So will moderate Republicans stand up? Or will the Republican right render them even more impotent than they were before Nov. 2?
With our nation's capital now under even firmer Republican domination, conservatives are claiming a mandate for everything from the partial privatization of Social Security to a transformation of the judiciary. The moderates have a choice of going along with a swing to the right or fighting for the power to influence policies in their direction.
Moderate Republicans win in the blue states by saying they are different from Tom DeLay and other Republican right-wingers. But in Washington, they are punished if they act on what they tell the voters.
Consider the case of Sen. Arlen Specter, just reelected from Pennsylvania, a state that supported John Kerry. Specter is a Republican who supports abortion rights. Now the Republican right wants to deny him the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, for which he is in line through seniority.
Specter's sin? He took the same position on the abortion question after the election as he did before. Here's the post-election statement that has the conservatives wanting to deny Specter his chairmanship:
"When you talk about judges who would change the right of a woman to choose, overturn Roe v. Wade, I think that is unlikely," Specter said. "The president is well aware of what happened when a bunch of his nominees were sent up with the filibuster."
Specter was stating the obvious: that many Democrats are likely to try to block an anti-Roe nominee. But conservatives viewed Specter's comment as heresy, and Specter can't count on much support from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
The Tennessee Republican wants to run for president. He knows how important it is in Republican primaries to pander to the right. So on "Fox News Sunday," Frist piously declared that Specter's statements "were disheartening to me" and "disheartening to a lot of people."
This is a revealing moment. Republicans like to say that they are more open on the abortion issue than Democrats, because abortion-rights foes have no place in the Democratic Party. That's a strange claim, since Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), an opponent of abortion rights, is about to become Frist's counterpart for the Senate's Democratic minority. Former representative David Bonior was the House whip and thus the No. 2 Democrat in the leadership until he stepped down to run for governor of Michigan in 2002. Bonior is also a right-to-lifer.
Query: Which party is really open on the abortion issue?
Republicans are fine with their members being for abortion rights if that's what they have to tell voters to hold their seats. But such Republicans can expect only resistance if they dare to rise to the top and expect any meaningful influence on the issue.
How long will moderate Republicans accept being kicked around? It's about a lot more than abortion. In the House, DeLay, the party's strongman, won't even let moderate legislation get to the floor. He insists that his party's moderates support internal procedures that cut off all possibility of genuinely bipartisan compromise. Will the moderate Republicans just keep going along?
Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, isn't expecting much. "With the exceptions of Lincoln Chafee and Jim Leach," says Frank, referring to the Republican senator from Rhode Island and the liberal Republican House member from Iowa, "Republicans will be with us as long as their votes are irrelevant to the outcome."
Frank adds: "Moderate Republicans are reverse Houdinis. They tie themselves up in knots and then tell you they can't do anything because they're tied up in knots."
Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware is one of those moderate Republicans, a thoughtful former governor who wishes politics was less polarized. He sees the moderates as having less power now because of the election of more conservatives to both houses. Yet Castle still hopes moderation might have its day, because the president "is going to want to build a legacy that is a little broader than it is so far."
Moderates, he says, "might be more willing to take independent positions" because Bush won't be on the ballot again and maverick votes won't be seen as endangering his reelection.
I respect Castle, but I have trouble sharing his optimism. It's often said that the polarization within our nation's political elite doesn't match a more moderate mood in the electorate. But if Washington's Republican leadership uses its power to ram through a conservative agenda while denying moderates any meaningful role, moderation will have no chance. Will the moderate Republicans take a stand, or will they continue to be complicit in their own powerlessness?