Mark Kleiman has had a number of posts wondering why moderate Republicans don’t bolt their party. To paraphrase what he says, with no small amount of frustration, when will the rest of the moderates (along with science-loving, principled conservatives) wake up and realize their party is gone and what remains doesn’t represent their views and values any more? I think I am more connected to the R side of life than Mark is, and this is my effort to answer my friend’s question.
First, all politics is local. Many, many Republicans will acknowledge readily that Christine O’Donnell is a taco short of a combination plate or that Governor Palin is not qualified to be President or that this or that Republican talking head on national TV is corrosive and dishonest but then immediately point out that their Republican governor, mayor or state legislator is a competent, sane Republican who governs well. There are plenty of Republicans in office who are not culture warriors, are honest and intelligent, don’t spend more money than we have…in short they live out the values that makes many voters like the Republican party in the first place. They are obscure figures nationally precisely because of these values, but the Republicans in their state/city/county know who they are and like them and that keeps them in the Republican party even as national figures disappoint.
Second, at the national level, there isn’t really anywhere for an elected Republican moderate to go. As the national Republican party moves right, the Democratic
party Congressional caucus is not shifting to the middle to claim abandoned moderates, it’s doing just the opposite. In this past election, the Blue Dogs were the ones who got slaughtered. The most conservative democrats in Congress are now more liberal than the most liberal Republicans in Congress and the gulf keeps getting wider. Moving from one side to the other is as a fearful a leap as Hobbes ever contemplated, and it is not clear that even if you were willing to jump, the people on the other side would embrace you rather than shove you into the yawning void below. If you don’t believe me, ask Arlen Specter.
Third, speaking of Senator Specter, before he switched parties we invited him to Stanford to talk about the future of NIH. Before his public talk, he had breakfast with about 10 people, 3 of whom were Nobel Laureates and committed Democrats. One of them, echoing Mark Kleiman in content and passion, said “You are the architect of NIH’s growth, you are pro-choice, you are moderate on social issues – why aren’t you a Democrat?!”.
Senator Specter paused for a moment and acknowledged that he felt much more lonely in the Senate since the defeat, retirement or death of many New England Republicans (including my distant cousin John Heinz, who represented Pennsylvania with him). But when he was just starting his political career, the corrupt Democratic Party machine in Philadelphia wouldn’t let him on the ticket, but the Republicans gave him a chance when no one else would (and he won). Since then he had been identified as a Republican, had made many Republican friends and allies, and said that gratitude and identity would always keep him a Republican.
Of course, Senator Specter did ultimately leave his party, but I think what he said still has weight. We all feel the call of home. To take an intentionally much more extreme situation, many American Christians who have relatives in Iraq are calling and writing their families begging “The country is getting more and more hostile to you, please leave, come to America”. And the response comes “But Iraq is our home, it’s who we are”. Outsiders might look at this situation and say how can people be so crazy, but to Iraqi Christians, Iraqi is who they are in their hearts, it’s their history and their home (One could fill in a thousand other examples of persecuted people who stay in their country even as outsiders yell “Are you blind? Why don’t you leave?”).
I pick that extreme example of Iraq’s Christians on purpose, to point out that even when persecution reaches the level of potential death, people hang on their identities and their long-established social ties. Moderate Republicans don’t face anything like that level of persecution, certainly not enough to overwhelm the call of home.