Years ago, I used to regularly attend CPAC, the annual gathering of conservative activists in Washington, to listen to the leaders in the conservative movement and Republican Party, particularly those with presidential aspirations. It was a good chance to see and hear, in one setting and in front of a live audience, who the up-and-coming leaders on the right were and how people responded to them. It seemed comparable to a scout sitting in the bleachers at a high school or college baseball game, eyeballing the talent.
But as the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference became increasingly exotic, and began to represent an increasingly rarefied species of the conservative breed, the rhetoric correspondingly took on a flavor that would no longer be used in front of a “normal” Republican audience. And its value has diminished.
As for the annual CPAC straw poll, it has become less of a test of the depth of voter support and the organizational skill of each potential candidate to motivate backers, and more a test of their ability to buy up blocks of tickets (hundreds at a time) to pack the room with warm bodies. The poll, in my eyes, has lost its value, in much the same way that the Iowa Republican presidential straw poll has (I’ve sworn never to attend either again). Journalists who cover and treat such events as if they were accurate cross-sections of Republicans and conservatives become enablers and even coconspirators, carrying on the charade that these events are representative samplings of anything more than a specific subspecies of (mostly young) conservatives.
Now that there is what could be called an ideological civil war within the Republican Party, with the tea party and most conservative elements of the GOP on one side and those more aligned with the party establishment on the other, the “moderate” label no longer applies to enough party members to count. Perhaps the “Legacy Republican Party” would be a better term for that shrinking group. It’s unfortunate that there aren’t comparable gatherings of more-conventional Republicans.
Of course, all of this is true to a certain extent for Democrats as well. I don’t believe the Democratic Leadership Council is active any longer, either. This council was a highly constructive group of moderate and pro-business Democrats, headed by the irrepressible Al From, and it used to be a major political force. Notably, it was a platform that provided a launching pad for Bill Clinton’s presidential aspirations.
All of this raises the issue of why there aren’t more highly visible confabs of center-right Republicans and center-left Democrats that could provide an organizing focal point. Other than the periodic meetings of the Democratic and Republican National committees, networking opportunities for more conventional Republicans and conservatives on one side and for the less ideological Democrats on the other side are few and far between. We hear about the business community’s efforts to “take back the Republican Party,” but this doesn’t seem to include forming counterweight groups in favor of nurturing and promoting “Legacy Republicans.”
Meanwhile, the extremes in both parties inevitably have more energy and passion than the more moderate factions. At various times, strong personalities (such as From’s within the DLC) and highly organized and well-funded entities have tried to advance the ball closer to the ideological area inhabited by swing voters. Yet each party is still stuck in their red zones, between the goal line of extremism and the 20-yard line of hard-core ideology.
In November 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney carried the 38 percent of voters who identified themselves as conservatives by 82 percent to 17 percent, while Barack Obama prevailed among the 25 percent who consider themselves liberals by 86 percent to 11 percent. The 41 percent who called themselves moderates broke for Obama by 15 points, 56 percent to 41 percent, a clear, decisive outcome.
For Congress, the national exit-poll numbers were almost identical. Conservatives voted for Republicans for the U.S. House by 82 percent to 16 percent, just as liberals voted for Democrats by 86 percent to 12 percent. Moderates voted for Democrats by 16 points, 57 percent to 41 percent, the vagaries of congressional boundary lines and residential patterns (with Democratic voters tightly concentrated and inefficiently allocated in urban areas) making the difference in the outcome in seats.
It seems increasingly clear that many moderate voters simply don’t view issues and candidates through an ideological lens. They stand behind the plate like a baseball umpire, deciding whether each proposal or candidate makes sense to them, whether they believe that proposal or candidate would be good for them. These voters — remember they constitute about 41 percent of the electorate — react negatively, and may actually recoil, when they hear overheated rhetoric from either side.
At certain times, the more hard-edged rhetoric comes from Democrats, and at other times from Republicans, but extreme rhetoric takes a toll on candidates from both parties. This toll is one that Republicans have experienced fairly recently, losing the popular vote for both the presidency and the House in 2012 (their majority in the latter was saved by the ideological and partisan cul-de-sac nature of congressional districts). Sadly, the venues and opportunities for proponents of the less-edgy rhetoric on both sides are becoming fewer and further between.