In the post-mortem of the election, much attention had been given to the demise of liberal leaders. Specifically, Sens. McGovern, Bayh, Church and others were defeated by more conservative office-seekers.
But in North Carolina, the ideologically moderate and low-profile congressman named Richardson Preyer was also defeated. His defeat may have greater ramifications than those of his better-known liberal colleagues. In these times when politicians are boxed into ideological corners, anything less than a 100 percent score on the ideological litmus test can mean political suicide. And anything short of a commitment to outshout the opponent with evangelical tongue-lashings from the right or left just doesn't seem very appealing anymore. A five-term incumbent and former federal judge, Preyer refused to engage in verbal combat with his bellicose opponent.
Preyer exemplifies that dwindling cast of leaders called moderates. And he is not a moderate by default or a chameleon who has no principle and can never make up his mind. He, and a few others like him, are moderates by conviction.
There are certainly many elected officials who feel uncomfortable with either Jesse Helms or Ted Kennedy. But very few of them are unabashed, passionate and principled moderates in the Preyer mold.
The principled moderates have several defining characteristics, any but not all of which may be colleagues. They may be politically partisan, but they are as well respected by the opposing party as they are by their own. They are the only ones who consistently earn the cooperation and support of their opposition party colleagues.
They do not shout down their ideological adversaries. They may continue to disagree, but their views are expressed with respect and calm.
They consider each issue on its merits, not oblivious to interest group pressure, but never swayed decisively by it.
They are characterized by impeccable integrity.
They often take positions that satisfy no one completely, realizing that it takes a national consensus to produce significant social change.
They are intelligent, and they have a keen sense of history.
Richardson Preyer is all of these, but this commentary is not only about him. It is about Jacob Javits, Joseph Fisher, John Buchanan and perhaps even John Anderson, who were defeated. It is about Morris Udall, Millicent Fenwick and Charles Mathias, who survived. It is about a few others who are our only leaders who can bridge the gap between the bellicose ideologues.
Moderates, as Preyer says, are in the business of governing. Liberals or conservatives may have the better ideas and are probably more creative, but they are not the best policymakers. Though McGovern, Bayh and Church may have received the headlines, the defeat of Preyer and the few like him is particularly disturbing. It represents a rejection of common sense and reason, of even-handedness, of moderation, if you will -- essential qualities for any government that seeks to unite a polarized and angry public.