He criticizes conservatives who campaign on a hot-button agenda of “God, guns and gays” in order to divert the attention of voters from fundamental economic and foreign policy issues. He says “government is good and government is necessary” and condemns those who would dramatically downsize federal and state programs as “nihilists.” He asks thoughtful questions about the Bush Administration’s approach to the war in Iraq. He opposes the Bush Administration’s push for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. And he proudly touts the backing he has received from the League of Conservation Voters and the United Auto Workers union.
Who is this guy, John Kerry? No, he’s Joe Schwarz, the newly minted Republican nominee for an open House seat in a Michigan district that leans strongly enough in the party’s favor to pretty much assure that he will win a ticket to Washington in November.
Schwarz calls himself a “mainstream Republican” or, when the 66-year-old physician is waxing ideological, a “traditional conservative” who respects both individual liberty and civic responsibility–as opposed to the current batch of neoconservatives and “extremists” who, he suggests, have warped the moniker beyond anything Barry Goldwater or even Ronald Reagan would have recognized. But in the shorthand parlance of the current political debate, Schwarz is best described as a moderate–some would even say liberal–Republican. In a party that has swung hard to the right in the past decade, that makes him a rarity. And winning a contested primary over several more-conservative candidates, as Schwarz did in early August, makes him downright remarkable–so much so that the beleaguered band of Republican moderates and mavericks in Congress is hailing his nomination as a sign that their fortunes have finally turned. Arizona Senator John McCain, who campaigned for Schwarz, went so far as to suggest that the Michigan Republican’s election could ease the overall pattern of ideological polarization in Congress.
McCain is being overly optimistic. Moderate Republicans can point to a few victories this year–including Schwarz’s nomination and Senator Arlen Specter’s narrow win over a conservative challenger in a Pennsylvania primary–but the trends do not seem to be running in favor of those whom right-wing strategists dismiss as RINOs: “Republicans In Name Only.” The conservative jihadists, who seek to cleanse the party of all but true believers, are quick to dismiss Schwarz’s victory over a fractured conservative opposition as an accident of political nature. Far from being the harbinger of a new era of political cooperation, they argue, Schwarz is simply the last egg to hatch from an ideological breed that will soon be every bit as extinct as the dinosaurs. To hasten the process, right-wing operatives have formed “RINO Hunters Clubs,” and they are pouring time, energy and their considerable resources into hunting down the last of the moderates. In a party where crude conservatives like Senate majority whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas call a lot more of the shots than John McCain and Joe Schwarz, don’t bet on the moderates to prevail.
To be sure, the RINOs will have their moment in the spotlight when Republicans meet in New York. Despite the fact that President Bush and Vice President Cheney have shaped what is arguably the most radically right-wing administration in the nation’s history, the GOP national convention that will renominate them will shine its spotlight on many of the party’s most moderate members. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and current New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, all supporters of abortion rights and gay rights, will have prime speaking slots, as will McCain, the maverick senator who has broken with the Bush Administration on everything from environmental protection to budget policy. The moderate-and-maverick-heavy schedule has caused a lot of grumbling among conservative purists, who complain that–aside from the President and Vice President–the most sincere right-winger on the podium during prime time may turn out to be Georgia Senator Zell Miller, who still claims to be a Democrat. They argue that the roster of speakers is unrepresentative, and of course they are right: The cavalcade of moderates is nothing more than cover for a right-wing party that is trying to cling to power by showing its most mainstream and appealing face–much as Bush did in 2000 with his talk of “compassionate conservatism.”