Streetcar Line

In Defense of Principled Moderates

Snowe, right. Newt, wrong.

By 10.29.09

I've always respected Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. Likewise former Rep. James Leach of Iowa. And Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware. And, among Democrats, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, former Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, and, on the left (ignoring a few instances of cheap-ish shots), Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. Oh, and former Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell usually fit the bill as well.

Why? Because it seems these are people who strive(d) more often than not to be intellectually honest and consistent, in accord with identifiable principles, even when those principles are not my own.

Conservatives have every right, indeed a duty to our cause, to constructively criticize these officials when we disagree -- which will no doubt be often. But we do our own cause a disservice if we blast their motives or their character when what we really have is an honest disagreement. Respectful and principled disagreements are fine; we just need to work all the harder to convince them that our side is right when they are trying to make decisions on particular issues. It's amazing how much easier it is to get a hearing from somebody, and eventual agreement with him and support from him, if you haven't previously blasted him (or her) to Kingdom Come.

To be clear, there are definite distinctions to be made between, on the one hand, those who hug the middle (1) out of sheer political calculation, or (2) in a failure to abide by their own stated principles, or (3) to curry favor with somebody, or (4) by dint of proverbial fingers in the wind, and, on the other hand, those far more admirable middle-roaders who actually, legitimately believe in certain things that put them somewhere towards the center of the political spectrum.

Of course, sometimes it is difficult to tell which is which. Only by dint of sustained observation can one reach an appreciation of the exceedingly small brigade of "honest moderates" -- or which ones are, like South Carolina's Sen. Lindsey Graham, mere suck-ups playing political angles. I do, though, believe that Sen. Snowe is one of the honest moderates -- and, furthermore, I think conservatives need to appreciate that she never seems to insult us, or our motives, even when she is on the other side of an issue. Indeed, that's often one way to tell a principled moderate from a Graham: The Grahams of the world, uncomfortable in their own skins, tend to lash out with cheap shots at those whose sharper principles they are abandoning.

Graciousness, by contrast, can go a long way, and graciousness in return can pay huge political dividends. Some people seem more open to reason, while others seem more open to threats or political rewards. Sen. Snowe seems to be among the former. As in the current health care debate, Sen. Snowe all the way back to her service in the House has had a tendency eventually to lay down a marker, a make-or-break requirement, well explained, that will determine which side of a close issue she will come down on. On health care, Sen. Snowe unfortunately buys into the need for more complicated government involvement to guarantee coverage for more Americans. We conservatives know she is wrong -- but that is indeed what she believes. She also believes, fortunately, that there is a major distinction between government regulation of business and government actually competing with private businesses. And she believes in a certain measure of fiscal rectitude -- perhaps not rectitude as conservatives understand it, yet her application of a certain sort of green-eyeshade accounting has appeared to be remarkably consistent through the years.

People like this are admirable even when they are wrong. And they are approachable by conservatives if we don't insult them. I well remember back when Trent Lott appeared (whether rightly or wrongly) to be the clear conservative choice in a close race for Republican Whip in the Senate. Snowe herself had just moved from the House to the Senate. As it turns out, Snowe set aside ideology to consider other factors (such as Lott's success as Whip in the House years before) -- and, reportedly (the leadership votes are confidential), it was Snowe who effectively gave Lott a one-vote victory. If she can set aside ideology for conservatives, as she did in that case, conservatives should be able to respect her own political philosophy enough (even though it is a shade or two different than our own) to try to reason with her by reference to the touchstones of that political philosophy.

Likewise with a few (far too few) self-proclaimed moderates among the Democrats. Bob Kerrey, for instance, is a thoughtful (if quirky) patriot. When he was in office, he was approachable via appeals to reason. Conservatives sometimes, even often, are not enough predisposed towards reaching out for agreement rather than bashing over disagreements. This is not a matter of abandoning our own principles, but merely of recognizing the principles of others -- if, and only if and as long as, those others keep their word, play things straight, and don't stretch their hands out for special favors.

The trick is figuring out which moderates are truly moderates, and which are just wimps or hacks. The second trick is remembering to keep the disagreements cordial with the principled moderates no matter how exasperating their positions may seem to us. If we understand their principles and appeal to them, rather than writing them off as hopeless hacks, we may just win their votes -- and their votes may be the very ones that make a crucial difference for the entire country.

WITH ALL THAT SAID, why all the conservative anger at Newt Gingrich for endorsing the liberal Dede Scozzafava over the Conservative Doug Hoffman in the congressional special election in New York? Isn't Gingrich just doing what I recommend by reaching out to moderates?

Well, no. That's not what I recommended. There's a difference between respecting principled moderates (and being political realists), which I recommend, and absolutely embracing a left-of-moderate professional pol at the expense of, and with attacks at, a principled conservative. The latter course is the one Gingrich (and NRCC Chair Pete Sessions and most of the House GOP leadership) has chosen. There's pro-choice -- and then there's a winner of the Margaret Sanger Award. There's labor-friendly -- and then there's an embrace of the "card-check" effort to end secret ballots in union organizing elections. There's outreach to nontraditional GOP ground troops -- and then there's a history of close ties to ACORN-affiliated groups (and the obvious damage that does to the current political case against ACORN and all it stands for). There's fiscal moderation, and then there is support for the Obama stimulus, and for 190 tax hikes in New York, and so on and so forth.

And there's also the matter of the current imperative to nurture a growing new grassroots populist/conservative movement, when weighed against a candidate anathema to the grassroots but who was chosen without a primary or open caucuses but instead by party bosses gathered in a room while being nudged by NRCC staff in Washington.

In each example above, the first option is the run-of-the-mill "moderate." The second is Scozzafava -- and it is what Gingrich has embraced, while lobbing his own attacks at Hoffman and while increasingly insulting conservatives who are understandably aghast at his decision.

Gingrich entered the Scozzafava flap with a great reservoir of conservative bona fides, for obvious and well-merited reasons. He therefore might have been forgiven by conservatives, in time, if he had made his endorsement and then let it fade away. Instead, though, he has been doubling down, becoming ever more shrill in his denunciations of conservative activists who are merely following what once was his lead -- i.e., who are themselves standing on principle while all he offers in explanation of his endorsement is pure political calculation. (And misguided calculations at that, as polls and word of mouth increasingly report.)

Unlike Olympia Snowe's admirable position on health care, Gingrich's position is looking anything but moderate.

ALL OF WHICH leaves us… where?

It leaves us with the opportunity to embrace the cause of principle itself. In Delaware, conservatives should rejoice that the moderate Castle is running for Senate. He's never lost an election in decades of public life in that state. Why? Because he's a man of principle.

We should grit out teeth and embrace Olympia Snowe in Maine. She has set a consistent course and followed it. And it's a course that at least gives ear to the arguments from the right side of the political spectrum.

But we should, on principle, take the fight not just against the left but against those philosophically corrupt pols, consultants, and hangers-on who populate so many positions of power in the Washington, D.C. Republican Party, who talk only within their own echo chambers, who try to dictate the results of intra-party battles rather than let the voters themselves choose, and who wouldn't know the difference between a principle and the principal in their overstuffed banking accounts. Gingrich, an often marvelous leader who should know better, falsely accused conservative activists of wanting to "purge" the party of anybody who is not an entirely pure-bred conservative ideologue. He's wrong. We don't mind thoughtful moderates. The people we want to purge from power are the arrogant political hacks.

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.