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.