Last spring, when Arlen Specter defected to the Democratic Party, the Republicans didn’t only lose their party’s sole Jewish senator. They also lost one of only four remaining Northeastern Republicans in the Senate. The conventional wisdom at the time was that the GOP was quickly becoming the party of the South and “flyover country.” Democrats chortled that Republicans soon would become a permanent minority party of ideological wing-nuts and wackadoos, genetically incapable of building a broad coalition.
How quickly things change. The victory by Scott Brown in Massachusetts, taking the seat of late liberal lion Ted Kennedy, followed on the heels of the Republican takeover of the New Jersey governorship last November. Together, these two GOP victories prove that Northeastern Republicans still have a strong, beating heart.
What’s notable in this comeback is that we are seeing not a counter-revolution of conservatives — who are still restocking the ideological shelves — but the return of the muscular moderates, the breed of Republican best able to win over independent voters, as Brown did decisively.
And there may be more Browns in the pipeline. Take Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois. He looks certain to win his state’s Republican Senate nomination, and he only slightly trails the presumptive Democratic pick in the polls — remarkable for the seat previously occupied by Barack Obama.
Brown and Kirk are certainly not doctrinaire conservatives; both are pro-choice. Meanwhile, Chris Christie, New Jersey’s new Republican governor, is widely referred to as a moderate, and successfully beat back a primary challenge from the right.
Does this mean the future of the Republican Party belongs to a bunch of squishy centrists? Hardly. Brown ran on core conservative principles of smaller government and strong national security. He said a vote for him was a vote against the Obama-Pelosi agenda, especially on health care issues. In fact, the main elements of his agenda were precisely those that stand at the heart of conservatism. He just didn’t embrace every element of the standard conservative agenda.
This is good — and it’s instructive. The Republican Party can’t afford rigidity. Amid calls for a new Contract with America and loyalty oaths to a national GOP agenda, Republicans had best take pause. Requiring 100% loyalty to a national platform is no way to win the hearts and minds of independents. And if you have any doubt about that, ask all those Democrats now facing stiff challenges in the fall, thanks to their party-line votes on the so-called stimulus bill, cap-and-trade and Obamacare.
The challenge, for all Republicans but especially for those who need to attract independent voters, is how to hang with a partisan crowd without getting lost in it.
Specter did that dance for decades, but it was hardly artful and ultimately made his political record look like a checkerboard of often-conflicting positions. To give one notable example, Specter helped lead the charge against one conservative jurist, Robert Bork, before leading the charge to defend another one, Clarence Thomas. George W. Bush and Rick Santorum stumped for him. Now Barack Obama will.
Clearly, Specter doesn’t offer much of a model for a revitalized moderate Republicanism.
Moderates need to represent something — and stick to it. This is particularly true with regard to government spending. Republican moderates have often been characterized as loose with the government change purse, and have paid a high price in party primaries. If being a Republican is going to mean anything, it must always mean smaller government.
The key is not finding the middle ground on all issues, but rather standing apart uniquely on a few. Such legislators may not please the base voters or the Republican leadership all the time — especially on social issues — but they keep faith with their own principles, and that happens to be a winning strategy not only in elections, but in governing as well.
If the Republican Party wants to win in the Northeast and Pacific West, it will have to let its tent get broad and noisy. There will have to be room for those who favor abortion rights and even the full extension of legal rights of gays, including the right to marry. Not only because the voters demand it, but also because some of the most promising Republican candidates do as well. In the end, the one thing that independents most respect is independence.
Noam Neusner is a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and is now a principal with the communications firm 30 Point Strategies.