For a moment Monday night, political reporters seized on the news that Peter King, the gruff blue-collar Long Islander, might emerge as the GOP’s anti-Cruz, a moderate who would rise up against his fellow House Republicans and their effort to tie the continued funding of the government to defunding Obamacare.
It proved an extremely fleeting one.
“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.
“The real problem is: Who out there is going to provide the institutional framework that would enable a moderate Republican revival?” said Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party.” “There is not anything, in any minor, wimpy little way, to parallel the infrastructure of outside funding groups, pressure organizations. You’d have to invent all of that from the ground up, and Republican moderation has been overshadowed by the conservatives for so long that any of these capabilities has atrophied. So even if Chris Christie decides he is going to mount the white horse and lead the charge for moderate Republicanism, there isn’t anything he can make use of out there aside from the inchoate sentiment of moderate Republicans that things have gone too far.”
And Republicans in the House aren’t at all convinced that they have gone too far. Many of them believe that the damage to the party after forcing the 1995 shutdown has been exaggerated, and some have suggested that a government default wouldn’t be the catastrophe that Democratic and Republican moderates predict. Also, the present political-media climate could play to their favor.
“Republicans are looking out there right now and saying, ‘Look, the media is actually buying into this equivalency idea that it’s all the fault of Congress,’ ” Kabaservice said. “And a large part of the population is politically illiterate.”
King likewise saw little evidence that his Republican colleagues feared the political consequences of a shutdown.
“Today was the only opportunity we had to break the logjam,” King said last night. He said he had overheard Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on the House floor lobbying his caucus and “asking people on a personal basis to stick with him.” King said that Boehner personally told him, “I understand your frustration, I know this is tough for everyone, but if you guys will stick with me, it will work out okay. I’ve got a plan.’ ” King added that while he believed that Boehner was being sincere, “I just don’t think it’s going to happen.”
King is perhaps best known to most Americans from his frequent appearances on Fox News and myriad other television outlets expressing hawkish views on national security issues in his trademark blue-collar New York accent. He was a ferocious advocate for his fellow New Yorker Rudy Giuliani and for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and earned the ire of liberals for investigations into Islamist extremism as chair of the Homeland Security Committee. Viewers might have had a hard time distinguishing King from other Republicans, but in truth, they have been looking at a rare endangered species.
King represents an increasingly Democratic district in Long Island, has voted for gun-control measures, defended liberal icon and Harlem Democratic machine Rep. Charles Rangel and is sympathetic to unions. He became simpatico with the Clintons for helping put together the Northern Ireland peace accords, mementos of which adorn his office along with police, firefighter and Fighting Irish paraphernalia. And he relishes his role as the moderate thorn in his party’s right side.
He once said Newt Gingrich, who last shut down the government, was turning the GOP into “hillbillies at revival meetings.” This year, he went ballistic when his party voted to cut relief funding for those affected by Hurricane Sandy and said he didn’t feel “comfortable” in a caucus he described as populated by anti-urban bigots and untrustworthy leaders. He has also directed fire at libertarians in his party, such as Rand Paul, another potential presidential contender, for criticizing the National Security Agency.
But it is in Cruz, the smooth-talking, Ivy League trained Texan whom King has found the personification of everything he thinks has gone wrong with his party. He said the current strand in his party didn’t have a prayer of winning the presidency back in 2016 — “Not if it’s the party of Ted Cruz.”
“I think a Republican can get elected if he is conservative and independent at the same time. Not if he follows this blind ideology. It’s not even an ideology,” he said. “It’s not even conservative. Defunding the law? If Tip O’Neill said in the 1980s we are going to shut the government down unless Reagan stopped Star Wars or repealed his tax cuts, we would have said, ‘It’s left-wing Bolshevism.’ So I don’t see it as a conservative policy as much as a guerrilla tactic.”
King may believe that Cruz has hijacked his Republican Party, but that’s a bit misleading. There wasn’t much of his brand of Republicanism left to hijack. In a short interview on the way to the Senate floor yesterday, Cruz scoffed at the notion that he was the de facto speaker of the House by saying, “Oh, the Democrats can throw whatever barbs they like,” and added, “every member of the House and every member of the Senate ultimately has a responsibility to listen to his or her constituents.”
And for King and the shrinking number of moderate Republicans in the country, that may ultimately be the problem. With the Republican base’s tolerance for moderates, even candidates with moderate facades, apparently worn thin, and ideologically pure candidates such as Cruz feeling emboldened, moderates will need an especially adroit and charismatic politician to compete in 2016. So far, Christie alone seems to have hit on the idea of turning the traditional GOP formula — right-wing ideology in a moderate package — on its head.
“The thing about him is that his moderation is wrapped up in such a cantankerous and angry and immoderate political personality,” said Kabaservice, “that he can have a wider draw than most people who would advocate the positions that he advocates.”