Are Moderate Republicans Disappearing?


By now, Maine Senator Olympia Snowe may be wondering whether she is destined to wind up as a disappearing political curiosity: The "moderate" Republican.

Following the decision by Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter to become a Democrat, Snowe's frustration with her party's rightward shift bubbled over in the form of a blistering public critique of fellow Republicans. In a 747 word "J'accuse" published in Wednesday's New York Times, Snowe blamed the party for ignoring "the iceberg under the surface" and for "failing to undertake the re-evaluation of our inclusiveness as a party that could have forestalled many of the losses we have suffer."

"It is true that being a Republican moderate sometimes feels like being a cast member of "Survivor" — you are presented with multiple challenges, and you often get the distinct feeling that you're no longer welcome in the tribe. But it is truly a dangerous signal that a Republican senator of nearly three decades no longer felt able to remain in the party."

Her op-ed reverberated through the blogosphere as hard-line Democrats and Republicans staked out expected positions. But a more interesting debate also accompanied the predictable polemics, with some commentators suggesting that the real dynamic at play had less to do with inner-Republican strife than with broader societal shifts.

Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds for one wasn't buying Snowe's argument that the goal posts have moved to the right. Reynolds wrote that that he's been hearing pretty much of the same line since the Reagan era.

"It's certainly true, of course, that the GOP wasn't much good on small government under Bush, though they're looking better in retrospect as Obama spends and spends. But on social issues I'm not seeing it — is this a real shift, or an imaginary one?"

Riehl World View arched a similarly skeptical eyebrow about a Republican shift, suggesting instead that what people like Snowe were reacting to was a broader shift in the culture and the media.

"For espousing ideas that were reasonably mainstream during the Reagan Era, one is promptly labeled a religious kook today. While the Republicans have been and remain the more socially conservative party, the Left has been effective in their demonizing of that aspect, especially every time a social conservative Republican goes astray with a hooker, or in a men's room, for instance. Lastly, televangelists and some notable moderate Republicans have helped demonize this over time, too."

All plausible reasons. But parsing the reasons behind Specter's surprise defection from the Republican Party may come down to the more basic matter of counting noses at election time, according to another conservative blogger, John Hawkins, who writes at Right Wing News. He put it this way:

"Arlen Specter jumped ship from the Republican Party for a very simple reason: he was practically guaranteed to lose a Republican primary to Pat Toomey. You can be sure that Specter, in return for his betrayal, received promises of support from Democratic heavyweights if he's `primaried' from the Left."

Of course, political betrayal, obviously, is in the eye of the beholder. For moderates like Snowe, the future may come down to whether she can convince enough fellow party members to follow Ronald Reagan's advice about emphasizing what unites them and tolerate disagreements. In her Times' piece, Snowe was blunt about the risk of folding "our philosophical tent into an umbrella under which only a select few are worthy to stand."

If that happens, Specter may not be the last major Republican to cross party lines.

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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.