The rise and fall of moderates in US politics

At the dawn of the 20th century in American politics, widely considered the dawn of contemporary politics in America, the differences between the two parties could not be starker.  The dominant wing of the GOP practiced laissez-faire economics and largely stayed out of social issues.  The Democratic party, like today, was liberal on both social and fiscal issues.  But underneath the dominant wings of each party were the numerous moderate politicans in each party. For the Republicans their moderate contingent was mostly in the Northeast and Midwest.  For Democrats, their moderate contingent was scattered throughout the US in every region but the South.  The moderates of the early 20th century tended to defy the typical ideology of their party.  Their survival as members of Congressed tended to hinge on how their constituents felt about them personally and the economy, not ideological litmust tests. 

Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st century and each party had a vibrant centrist wing still.  Though the conservative wing of the GOP had emerged dominant in 1980 and through the following decades moderates we welcome and numerous in the GOP Caucus.  After searching for a liberal candidate (with numerous left-wing think tanks) who could win the presidency for three straight times Democrats had opted for a centrist Arkansas Governor in Bill Clinton to be their presidential candidate in 1992.  His two terms should have ensured the entrenchment the moderate politics in the Democratic Party.  Not so.  GOP moderate politics still remained due to the historical period where moderates dominated the Republican party establishment.

But instead of moderate politics being entrenched in both parties they rapidly melted away.  The Democratic party establishment and its base, feeling cheated at the SCOTUS allegedly handing George Bush the 2000 presidential election began to shun the ways of centrist think tanks like Third Way and the Democratic Leadership Council (now defunct) which advocated for smaller and more pragmatic government policies.  In small ways the 2002 and 2004 elections reflected the beginning of a trend.  The 2002 elections saw ideology be the number one issue in terms of how voters voted; conservatives solidly Republican and moderates and liberals solidly Democratic.  In 2004 this trend only accelerated.  By 2006 with the war in Iraq unpopular and several scandals tainting the GOP the party lost both chambers of Congress.  But Republicans in solidly conservatives states did not lose very many seats.  In 2008, when Democrats elected their first president in 8 years and built on their majorities in Congress again it was moderate Republicans who suffered massive losses.  The few truly conservative lost for the GOP, such as those in the South, Midwest and West saw their membership replaced with moderate Blue Dog Democrats,” the term coined for moderate Democrats in the era of Bill Clinton that still stands today.

But these moderates were still vastly outnumbered by liberal Democrats in Congress who had become resurgent in the party after Bill Clinton left the White House in 2000.  Replaced by a Republican president liberals saw as having stolen the presidency and outnumbered in Congress by Republicans, the liberal wing of the party flexed their muscle.  Once Democrats had solid majorities in Congress and the WH in 2009 they pushed for policies devastating to moderates. To stimulate the economy over $1 trillion of borrowed money was used to create jobs.  It failed.  A massive, liberal, Healthcare Reform package, Cap and Trade in the House (didn’t even see the light of day in the Senate), Financial Reform (once popular now fading in Americans views), and a failure to create jobs exacerbrated the problem for moderate Democrats.

In the Republican ranks most of the moderates in their caucus had been purged from their ranks by voters in 2006 and 2008.  A small, but highly unified GOP conservative caucus in the House and the Senate now united almost singlehandedly behind conservative principles.  The failure of virtually every liberal Democratic policy to create jobs, new bureaucracies, the Stimulus, continuation of TARP and QE 1 and 2 by Fed Chairman Ben Bernake drove voters to the polls to elect the most GOP Congressmen and women to the US House in over 60 years.  But where once moderate Democrats had represented not just conservative but Democratic districts now conservative Republicans stood in their place.  And these Republicans elected in 2010 had not minced words.  They had campaigned hard on fiscal hawkishness as much against government policies and liberalism.  A divided government now stood not just in terms of party affiliation but also ideological beliefs.  Once there to bridge the gap, moderates in both parties were to few or to scared to try resulting in a do nothing Congress six months into the 112 Congress.

                                                                                                                                                                        Modern Political History up to 1980

Analyzing modern electoral history is not just enough to explain or perhaps shows this phenomenon.  Other factors are at play as well from the local, state and federal level and also history.  When one looks deeper then the surface it is easier to see why increased polarization in American politics has grown.  This is just going to be skimming the surface.  A much more detailed analysis could be the basis for a novel.

Starting in the mid 1930’s Democrats held the WH, and solid majorities in both chambers of Congress.  Franklin Delanore Roosevelt had been elected.  Much of the country blamed laissez faire economic policies for the Great Depresssion as did FDR.  To that end, Democrats and FDR pursued extremely liberal policies to bring the economy back from the brink.  Social Security, the first social safety net in US history was established.  New bureucracies and work programs were created to employee Americans.  By 1936 the unemployment rate had fallen and FDR was easily reelected as Republicans had become a vocal minority party, nothing more.  By 1938 and 1940 however the unemployment rate had shot back up to 20% and Democrats were punished by voters even as FDR was reelected for an unprecedented third term n 1940.  When WWII came around the entire ballgame changed.  Republicans and Democrats united around government action and spending.  When the war ended the parties reverted back to form.

But in 1946 liberal Democratic policies, neither pragmatic nor helpful to a new peace-time economy turned votes in droves to the GOP.  The GOP gained 12 seats in the Senate and 55 in the House of Representatives.  Though Democratic Harry Truman occupied the WH he was much more agreeable afterwards to cut government spending and size even as he labeled the GOP Congress “The do nothing Republican Congress.”  The elections of 1948 saw another wave election, this time for Democrats.  They regained control of the Senate, held the WH in the well known (Dewey defeats Truman, or not) presidential election and gained a whopping 75 Congressional seats all across the country.  The emerging modern conservative wing of the GOP was all but crushed in its infancy.  Or was it?

In the elections of 1950 and 1952 the GOP gained enough net seats to win back the House and won the WH in 1952.  But Eisenhower was anything but a traditional conservative.  In 1954 Democrats regained control of the House and would hold it for 40 years straight.  While the Democratic party maintained its solidly liberal allegiance at the state and federal level a power struggle was occuring within the GOP that would shake the party’s very foundations.  When Eisenhower left the WH in 1960 moderate Republican and Vice President Richard Nixon ran for the WH.  Though he failed to win a extremely close election against John F. Kennedy he would rise again in the GOP.  Kennedy, however was a moderate in his own right, and to make liberals in his party happy and carry the South chose Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson to be his VP.  When JFK was murdered in 1964 and LBJ ran the liberal wing of the party was overjoyed.  Ironicall, Southern Democrats thought they had an ally in LBJ.  Instead, they would view him as a traitor and his policies would result in a regional shift over 40 years in the making.

In the GOP presidential primary a battle for the heart and soul of the party was being waged. Conservative in the modern sense of the word, Senator Barry Goldwater of AZ was generating immense buzz within GOP ranks.  Deciding to run put conservatives up against the moderate, Northeastern wing of the GOP who had their darling in NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller.  In a down to the wire battle Goldwater won the nomination, signaling a turn for internal GOP politics.  Soundly defeated in the 1964 election LBJ went on to get the US mired in Vietnam, enact the Great Society (welfare and the CRA) and subsequently not run for reelection in 1968 (low poll numbers reason number one why).  Within the GOP no major battles erupted for the nomination.  Richard Nixon, heavily courting conservatives in 68, won the nomination and easily defeated a weak Democratic candidate.  Winning again in 72, Nixon ran as a moderate, much to the disappointment of conservatives who had nobody else to turn to andvoted in mass form him, again.  Watergate and VP turned President Ford later, at the end of 1976 Democrats had elected Jimmy Carter as president.  The election of 1980 however would change the GOP forever.

                                                                                                                                                                                                          The Era of Reagan and the Emergence of the New Democrat

1976 saw another pitched battle within the GOP for the heart and soul of the party.  B Star movie actor turned Governor of California Ronald Reagan challenged President Ford from the right in the primary.  Though Reagan ignited passions in conservatives among moderates he fizzled and as such his candidacy to Ford failed.  Ford then went on to lose in a close election to Jimmy Carter in 1976.  But in 1980 once again the heart and soul of the GOP was up for grabs.  Ronald Reagan once again ran for his party’s nod as a conservative but the establishment wing of the GOP supported former ambassador to China H.W. Bush.  While Reagan ran from the conservative right, which was divided among him and smaller candidate, H.W was the lone moderate in the race.  By itself this signaled a change in the direction the GOP was going.  H.W narrowly won the Iowa Caucuses over Reagan and appeared poised to crush Reagan in the NH primary.  But in the final debate Reagan, in response to the moderator turning off his microphone declared “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Greene.”  Reagan went on to crush HW in the primary, win South Carolina and in the coming months lock up the nomination.  For the first time since Goldwater, conservatives had a candidate they could unite behind. 

Reagan went on to win the 1980 presidential election by alleviating moderate Republicans concerns by selecting Bush to be his VP.  As the first conservative president Reagan saw his ups and downs.  The economy he inherited from Jimmy Carter dragged down his poll numbers quickly.  Reagan immediately worked with moderate Democrats, mostly Southern Democrats in Committee leadership positions, to raise income taxes but reduce the tax code, bringing in new revenues and reduce regulation.   Even so in 1982 voters punished the GOP for not fixing things in Congressional elections.  However, by 1984 the economy was recovering and Reagan was easily reelected. 

At this time the Democratic party had maintainted its largely liberal allegiance through the 70’s and 80’s.  But a serious of power struggles in the House saw by the end of the 80’s moderate Democrat Tom Foley holding the Speakership.  Foley and moderates like him were buoyed by moderate Democratic Governors winning reelection in many US states and the emergence of centrist Democratic think tanks such as the Democratic Leadership Council and Third Way.  These groups advocated for pragmatic smaller government and welfare reform.  The emergence of the “New Democrat” was also fueled by the two landslide elections of Ronald Reagan and then H.W. Bush in 1992.  The liberal wing of the Democratic Party had seen both their nominees go down in flames in 1984 and 1988 and the party establishment, its followers and strategists were clammoring for a change.

In 1991 a certain Governor from Arkansas was a nobody.  But he had a solid record and the support of centrist Democratic think thanks.  In early 1992 Bill Clinton was vaulted by this and other factors to the coveted front-runner status of his party.  He locked up the nomination in following months.  Facing a moderate GOP president in HW Bush who played on the legacy of Reagan even Clinton struggled.  Bush had alienated conservatives by breaking his no taxes pledge but conservatives had no viable alternative  until Independent billionare Ross Perot got in the race.  Stealing more conservative Republicans and independents from Bush, Perot handed Clinton a big victory.  Democrats had reclaimed the White House for the first time in 12 years.  One would assume soon after that the glory years of the moderate Democrat immediately followed.  One would be wrong.

                                                                                                                                                                                                 The Clinton years: A Tale in liberal and moderate politics

1993 looked great for Democrats as a party.  In 1992 they had fortified their majorities in both chambers of Congress, built on the backs of conservative Southern Democrats.  They had a president in the WH and liberals and moderates united behind him.  That was the problem.  Clinton ran as a moderate during his presidential run.  But soon after taking the reins of the WH tacked hard to the left with solid Congressional majorities behind him.  Republicans were not silent about this.  During the preceding 80’s the Republican caucus in both chambers of Congress had grown steadily more conservative.  By the 1990’s conservative Republicans stretched across the US; minus most of the Northeast where the majority of moderates dwelt.

Clinton passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which saw bipartisan support and opposition and what was known as the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993.  This cut taxes for middle and lower class America and raised taxes on the top 1.2% of Americans.  To try and woo conservatives Clinton wanted and got an amendment in the bill mandating a balanced budget by 1998.  This budget measure saw a mix in both parties oppose and support the laws.

But Clinton’s two attempts at liberal policies showed the change in American politics and the Republican party especially.  In late 1993 Clinton passed the Brady Bill, which required a 5 day wait to acquire a handgun. Also in early 1993 Clinton had appointed his wife to head a taskforce to implement some form of Healthcare Reform.  But this reform met wih strong oppositon from the GOP Caucus and most especially Southern Democrats.  Attempts to get it out of Congress lasted up until 6 weeks before the 1994 Congressional election but the damage had been done.  Conservatives were enraged at the policies of Bill Clinton and Democrats.  Even worse,  1993 also saw Democrats endure scandal after scandal.  This helped convince the American public it was time for a change.

What followed in the elections of 1994 could be labelled as nothing less then historic.  The GOP gained control of the House with 54 new seats and won 9 new Senate seats.  It was the first time since 1954 the GOP controlled the House and the first time since 1952 the GOP controlled both chambers of Congress.  This election reflected an emerging regional trend as the South continued to transition to the Republican party; now at the Congressional level. 

Following the 1994 debacle Clinton returned to his moderate governing style that served him so well in Arkansas.  He worked with GOP Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to pass wefare reform, avoid a government shutdown in 1995 (long story behind this) and establish budget surpluses by 1998.  Clinton’s moderate governance in an era when Republicans controlled Congress gelled well with the public.  Twice, in the budget battle of 1995 and during Clinton’s impeachment proceedings in 1998 he got the better of Republicans and portrayed Democrats as the party of moderates and pragmatic governance.  Even so, Republicans clung tenaciously to their hold of the House. 

Clinton’s tenure in the White House showcased the best and worst of moderate/liberal politics.  Moderate politics got him elected in 1992, liberal politics hurt him and his party in 1994 and moderate politics saw his party soar in 1996 to 2000, despite Clinton’s quite public scandals.  Clinton’s tenure in the White House showcased moderate pragmatic politics at their finest.  But it also showed that GOP conservative politics also worked, leaving a stalemate in the public’s mind about which was better.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Local, state and regional affects

As all this was occuring at the federal level at the local and state level things were also occuring that affected moderates and politics at large.  Conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats took over precinct positions, state chair positions and local and county offices.  This enabled candidates like Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 92 to garner support at the local level for their presidential bids.  These new candidates for their parties reflected the changing nature of their party at the local and state level. 

Regional changes also fueled the fires of change.  In 1968 GOP presidential candidate Richard Nixon famously outlined his “Southern Strategy.”  In essence it was a carbon copy of FDR’s unspoken deal with the South for their support.  The government would be as non-instrusive as possible in Southern culture and in return get their votes.  FDR’s unspoken deal had been broken in recent years by JFK and most notably FDR and his Civil Rights Act.  Ironically, Southern voters forgot that it was under Republican president Eisenhower that the end of segregation was enforced most harshly and set the stage for what JFK and LBJ eventually did.

Nixon’s strategy worked.  But it only preceded a major change in regional politics.  Nixon won a majority of Southern states electoral votes in 1968, even with George Wallace on the ballot as an independent that year.  Nixon followed it up by winning even more Southern electoral votes in 72,  followed by Reagan in 1980, 84, and H.W. in 88 winning every Southern electoral vote.  Clinton won several Southern states in 1992 and 1996 but by 2000 the South (minus) Florida was solidly Republican at the presidential level.  But Southern politics was not Republican, it was conservative.  The Democratic politicans who won their electoral votes in 76, 92a nd 96 represented this to some degree.  The Southern Democrats who thrived until 1994 and to a lesser extent 2010 also reflected the conservative nature of Southern politics.  For the Democratic it was only when liberals were nominated that the South went uniformly Republican at the presidential level.

Come 2010 and this Southern trend has accelerated.  Conservatives now dominate Southern states not just at the federal level but at the local level as well.  Few conservative Democrats remain in the South even at the local level.  In fact, in the Deep South only one Democratic represents a majority-white district.  Instead, the Democrats in the South now occupy almost solely, majority-minority populations as mandated by Section 5 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  In 2006 and 2008 some analysts predicted this regional trend was slowing, if not reversing.  But not so.  The election of 2010 showed that the South is now not just deeply conservative at the federal level but now has become conservative and Republican at all levels of governance.  This trend is horrific news for Democrats for a Congressional majority for Democrats runs through the South.

Democrats have seen their own benefical regional changes.  The Northeast has expelled most of its GOP representatives and Senators for liberal or moderate Democrats.  This trend occurred in 1992 at the presidential level with Bill Clinton and has carried through with liberals Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama.  Over the following years, especially 2006 and 2008 Republicans became an almost extinct species in the Northeast.  After 2010, they are sparce but exist.  Moderate Republicans in the region however are an extinct species.  In their places following three wave elections are conservative Republicans.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Chances for a moderate resurgence in American politics

Following the 2010 elections moderates are sparce.  Depending on the judger, most exist in Democratic ranks.  But to put in perspective how bad the 2010 elections were for moderates in both parties just consider this stat.  Following the 2008 elections their were 54 Blue Dog Democrats in the House.  There were numerous centrist GOP and Democratic Senators.  After 2010 only 28 Blue Dogs were left in the House, four Democratic and 3 Republican centrist Senators were ousted from office in primaries and general elections. In fact, in many primaries for the GOP moderates were crushed in favor of conservative candidates.  In 2011 already 6 Blue Dogs have resigned (one immediately, seat held by Democrats) and left their seats open for 2012.  For the Blue Dogs hoping to survive the odds are against them.  For example in North Carolina four of the seven Democratic Congressmen call themselves Blue Dogs.  But Republicans are set to unveil a redistricting map that is likely to unelect three if not all four in 2012.  In Texas another Blue Dog, Lloyd Doggett is set to be redistricted out of office.  In Utah, another Blue Dog is considering running for Governor or Senator.  These numbers dim the prospects for an immedidate moderate comeback. 

But there are some positive signs for moderates in both parties.  Map-drawing in Illinois is set to wipe out several conservative districts and replace them with Democratic, moderate leaning districts.  In other states such as WA, and NY odds are good new competitive districts will be drawn that will appeal to a moderate candidate.  Still the polarized environment of 2010 has not given ground.  While 2011 has seen several Democratic constituences return to them after the 2010 shellacking the party received their has been little sign the public wants moderate politics over conservative or liberal politics. 

The bases of both the GOP and Democratic party still want to purge moderates from their ranks at every level of governance.  Already, 2 moderate GOP Senators in Indiana and Utah are facing challenges from the right.  Many liberal Congressmen or women from 2010 are running for their old districts against freshmen/women conservative Republicans.  Few moderates are stepping up to the plate to run.  This leaves but one voting bloc with the power to reelect moderates.

Independents have turned away from identifying with either party in massive numbers in recent years.  In 2006 and 08 they fueled Democratic victories and in 2010 turned to the GOP.  These independents though have opted to elect more conservative or liberal politicans more often in the last decade. Even excluded from selecting a party’s nominee in some states independents have shown a strong inclination to lean left or right.  So one has to wonder if independents can even save moderates from their fate in both parties.   Primaries and general elections are ensuring through process of attrition that moderates are leaving or being voted out of office.

In recent years both parties have begun to become more reactive at the local and state level.  For the first time in US history a majority of states now hold closed primaries or caucuses (26) to select their party’s nominees.  Defenders of this move say it is the party faithful’s right to select the nominee they want.  Critics point to an increase in polarization as a result and disenfranchisement of independent voters who are digusted with both parties. 

Perhaps the one thing that can save moderates is if the public cries enough.  If enough partisans from both sides want to see an end to gridlock and not give one party control of both Congress and the WH.  If independents help these digusted partisans find candidates who are Republican and Democrats, moderate, and elect them to office.  But party apparatuses and supporters are geared to oppose this.  The majority of Republicans want conservatives representing them and Democrats want liberals likewise.  Even the moderate independents who split their votes in elections tend to go to conservative or liberal candidates for office.

Moderate politicans have left an indelible mark on US politics.  They have been landmark presidents, crafted historical and critical legislation, held and lost power in Republican and Democratic circles and appealed to a segment of the electorate that seems to be wanting something else.  This all indicates not to expect a resurgence of moderate politicans in 2012 in either political party.  American politics is changing as it has always done.  As much as voters are disgusted with the status quo they sure seem to like it regardless.  For those of moderate beliefs in either political party it signals not run to run for higher office, lest you become one more footnote in the annals of Congressmen/women who have served and been voted out because you are “to moderate or not conservative enough.”


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