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Archive for Friday, July 27, 2001

Republican moderates seek a role

July 27, 2001

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— This period of heavy politics and high humidity is the Republican moderates' moment but not the one they expected.

A year ago, at the party's Philadelphia convention, the moderates were in the ascendancy, feeling emboldened (the new Republican sentiment) and feeling empowered (the new GOP buzzword). George W. Bush was appealing to them, the word "diversity" was on every lip, all things seemed possible or, more important from the moderates' point of view, many horrifying things seemed avoidable. Even the most devout young conservative in the Senate, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, was talking about compromise and accommodation.

The call to arms has faded; the wake-up call is now ringing. Bush is in power, but the moderates are not. But in the next several days, the role the moderates play will help determine the course not only of their fragile movement but also of the Bush administration.

With only a dozen-seat majority in the House, and none at all in the Senate, the Republicans are realizing that every vote matters or, as one of them put it, the Republicans have provided their own moderates with the ability not to be overlooked. Politics is often the expression of passion, and sometimes the expression of reason, but in Bush's Washington, where a divided government seeks to lead a divided nation, politics is more often the expression of frustration.

Which is why this is an unusually fascinating moderate moment. By temperament and inclination, the GOP moderates are upbeat, optimistic. But by experience, especially in the past several months, they are bewildered, beaten down, even belittled. Their voices were not heard on the budget debate, their strong misgivings not heeded as the administration fashioned its energy policy. One of them, Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, strayed out of the party entirely, delivering power (and chairmanships by the bushel) to the hungry arms of the Democrats.

It is now clear that during the presidential campaign, the Bush team whispered into the desperate ears of conservatives: "Hold your tongue as we sidle up to the moderates; everything will be fine." At the same time, the Bush campaign was whispering to the moderates: "Hold your nose as you look at some of the characters in this coalition; it will all turn out OK."

For the conservatives, the promise has been redeemed. Bush has just finished his first six months in office, and the faith-based initiative has cleared the House. The checks, quite literally, are in the mail, returning tax revenues to the people. The old charts the Reaganites once used to describe brilliant pebbles and laser weapons have been adapted to PowerPoint presentations.

For the moderates, the promise has been unfulfilled. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine labored, vainly, to install some economic shock absorbers into the tax cut. Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, who has staked his career on the remarkable notion that he can reduce the party's flow of unregulated soft money and still walk safely on the House floor, is frustrated that the GOP leadership is preventing his legislation from coming to a vote.

And then there is Rep. Charles Norwood, a dentist from Augusta, Ga., and, though one of the Republicans who voted for the Clinton tax and budget bill in 1993, no left-leaning radical. One of the principal architects of the patients' rights movement on Capitol Hill, he's frustrated that the GOP leadership wants strict limits on the ability of patients to sue HMOs.

But patients' rights are on the agenda, the campaign-finance bill is proving to be an irritating burr stuck to the trousers of both supporters and opponents, prescription assistance is an issue that neither party can ignore, and the stem-cell question is a dilemma that the White House cannot avoid.

And so this summer marks an extraordinary moment for the moderates and for the Republicans.

Finally, as a process that began before Ronald Reagan's election continues to unfold after George W. Bush's election, the conservatives and the moderates have swapped roles in the party.

The moderates, spurned by party leaders and regarded as wayward souls by Republican insiders, are playing the role the conservatives once pioneered. In the Bush presidency, most of their impact has been with the weapon that they have resented when it was wielded by their conservative rivals: obstruction.

They delayed the faith initiative by a day; they denied the GOP leadership the support it sought on a critical procedural vote on campaign-finance overhaul. Frustrated but convinced of the virtue of their positions, they now cling, as the conservatives once did, to the new but unavoidable fact of Republican politics: Their party may revile them, but it cannot live without them.

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