To many, it may seem counterintuitive to label the 2010 midterm election campaign “The Year of the Moderate.” Most of the commentary about the upcoming election has focused exclusively on the waxing influence of the Tea Party movement and the rise of raving, rightwing fundamentalists of the ilk of senatorial candidates Joe W. Miller of Alaska, Ken Buck of Colorado, and Marco A. Rubio of Florida. However, drowned out by the din of the teabag-wielding rabbles and the foaming-at-the-mouth Republican nominees is the promise of the return of the fabled moderate Republican.
The inevitable upshot of the Grand Old Party’s burgeoning electoral prospects has been a renewed competitiveness in the traditionally Democratic states California, Washington, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Delaware. The mistake many commentators make by fixating on the more colorful standard-bearers for the minority party’s midterm election effort is to assume that their agendas, and not those of moderate, blue-state candidates, will define the behavior of a Republican Congress. White House senior adviser David M. Axelrod, for example, said that “this could go one step beyond the policies of the Bush administration to something more extreme than we have seen.”
This, however, is unlikely to happen. To begin with, freshmen senators typically have little power, the unique position of Senator Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts as the pivotal 60th vote needed to pass any legislation being a rare exception. The new crop of legislators elected in November will not be chairing any congressional committees, which means that, if House Minority Leader John A. Boehner gets his way and strengthens the power of the committees, they will not be writing much legislation, either.
Furthermore, if the Republicans do indeed seize power in November, they will, as a result of their victory, be forced to govern, whether they like it or not. Much of the president’s current agenda-setting power stems from his party’s control of Congress. Should they relinquish that control, then part of the responsibility to set a governing agenda will fall to the Republicans. If Republicans actually hope to get any of the items on their agenda passed, then they will have to work with Congressional Democrats, not to mention President Barack H. Obama.
Much of the reason for the dearth of bipartisanship in the first two years of the Obama presidency has been its redundancy. With a muscular majority in the House of Representatives and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate for much of the current administration, there simply was little incentive for the handful of remaining Republican moderates to moderate. All of the pressure, instead, was on centrist Democrats like Senator Ben E. Nelson of Nebraska and Senator Evan B. Bayh of Indiana. However, with an enlarged faction of moderates, there will be far more political cover to reach across the aisle. It will also be far more challenging for the leaderships of both parties to keep their wayward centrists in line with so many more of them.
Obviously, this calculus could be complicated by the impending massacre of moderate Democrats, which could theoretically compensate for the expansion of the Republican center. However, there is an undeniable difference between the two parties that cannot be ignored: The Democrats are the more moderate of the two parties. This is not to say necessarily that the Republican Party is more ideologically extreme than the Democratic Party, which is a somewhat more controversial claim. It is to say that there are more conservatives than liberals in this country, and in order to counterbalance this reality, Democratic Party, as the numbers reveal, is more moderate in composition.
According to the Pew Research Center, moderates composed 44 percent of the 2008 electorate, conservatives composed 34 percent, and liberals composed 22 percent. President Obama received the votes of 60 percent of moderates, 20 percent of conservatives, and 88 percent of liberals. His total share of the popular vote was 53 percent, and when one does the math, the true nature of Obama’s coalition reveals itself. Fifty percent of Obama’s voters were moderates, 13 percent were conservatives, and 37 percent were liberals. Even after the coming maiming in November, it is thus likely that the Democratic base will still hold less sway over their party’s congressional delegation than the Republican base enjoys over its.
Nevertheless, with fewer moderates in the party, Washington Democrats’ relationship with their liberal base will unavoidably change. However, it will likely change in favor of moderation. In the wake of the likely loss of the lower house of Congress and possibly the upper house as well, liberals will find it more difficult to indulge in their lazy excoriations of their party leadership for declining to steamroll the opposition. Instead, they will be facing a revived Republican Party with real power and a real agenda. A Speaker Boehner would then be far easier for liberals to demonize than Speaker Nancy P. Pelosi. The ensuing solidarity between Democratic moderates and Democratic liberals could give the moderates greater cover to compromise enough to win Republican votes.
The irony of 2010 is that a Republican rout could engender a centrist, not conservative, renaissance. Such a phenomenon could revive not only President Obama’s moribund “New Politics” but also, if he too seizes the moderate moment as President William J. Clinton did following the 1994 Republican triumph, his flagging presidency.
Dhruv K. Singhal ’12, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is an English concentrator in Currier House.
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