“I was the only one who spoke strongly in opposition,” King said in an interview a few minutes before it became clear that his revolt would fail and the government would shut down. The reaction to telling his colleagues that they lived “in their own echo chamber” and had become deaf to reason was, he said: “Silence.”
King’s rebellion was put down spectacularly. Only five other Republicans voted with him, and four of them were ultra-conservatives who didn’t think their colleague’s efforts to delay Obamacare were sufficiently fatal to the law. The crushing of King amounted to a reminder that the modern Republican Party makes little room for moderate voices, is firmly controlled by the right wing and rewards the purity embodied by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
“You have 40 Ted Cruz Republicans in the House running national policy,” King said, adding that his party had been taken over by “the Ted Cruz element.”
But while Cruz may be a short-term catalyst, he is the consequence of a much deeper trend. The present GOP condition surfaced for all to see in the 2010 rise of the tea party, but the party’s abandonment of moderates has its roots going back decades, at least to the hostile takeover of the 1964 presidential nomination by Barry Goldwater. The Arizona senator’s unapologetic conservatism had a disastrous effect on his campaign, but it stirred the Republican base and set the stage for the party’s rejection of George Romney, perhaps the party’s last moderate candidate, in 1968.
From then, through to his son, Mitt Romney, in 2012, Republican presidential nominees have to varying degrees adopted the rightward ideology of their insurgent rivals, while maintaining a moderate establishment image amenable to what remains of the centrist diaspora embedded in the real estate industry, Wall Street and Washington quarters of the GOP establishment.
This week’s government shutdown has shown that the moderate veneer among potential presidential candidates has cracked. Cruz is putting a new, purist face forward and banking that Republicans will find it more attractive than what he has called the “squishes.” But his possible competitors for the Republican nomination seem to be drawing the opposite lesson: that burning down the Republican-controlled House through a government shutdown — or worse, a debt default — will create the conditions from which a new moderate phoenix could rise.
This morning, for example, King’s friend and fellow Republican, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, released a 30-second television spot in which he said “as long as you stick to your principles, compromise isn’t a dirty word.”
Republican moderates, to the extent that they still exist, are not exactly the pitchfork crew. But Christie, arguably his party’s most politically deft potential presidential candidate, has an acute sense of the American electorate. His ad is evidence that he thinks there is political advantage in separating himself from Republicans in the House. But whether he could build the political infrastructure to support a moderate campaign is another matter.