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Moderate Republican Mugged By Reality | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Moderate Republican Mugged By Reality


Sam Kleiner was disillusioned fellow campus Republicans refused to support GOP moderate Mark Kirk, above. (Reuters/Frank Polich.)

Last month I introduced you to Alex, a young University of Chicago grad, a certain sort of modern-day social type: libertarian-until-graduation. A “LUG,” if you will. One possessed of an impassioned trust that free markets are always real, and always right; that government intervention was always an imposition by illegitimate force, and always wrong; and someone who believed that if workers didn’t like what the market was telling them at one job, well, they could always quit and find another. He was drenched in an ivory-tower college conservatism that dissolved at the first touch of real-world employment.

This month, meet another victim of the ivory-tower right: Sam Kleiner, Moderate Republican Until Graduation—a MRUG. Now a law student at Yale, Sam has become an impressive liberal-leaning journalist, for publications including the present one. When I met him four years ago during his undergraduate years at Northwestern University (he helped organize this debate between me and Ramesh Ponnuru early in Obama’s first term), however, he was a moderate Republican flirting a bit with neoconservatism, specifically that tendency’s oft-professed claim to an extra-super-special “moral” conception of America’s role in the world. But by the next time I met him, several years later, the Republican Party had lost him for good—in fact, talking to him recently by Google Chat, it’s hard to imagine him ever having thought anything nice about the Republicans at all. What happened? Something he says is part of a pattern. “I’m certainly not the only one of my friends who worked for moderate Republicans who left the party,” he told me. “I think the Republican Party mugged a lot of moderates.”

It was an interesting conversation to have in this season of reflections on how to broaden the Republican coalition in the interests of its future survival. For from his vantage point in the trenches of the College Republicans, Sam just saw how “the party wasn’t interested in having these voices around anymore.”

Sam grew up in Tucson, Arizona. And though it’s easy to exaggerate how early and suffusingly the blanket of right-wing orthodoxy suffocated the moderation out of the party altogether (I’ve done it myself), Sam found the congressman he grew up with, Jim Kolbe, “a fantastic moderate.” So it was with pleasure and pride that he joined with the College Republicans when he matriculated at Northwestern in 2005. He soon spied disillusionment over the horizon. In 2007 tried to get his colleagues to volunteer for the congressional campaign of now-Senator Mark Kirk, “a very moderate Republican.” No luck: “Many within the group were uncomfortable with his views on social issues.”

The following winter, William F. Buckley Jr. died. “The College Republicans had a kind of tribute night to him,” Sam remembers. “I showed up, but was really disturbed that people watched the video of him calling Gore Vidal a queer and were cheering him on.”

Meanwhile, there was foreign policy. Sam wrote his senior thesis on Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the maverick Democrat often dismissed on the left as a knee-jerk hawk—a epithet Kleiner found unfair: “Scoop was interested in pursuing a foreign policy that was founded on a moral vision of the US in the world, but he didn’t want to take us to war to get there,” he says, noting his signature accomplishment, the Jackson-Vanek amendment, which tied trade concessions with the USSR to their willingness to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate.

Others might disagree that Jackson’s legacy was quite so benevolent, noting that he was so committed to bulking up America’s armaments he was known as the “Senator from Boeing”—and noting, too, his protégés and associates, which included Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, the cream of the neocon crop, the architects of Iraq. Kleiner found them, though, more apostates than acolytes: “I think the neoconservatives completely misrepresented his legacy,” he says, citing the research on what Jackson actually thought and believed for his senior thesis. “Iraq was huge mistake.” That “there are still neocons [who] can’t admit that is a moral outrage.”

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Be that as it may: Scoop or not, unapologetic warmongers are pretty much all the Republican Party defense establishment has left. So: the would-be moderate Republican was homeless on that front, too.

With a student to his left with whom he enjoyed debating ideology, he started the Northwestern Political Union, in part to sponsor debates like the one in which I participated. Pretty anodyne stuff, you’d think—but not to his soon-to-be-erstwhile comrades among campus Republicans. “I tried to get Republicans to get involved and pretty much everyone refused. ‘We don’t fraternize with the enemy’—[that] was a kind of line you heard a lot.”

Still, he tried to persevere. “My ‘youthful idealism’ was that the party was going to change—that the fever would break. Boy, was I wrong. I think back now on the craziness that freaked me out in the party in 2007 and 2008 and it looks like child’s play.” Now, in between his work in law school, he’s started documenting some of that in journalism on how Republicans in his home state “went off the deep end,” turning Arizona into “a national laughing stock”—an apostate’s and native’s testimony. One of his articles describes bills “cloaked in the language of the Constitution” but which are actually “trying to challenge the very premise that we can have a Constitution of the United States.” One would require the federal government employees to register with local sheriffs when carrying out government business in their counties. Another would criminalize the regulation of harmful (or “harmless,” as the bill puts it) emissions; a third would require the state attorney general to seize federal assests if it “increases the ability of this state to generate revenue.” (“What the hell does that mean, as a practical matter?” I asked. He answered, “That’s the point. This isn’t practical. It would mean trying to seize any federal land, including military bases, if the state thought they could make better use of it.”)

From Evanston to Arizona, the loss of sane Republicans has been Democrats gain. Arizona has sent a majority Democratic delegation to Congress (“because Republicans have nominated candidates so far out of the mainstream”); “We have great Democratic mayors in Tucson and Phoenix who are doing incredible things to make those world-class cities.” And Kleiner? Last year he served as issues director for a 2012 congressional primary race fought by the young Democratic writer Andrei Cherny. He is just the kind of super-smart, motivated, talented up-and-comer that any political party would want in its bullpen. Now the Republicans have lost him for good. How many more?

Do Republicans have an ambivalent relationship with the truth? Ronald Reagan certainly did, Rick Perlstein writes.

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