Where Are the Party Gatherings for Moderates?

CPAC is popular, but it’s hardly representative of Republicans.

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD - MARCH 08: Attendees stand at computers to cast their vote in the presidential straw poll during the 41st annual Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord International Hotel and Conference Center on March 8, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland. The straw poll is meant to test a wide range of potential presidential candidates, but has a mixed track record for predicting the eventual nominee. 
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Charlie Cook
March 10, 2014, 5:27 p.m.

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.


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