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Blame 'moderates,' not 'wingers,' for dysfunction

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Among the biases of the mainstream political media, the most absurd is the adoration of the "moderate." When Maine's Olympia Snowe, the most liberal Senate Republican, announced her retirement Tuesday, it sparked an avalanche of lamentation and praise of this "dying breed" of moderate.

Praise for moderates these days typically goes hand in hand with cries that the GOP has been hijacked by conservative extremists. It's enough to make you wonder whether our political journalists -- either the liberals on the news pages or the "responsible" conservatives on the opinion pages -- have been paying attention.

Let's begin with the state of the GOP. Many Beltway Republicans suspect that Barack Obama will win re-election. There are many reasons for this, but for those conservatives who struggle every day to make conservatism more acceptable in the cocktail party circuit, there is only one explanation ever for Republican failure: conservative extremism.

New York Times columnist David Brooks blames the Tea Partiers and other grassroots conservatives ("wingers," he calls them) for making the GOP "more and more insular, more and more rigid" and being too intolerant of compromise. Someone should show Brooks the GOP presidential field. The ever-changing policy views of front-runner Mitt Romney can be derided in many ways, but never as "rigid." Nor can the mercurial Newt Gingrich be pinned down as unbending.

And Rick Santorum embodies the Bush-era GOP, which was defined by unprincipled compromise for the sake of passing legislation -- consider No Child Left Behind, the 2005 energy bill, the Medicare prescription drug law, and all of the appropriations bills of the day. "When you're part of the team," Santorum explained in the latest debate, "sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader."

Santorum's most famous team-player moment was his 2004 save of another vaunted moderate, Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, who would have lost the GOP primary to conservative Pat Toomey that year if not for Santorum's tireless campaigning. Specter, of course, left the party in 2009, giving Democrats the 60 votes they needed to pass Obama's health care bill.

While Romney used that history to try and pin Obamacare on Santorum, another "responsible conservative," David Frum, pinned that 60th vote on the Right. "It was the Club for Growth's 2009 threat to [defeat] Arlen Specter that enabled the passage of the Affordable Care Act in the first place," Frum said.

Moderates are as guilty as anyone of being intolerant when faced with conflicts within the GOP. Frum blasted as "Unpatriotic" those conservatives who failed to support George W. Bush's ill-considered invasion of Iraq, and urged all conservatives to "turn [their] backs" on these heretics. Brooks himself draws some pretty rigid boundaries of permissible dissent, excoriating as "nihilists" those who opposed the unprecedented and unfair Troubled Asset Relief Program in 2008.

Specter's career, meanwhile, is a good example of the rudderlessness of the standard moderate. Specter became a Republican in the 1960s because the GOP bosses in Philly promised him campaign cash, Specter tells in his memoirs. He became a Democrat in 2009 -- again, in his own words -- because he wanted to "get re-elected." And in his whiny farewell address to the Senate complaining about how senators now occasionally campaigned against senators (in other words, the Senate was becoming "less and less insular," as Brooks might put it), Specter praised a handful of the Rockefeller Republicans whom Brooks grieves. While Specter omitted the names of the disgraced moderate senators (Ted Stevens and Bob Packwood), he named a handful of men who turned their bipartisan pragmatism into a lucrative lobbying career, such as John Warner, Warren Rudman, Jack Danforth, and Slade Gorton.

Returning to Obamacare, a key architect of the bill was another vaunted moderate, former Rep. Billy Tauzin. Tauzin was a lifelong Democrat until Republicans took over Congress in 1995. Then he switched parties and got a committee chairmanship from which he helped shape the Medicare drug subsidy before cashing out the drug industry. From his perch as top pharmaceutical lobbyist, he helped write a pharma-friendly health care "reform."

Olympia Snowe's critiques this week of a dysfunctional Senate perfectly echoed similar complaints from a retiring Democratic Senate moderate last election -- Evan Bayh, who has since cashed out to work for a hedge fund and a K Street lobbying firm.

Frum's attempted purges, Specter's naked self-preservation, and Tauzin's and Bayh's self-enrichment show moderates are no more tolerant or altruistic than the "wingers" Brooks fears. Moderates in both parties may be a dying breed, but maybe not one worth saving.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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