During one of the vigorous debates that occur in the comments following my columns, one writer asked, "When has a moderate ever changed history?" The question implies that only those with rigid devotion to ideological purity make a difference in politics; attempts to seek solutions across partisan lines simply perpetuate existing problems. This got me thinking about past "moderates" and what they have done.
The first president for whom I voted, Dwight Eisenhower, was the ultimate moderate in everyone's book. Old Guard Republicans considered him an opportunist who was insufficiently conservative; Democrats dismissed him as an unengaged war hero who would do little or nothing to change the country. The Kennedy brothers said he was "too timid", because he refused to go into Vietnam with the same zeal they displayed. On the other side, members of the John Birch Society called him a Communist because he refused to credit their conspiracy theories. A moderate, indeed.
But, boy, did this moderate change history. Demonstrating military leadership and crisp decision making skills, the former general went to Korea, decided that the war there was fruitless and ended the fighting as quickly as possible. Showing vision for the post-war needs of the nation, the "passive" president pushed the creation of the Interstate Highway System through the Congress and transformed America more than either of his "activist" successors. Displaying great communicative instincts, the political novice preached a form of moderate conservatism that won two landslide elections and attracted at least one former liberal, Ronald Reagan, into the Republican ranks. (While Reagan is touted as the ultimate non-moderate, his dictum that "It is better to get 80 percent of what you want than 100 percent of nothing," would easily qualify him as a moderate in today's tea party terms.)
Now shift to the Democrats. They rejected their moderates by giving George McGovern their nomination in 1972; he repaid them by staying true to his "progressive" principles and losing every state but Massachusetts to Richard Nixon. With the exception of Jimmy Carter's one term — won in response to the Watergate scandal — the McGovernite hangover meant that Democrats would not win the presidency until Bill Clinton, the head of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, won in 1992. American voters respond to a reasonable moderate appeal.
That is something for Republicans to keep in mind as the 113th Congress convenes. Current polls show approval ratings for Republican House members down in the 20 percent range, a dozen or so points below the Democrats. The next fiscal fight, which includes a discussion of the debt limit, is coming quickly and will put ideology back in the headlines. Speaker John Boehner understands how toxic this can be for the party, but I am not sure some of his more vociferous members do.
I am not suggesting a cave-in to President Obama's proposals. That would violate the trust placed in Republicans by the voters who elected them. Sen. Trent Lott once told Democratic senators, "Your definition of bipartisanship is for us to do whatever you want, but we're not going to" — the right position for any legislative leader to take. Republicans should hold the same ground but avoid saying, "The president must agree with whatever we want," mimicking demands Lott rightly refused to meet. The Republican position must at least be reasonable.
In the coming discussions, the stakes are high, not only for the country — which must always come first — but also for Republican office holders. If they act like McGovernites they will eventually reap the McGovernite reward — a life of purity in the wilderness, denouncing their own moderates while the other party rules.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.