It's risky to predict what current events will become historical turning points, but I'm willing to take a chance on this one. Years from now, students and analysts of American political life will point to May 23, 2005, as the day "radical moderates" took a stand and began to recapture the sensible center of U.S. politics. The 14 Republican and Democratic senators who came together to avert the detonation of the "nuclear option" over judicial nominations are owed a much greater debt of gratitude than many people yet realize.

By uniting in defense of America's historical commitment to consensus on issues of great national importance, they proved that moderates possess political muscle and are not afraid to use it judiciously and effectively. As a result, President Bush's judicial nominees will get the up-or-down votes they deserve, and the Senate can turn its focus from procedural matters back to the important challenges facing our country.

Predictably, those whom I call "social fundamentalists" -- the vocal minority who would purge from the Republican Party those who don't meet their narrow ideological litmus tests on a handful of social issues -- have gone to Defcon 2, just short of a nuclear launch, in their reactions.

Gary L. Bauer, president of American Values, called the compromise a "sellout"; the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, accused the seven Republicans of lacking "backbone" and "fortitude"; and James C. Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, spoke of his "disappointment, outrage and sense of abandonment." Outraged talk radio hosts are vowing to help defeat the seven GOP senators in their next primaries.

History one day will reflect that the high-water mark of the "social conservative" movement in this country came two months ago with the Terri Schiavo case, when a vocal and organized minority persuaded Congress to intervene. Most Americans did not support that intrusion. History also will record that the tide began to turn just eight weeks later, as radical moderates flexed their political muscles to return the sensible center in American politics to its rightful place.


Oldwick, N.J.

The writer is a former governor of New Jersey and a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.