If John Boehner is a moderate, we have a problem

The nation needs jobs, not ideological war

July 27, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

I heard someone use the term "moderate Republican" the other day, and I looked around for Mac Mathias. Of course, the great Maryland senator departed this life in January 2010, at the age of 87. He had retired in 1987, having served in Congress for 25 years. Once upon a time, Senator Mathias was aligned with something called the "influential liberal wing of the Republican Party," a phrase you could never conjure today without first doing some herb — and, even then, it would have to be really good stuff.

Once upon a time, there were Republicans in the middle and the middle-left. Rockefeller Republicans, they were called — fiscal conservatives, skeptical of big government social programs, but supporters of sensible government investment in education, health care and the environment for the good of the nation.

Wayne Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican and Vietnam veteran, was among the last of that crowd, and he survived long past his expiration date. It was the far more conservative Andy Harris who finally unseated Mr. Gilchrest in the 2008 primary.

Mr. Harris, of course, is in Washington now, part of the tea party-beholden freshman class that has created the mess over the nation's debt ceiling. Their agenda is extreme — repeal the health insurance expansion that Congress enacted only last year, cut as much federal discretionary spending as possible, encourage the continued concentration of wealth by the richest Americans by sparing them new taxes, and force cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. These aren't sober grownups acting prudently to get the American house in order; these are extremists trying to gut the house and reduce its reason for existence.

When I heard the term "moderate Republican" the other day, it was used to describe the speaker of the House, John Boehner. A man who proposes cutting federal spending by $1.2 trillion in a first round and by another $1.8 trillion in a second round, while standing firm against new taxes even for the wealthiest Americans, is now considered middle-of-the-road.

So, as the right moves further right — and perhaps right off the cliff — President Obama and the Democrats still look like liberals, despite two decades of instruction by their party's leadership to move to the magic middle. It was Bill Clinton, welfare reformer and capital punishment supporter, who took the party to the political median strip. From there, he presided over a stable economy and, ultimately, federal budget surpluses.

It was his Republican successor and his accomplices in Congress who led the nation back to a string of annual deficits caused by big tax cuts and expensive wars.

Then came the Great Recession, and things got worse just as Barack Obama was taking the oath of office. Two years later, we had the tea party revolt, a full-fledged attack on the federal system at a time when Wall Street, and not the government, deserved popular anger. Claiming to be all about "creating jobs," the tea party Republicans have instead embarked on an ideological battle.

So here we are, with this new breed of Republicans and, with them, a stalemate and near full crisis at a time when the nation's economy is still fragile as a house of cards and millions have been out of work for six months or longer. The Rockefeller Republicans and the Wayne Gilchrest moderates would never have played these games with the nation's fundamental finances.

What we're seeing today is, in a sense, a new kind of culture war — over the "culture" of federalism — when what the nation really needs is sound governance and rational leadership to get us through a tough time.

No wonder Americans flooded congressional offices with phone calls and emails this week. Most of us are out here, working — or looking for work — trying to keep up with bills, trying to figure out what comes next for the economy, and for our children. In Washington, we have zealots who want to defy even a compromising president and rewrite the Constitution — Andy Harris insists on a balanced budget amendment — in the midst of a stagnant economy.

"Too much drama," Americans popularly grumble as they leave a room or a relationship. Sooner or later, that's what sensible Republicans will say about the tea party. For the sake of the country, we should hope it's sooner.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR-FM.

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