Richard Davis: Moderates are needed in politics more than ever

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 7 2013 11:44 a.m. MDT

Compared to extremists, moderates have more to offer the nation and the state in terms of problem-solving over rhetorical bombast and cooperation rather than conflict.

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William Scranton died on July 28. Few Americans noticed. That's because Scranton left political office a long time ago. But there was a time when Bill Scranton was the symbol of a politics characterized by competence, moderation and bipartisanship.

Scranton served as governor of Pennsylvania from 1963 to 1967, and during the early 1960s, he was widely considered presidential material. While governor, he instituted dramatic education reforms by creating a state board of education, instituting the state's community college system and initiating higher education financial assistance programs. He also reduced the deficit, lowered unemployment and boosted Pennsylvania's business community.

But Scranton defied easy labels. He also supported civil rights legislation and domestic social programs to aid the poor and needy. The media at the time dubbed him a "Kennedy Republican" because he sided with the Democrats on some issues.

When Scranton ran for president in 1964, he was widely considered the face of a future-facing, moderate Republican Party. However, a major conservative movement within the GOP was born that year. The eventual nominee was Barry Goldwater, who campaigned on issue positions such as active conflict with the Soviet Union, opposition to civil rights, and the abolition of social programs such as Social Security. Goldwater lost the presidency in 1964, but his movement, with the help of his disciple Ronald Reagan, took over the Republican Party.

In response to the extremism of his party, Scranton announced that he would not run for public office again. It was a promise he kept. He realized that the party had left him in its rightward tilt toward extreme conservatism, and Republican activists would not nominate a moderate like him in the future.

Sadly, the "moderate" in party politics is in even more danger today than 50 years ago. A recent study of the U.S. Senate found that the most conservative Democrat is more liberal than the most liberal Republican. There is nearly no ideological overlap between the two parties. Moderate candidates find it difficult to win party primary battles. They are particularly disadvantaged in party conventions where delegates tend to be drawn from the extremes of the two major parties. For example, although well known as a moderate Republican while governor, Mitt Romney took extreme conservative positions on immigration, health care and foreign affairs and termed himself "severely conservative" in order to win the support of Republican presidential primary voters.

This lack of moderation affects politicians once in office. The two parties in Congress waste time attacking one another. One Republican member of Congress complained about the useless bills his party leadership puts forward, such as the 40th vote against Obamacare: "You get these false choices, and there's a lot more in the middle that I think we could work on."

The rejection of moderates does not just apply to presidential candidates; it is also true of rank-and-file voters, even here in Utah. Friends and acquaintances of mine — drawn from both Democrats and Republicans — have expressed their disenchantment with party organizations because of extremism. They no longer attend party caucuses or, if they do so, refuse to run for party offices where they may well be defeated after admitting they agree with some of the positions of the other party and hold their minds open to good public policy ideas coming from any direction. They are labelled as a RINO (Republican in name only) or Republican-lite (a Democrat who agrees with some Republican positions).

It is time to bring back moderation in party politics, including in Utah. This will require dramatic structural change. The stranglehold of the caucus/convention over the nomination process must be ended so extreme candidates are not advantaged. Party platforms should be vaguer to allow for differences in opinion on a host of issues from immigration to abortion to federalism. The closed caucus/primary should be ended to allow moderates and independents a role in the nomination process.

Frankly, compared to extremists, moderates have more to offer the nation and the state in terms of problem-solving over rhetorical bombast and cooperation rather than conflict. Indeed, in an era of partisan gridlock, the Bill Scrantons of today — either Republican or Democrat — are more needed now than ever.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

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