee, Charles Percy and Mac Mathias among them -- was far bigger and more leftward than the McCainiacs of today. Yet on important vote after important vote, Reagan kept almost all of those centrists (or even left-of-centrists) on board for policy changes of greater ideological boldness than some conservatives are pushing now.
Part of Reagan’s success in holding a broader coalition together, of course, stemmed from his landslide victories, and part from the power of the Oval Office. But at least as large a part came from his willingness to use his remarkable powers of persuasion for the purpose of building coalitions, inclusively, rather than for purposes of strict ideological purity. He encouraged give-and-take, along with honest political horse-trading, both across the partisan aisle and especially within the coalition on his own side of it.
On neither side of the divide today do the most prominent leaders demonstrate such intra-party statesmanship. But there’s no reason why such a leader (or leaders) can’t emerge. More important, one or several must emerge, if the cause of limiting government has any chance of prospering. If those right of center can’t even be civil with each other, there is no way anybody can garner the numbers – much less the public support – to defeat the professional Left.
Perhaps what is needed is a summit on the right, aimed at burying hatchets, building bridges and putting up with any other hackneyed cliché if it serves to re-unify at least a large portion of activists and elected officials behind a shared strategic framework. Such a summit might need to be chaired by somebody without pecuniary or political ambition at stake, motivated solely by “the good of the order.”
Unless a better idea comes along, I nominate Michael Reagan.
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