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Considering an Endangered Species: Moderate Republicans | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Considering an Endangered Species: Moderate Republicans

SYDNEY—Australia has just held national elections and, in my capacity as a commentator of media coverage of politics, I've been making the rounds of Australian radio and television programs and media forums. What’s been striking about the experience is the extent to which it has made me miss the American phenomenon of the moderate Republican.

Moderate Republicans have been hunted to the brink of extinction in the US. Australia still has a local version of the breed and the country is better for it.

Growing up in Middle West in the latter half of the 20th century, I was surrounded by moderate Republicans of the old "Main Street" school—former Ilowa Congressman Jim Leach, former Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson, former Illinois Senator Chuck Percy and former Illinois Congressman John Anderson, former Wisconsin Governor Warren Knowles and former Wisconsin Congressman Bill Steiger—all of whom embraced environmental, civil rights and clean government principles that made them worthy competitors with the Democrats at election time and worthy governing partners when the voting was done.

The suggestion that Leach, Steiger, Percy or Anderson might find a place in today's Republican Party would provoke laughter in anyone familiar with the contemporary definition of the term "tea party." Like the great modern Republicans of the recent past: former President Dwight Eisenhower, former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, former New York City Mayor John Lindsay, former Massachusetts Senator Ed Brooke, former Connecticut Senator Lowell Weicker and dozens of other national leaders, the Midwest's moderate Republicans would be about as likely to secure a Republican nomination these days as Barack Obama. (In point of fact, Obama’s governing style, with its emphasis on compromise and seeking private-sector solutions rather than classic governmental fixes, owes more to the moderate Republican tradition than to the liberal Democratic model of a Franklin Roosevelt.) 

Social and corporate conservative Democrats maintain enough of a congressional critical mass to extract dramatic compromises from their party’s leadership, as was all too evident during the recent health care debate. But the Grand Old Party is folding the big tent. Today’s Republicans fancy themselves as hunters of RINOs (Republicans in name only), tracking down and defeating the last of the party’s moderate outliers—an easy task as, outside the endangered species preserve of Maine (where Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins cling to their seats and their dignity), the breed has been hunted nearly to extinction.

In other countries, however, business-oriented parties of the center-right still have their equivalents of moderate Republicans. The British Conservative Party has been revitalized by Prime Minister David Cameron, who has emphasized his environmental credentials and concern for civil liberties. Cameron’s no lefty when it comes to fiscal matters, but he is not an outlier from the twenty-first century.

In Australia, I’ve appeared with Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, the former leader of the conservative opposition party that’s roughly equivalent to the American Republicans. (They’re called "Liberals." But that’s a reference to the traditional European term for fans of free markets and limited regulation.)

Turnbull, a former journalist who made millions in business, is enthusiastic about the private sector and more than willing to score government bureaucracy. But he is not a cookie-cutter conservative. A genuine "republican," he wants to cut Australia’s last ties to the British Commonwealth and make the country a republic. A convert to Catholicism, he breaks with the church to support reproductive rights and stem cell research. He backs gay and lesbian rights. He’s concerned about climate change. A tech-savvy blogger who reads the ancient Greeks on his Kindle, he’s in the thick of Australia’s debate about how to build a state-of-the-art national broadband system.

If his party and its coalition partners form the next government, Turnbull will be in the Cabinet; if they lose, he is already being discussed as a prospective party leader—charged with organizing a renewal along the line of what Cameron did with the British Tories.

What makes Turnbull most like the American moderate Republicans of old is his style. When we shared the platform at the Walkley Foundation’s forum on election coverage, he was confident, not arrogant. His wit was quick and cutting. He refused to dumb things down and he knew how to charm an audience that might not have liked his party but did like him.

It is that charm that has guaranteed Turnbull regular re-election to a parliamentary seat representing an urban area populated by a good many gays and lesbians, artists and, well, liberals. Turnbull’s constituents do not agree with him on every issue, and they might not choose to put his party in power, yet they re-elected him with a substantially wider margin this year than in previous elections. Perhaps more significantly, they’re proud of him—as, it seems, are many Australians. When I mentioned Turnbull’s name on a national television program, the other guests started raving about the guy.

That does not mean that everyone loves Turnbull. I happen to disagree with him on a host of issues, ranging from free trade to defense policy. And he's got plenty of critics in his own party; indeed; he was pushed out as leader of the Liberals after right-leaning parliamentarians objected to his advocacy on environmental issues. Yet the party did not hesitate in this year's campaign to put him forward as a spokesman whose appeal extends far beyond "the base."

This loosens up the politics of a country in a way that makes the process more fluid and functional—sort of like in the days when moderate Republicans brought a measure of reason and responsibility to Congressional debates and state government.

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