About Those House GOP “Moderates” and “Pragmatists”

The desire to label people and phenomena is an inherent aspect of political analysis. And I don’t question Noam Scheiber’s effort at TNR to make distinctions between different varieties of House Republicans when it comes to things like their willingness to send the U.S. economy into a tailspin via a debt default.

But the labels themselves really do matter. And I would object to the neat characterization of House GOPers as falling into three equivalent baskets of “moderates, pragmatic conservatives, and hard-core conservatives.”

The moderates have to run in closely divided districts and prefer to hew to the center when possible. The pragmatic conservatives tend to be in somewhat safer seats. But because they’re in a stronger position politically when their party is more popular, they have an interest in boosting the party’s overall image with voters. Finally, the hard-core conservatives are either jihadi extremists who value ideological purity above all, or pols who worry more about potential primary challengers than their general election opponents. They have no problem if the party is scorned nationally so long as they preserve their conservative bona fides.

Calling any House Republican in a competitive district a “moderate” is both dangerous and wrong. Allen West was in a competitive district. Michele Bachmann is in a competitive district. Even Steve King of Iowa had to run a serious campaign this last cycle, and was by no means guaranteed victory. These were arguably the three most extreme Members of the House Caucus. Thanks to both partisan polarization and gerrymandering, the two parties rely far less than they used to on winning elections in “enemy territory” where triangulation against the extremists in one’s own party might be politically useful.

As for the “pragmatic conservatives” (presumably led by John Boehner), exactly how much pragmatism can be attributed to the decision not to blow up the economy? Before we start assigning degrees of reasonableness to these people, let’s remember the history of the last few years and what might have happened if the 2012 elections had turned out just a bit differently. A grand total of one House Republican voted for Obamacare, which was based on a classic “pragmatic conservative” health care model first developed by the Heritage Foundation. That was Joseph Cao, who won an overwhelmingly Democratic district in Louisiana after the incumbent got caught hiding big piles of cash in his freezer. He’s not around any more. No Senate Republicans voted for the legislation. Yes, they may have differed on this or that issue, but how can you call anyone a “moderate” who rejected Obamacare?

Now you can claim that this vote was dictated by partisanship rather than ideology, and thus didn’t represent the actual views of “moderates.” But that sends us down the rabbit hole of trying to deduce the “actual views” of pols who when push comes to shove tend to vote with the “extremists.”

Consider an even more fundamental issue than Obamacare: the Ryan Budget, an “extremist” blueprint for the entire federal government if ever there was one. Four House Republicans voted against it in April of 2011, at least three of them because it didn’t go far enough in immediately slashing domestic spending: i.e., it was not extreme enough. A revised version of the Ryan Budget lost ten Republican votes in March of 2012. Again, a majority of “no” votes came from hard-core conservatives who thought it was namby-pamby.

Had Mitt Romney won the presidency and his party the Senate, it is a lead-pipe cinch that GOPers would have enacted the Ryan Budget via budget reconciliation rules (Romney explicitly said he’d sign it, as part of the ideological vetting process that led to his nomination, whatever his constant tinkering with positions on Medicare during the campaign implied. He also, as you probably noticed, put Ryan on the ticket). Moreoever, Romney, the very ideal of a “pragmatic conservative” (if not a moderate) signed the “Cut, Cap and Balance” Pledge that promised opposition to any debt limit increase unless a radically lower permanent cap on spending were enacted, reinforced by passage of a constitutional amendment. This latter commitment–reflecting support for the very foundation of the “extremist” position on the debt limit we’re dealing with right now–happened long after Romney had won the nomination; it was necessary, it can be assumed, to keep conservatives–and not the “pragmatic” kind–happy.

Does the terminology really matter? Yes, I think so. The temptation to treat the two parties as composed of balanced groups of ideologues and “pragmatists” or “moderates” is at the very center of the false-equivalency meme that has bedeviled media treatment of American politics for years now, and has also fed the grievously false perception that if the non-“extremists” of the two parties could just get together in a suitably comfortable room, our problems would be over.

So while I admire Noam Scheiber a very great deal, and figure his analysis of the internal problems in the GOP has some merit when it comes to party strategy and tactics, I think it’s a very bad idea to forget for a moment the fact that there is an extremist ideology that unites most Republican pols, by consent or compulsion.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.