The GOP's Shrinking Middle

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Members of Congress retire all the time, but some retirements are leading indicators of the direction of our politics. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert's announcement last week to call it quits matters, and in a depressing way.

The affable 69-year-old New York Republican is one of the last of a breed: a liberal Republican, though he calls himself a "moderate" and has the record to prove it. Boehlert's departure does not leave the House bereft of liberal Republicans -- Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa is more liberal than Boehlert. But Leach, alas, is an outlier. The spotted owl is in good shape compared with liberal Republicans.

Boehlert chose to retire in the year when National Journal, the political world's answer to Sports Illustrated, featured him as the ultimate "Down the Middle" guy. In its Feb. 25 issue, the magazine published its annual ratings, which showed that Boehlert's votes were more liberal than those of 52.2 percent of House members and more conservative than 47.8 percent. Boehlert's district includes the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and it's hard to move the ball more to the middle of the plate than he does.

It's been downhill for his brand of Republicanism from the moment he set foot in Washington as a congressional staffer in 1964. That's the year Barry Goldwater won the Republican presidential nomination and the great flight of the Republican liberals began.

After Goldwater's landslide defeat, two Republican progressives who later became conservatives, George Gilder and Bruce Chapman, wrote a brilliant book called "The Party That Lost Its Head," detailing how and why the party's liberal wing responded so anemically to the conservative challenge. But it was too late. The party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt was destined to become an annex of the conservative movement.

Boehlert has always been unabashed in embracing his liberal roots. Over breakfast on a sunny summer morning in Cooperstown five years ago, Boehlert embraced two of the most progressive politicians of his lifetime. "People say to me: 'Why are you the kind of Republican you are?' Because in my formative political years, when I was coming up in New York, my governor was Nelson A. Rockefeller and my senator was Jacob K. Javits."

Why does the decline and fall of liberal Republicanism matter? After all, rationalizing the political system into a more conservative GOP and a more-or-less liberal Democratic Party makes the alternatives clearer to voters, who are offered, in Goldwater's famous phrase, "a choice, not an echo."

But it turns out that a Republican Party dominated by conservatives is no more coherent than the party that left room for progressives. The huge budget deficit is conservatism's Waterloo, testimony to its political failure. The conservatives love to cut taxes but can't square their lust for tax reduction with plausible spending cuts. Oh, yes, a group of House conservatives has a paper plan involving deep program cuts, but other conservatives know that these cuts will not pass, and shouldn't.

Paradoxically, because the liberal Republicans didn't pretend to hate government, they were better at fiscal responsibility. They were willing to match their desired spending levels with the taxes to pay for them. It didn't make for exciting, to-the-barricades politics. It merely produced good government.

Boehlert, being an optimist by nature, was always ready to declare that the "moderates' moment" had finally arrived. Last November, after I had written a column taking some moderate Republicans to task for backing the outrageous budget bill that passed under the cover of darkness at 1:30 a.m., there was Boehlert on the phone insisting that he and fellow moderate Mike Castle (R-Del.) had wrung some important concessions out of the House leadership. Maybe so, I replied, but I had a higher opinion of moderate Republicans and expected more of them than that lousy budget bill.

The problem may be that Boehlert and Castle did get as much as they could, given the numerical weakness of their variety of Republicanism, but that's not good enough. I suspect Boehlert knows this. Absent a robust progressive wing, congressional Republicans will continue to produce fiscally incoherent government. Democrats now have the task of representing their own brand of politics, and that of progressive Republicans, too.

I'll miss Boehlert and his optimistic moderation. Our politics worked better when a sufficiently large band of Republican moderates and liberals could take the edge off polarization and orient government toward problem-solving. But the liberal Republicans are gone. We have to deal with the GOP we have, not the GOP we wish still existed.

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