Arlen Specter, senator of Pennsylvania, is in a tough spot this spring. The four-term moderate is facing a serious challenge in the Republican primary from the right-wing Representative Pat Toomey.
Only a few months ago, Specter’s challenger had poor name recognition, little money, and apparently no chance to take the nomination away from Specter. Yet Toomey has caught fire with a message that has become all too familiar in recent years: labeling a GOP moderate a RINO or Republican-In-Name-Only. Toomey has launched a vicious campaign, denouncing Specter as a “Ted Kennedy liberal” whose views are too centrist for the Republican Party. Toomey is now neck and neck with Specter in most polls. Even if Specter survives the primary, he will be badly bruised for the general election in November.
Yet in this intensely partisan era, Specter’s precarious position is nothing new. More and more, Republican moderates are finding it nearly impossible to survive in Congress. The party line has moved farther to the right, and, as a result, many Republicans from centrist states are faced with the following dilemma: Do they move with the GOP and risk alienating the voters in their states or do they continue to represent their constituents’ opinions and, consequently, disobey their party?
If the moderate chooses the first option, he will most likely encounter a contested general election from a centrist Democrat. If he chooses the second option, he will lose credibility in the party and eventually face a difficult primary contest. Specter’s fate is clearly the latter.
The real question is: What has happened to the political climate that has alienated so many centrists like Specter (and Senator Jim Jeffords before him) from the Republican Party? Although this trend can be attributed to a highly polarized electorate, it has been the Republican Party itself that has killed the GOP moderate. The death of the GOP moderate is a direct result of the Republican move to the right. In the past 20 years, the religious right, ruthless congressional leadership, and conservative presidents have been instrumental in effecting the rightward shift.
The effect of the religious right’s incorporation into the GOP cannot be overestimated. Beginning with Reagan’s election in 1980, evangelical Christian activists have gained enormous influence in the party especially when it comes to social issues. Consequently, cultural matters like abortion, gay marriage, and prayer in schools have been thrust to the forefront of the Republican national agenda. The religious right’s power was evident 10 years ago in Pat Robertson’s candidacy for president in 1988 and Bush Sr.’s pandering to born-again Christians at the national convention. In the current administration, Bush has championed faith-based initiatives and the despicable amendment to write discrimination into the Constitution; both issues are red meat for the religious right. As the religious right drags the party to the right on social issues, fiscally conservative, but social moderate candidates like the pro-choice Specter or the civil libertarian Jeffords find it more and more difficult to vote with the party in Congress.
Yet Republican congressional leadership beginning with Newt Gingrich in 1994 and continuing with Tom DeLay has demanded party unity on most issues. Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Bush’s monstrous tax cuts, and the Patriot Act were all votes where the leadership demanded unanimity from GOP members, but which actually damaged many GOP moderates’ relations with their constituents. Moreover, with both houses closely divided, the slim Republican majority needs more party-line votes on their controversial legislation.
Finally, Republican moderates have been at the mercy of the ultraconservative administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Both Presidents have proven to be ruthless in implementing their legislative agenda, even though their extremist programs have weakened moderate legislators’ status at home. By giving large tax cuts to the wealthy while increasing military spending, these Presidents have made it difficult for moderates to return to their constituencies and sincerely declare that the Republican Party is still the party of fiscal responsibility. Meanwhile, the current administration’s radical social agendas have thrown these same congressmen into the excruciating situation of having to explain to their constituents why the GOP is so intent on attacking civil liberties, disrespecting minorities, and eroding the separation of church and state.
It is no wonder then that Jeffords left the Republican Party in 2001 and several GOP moderates, including Specter, are finding it nearly impossible to get reelected.
The Republican Party has moved its platform so far to the right that it has broken away from the common ground it once had with the political center. The party has become an island unto itself and it is the GOP moderate, desperately hanging on to the cliff, who will be the one to fall.