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March 21, 2006
Vanishing Species: Rockefeller Republicans and Jackson Democrats

One of my favorite columnists, E.J. Dionne, laments the reduction of liberal Republicans in elective office during the past generation. He cites the retirement of Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-NY, as a sign of increasing conservative control over the GOP:

Boehlert chose to retire in the year when National Journal, the political world's answer to Sports Illustrated, featured him as the ultimate "Down the Middle" guy. In its Feb. 25 issue, the magazine published its annual ratings, which showed that Boehlert's votes were more liberal than those of 52.2 percent of House members and more conservative than 47.8 percent. Boehlert's district includes the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and it's hard to move the ball more to the middle of the plate than he does.

It's been downhill for his brand of Republicanism from the moment he set foot in Washington as a congressional staffer in 1964. That's the year Barry Goldwater won the Republican presidential nomination and the great flight of the Republican liberals began.

After Goldwater's landslide defeat, two Republican progressives who later became conservatives, George Gilder and Bruce Chapman, wrote a brilliant book called "The Party That Lost Its Head," detailing how and why the party's liberal wing responded so anemically to the conservative challenge. But it was too late. The party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt was destined to become an annex of the conservative movement.

Goldwater conservatives among us will find this a rather laughable sentiment, especially in the past six years. The GOP has gone in a different direction than Dionne may like, but most of us would be loath to call it conservatism. George Bush has adopted a Wilsonian foreign policy that is classicly and radically liberal, and would have been recognized as such by Theodore Roosevelt. The Republican Congress, along with the Bush administration, has spent money hand over fist on expanding government reach into education, workplace regulation, health care, and a glut of pork spending. That may be good politics inside the beltway, but an increase of government spending of almost 100% in twelve years and an expansion of discretionary spending of 50% in six years isn't Goldwater conservatism. In fact, it looks a lot like Rockefeller Republicanism.

The only two areas in which the Congress and the White House have broadly supported conservative principles have been in tax reduction and judicial nominations. Even a slam-dunk issue like border control gets short shrift from the government; the 9/11 Commission gave the best political opening in years to get something done to secure our southern border, but this supposedly conservative GOP majority has instead allowed the issue to fester. Even on judicial nominations, the GOP has fumbled what should have been a smooth ride for conservative nominees, allowing the Democrats to continue their obstructionism by rewarding it with a sleazy compromise that put 14 Senators in charge of all nominations.

Conservatives support George Bush because of his leadership and his willingness to fight enemies of the US wherever they are, rather than the appeasement and limp, ineffective sanctions in which previous administrations of both parties indulged. We also support him and the GOP because we understand that the Democrats would be much worse on all counts, especially the Democrats we see today.

If Dionne laments the decline of the Rockefeller Republicans, what about the near-extinction of the Scoop Jackson Democrats? Joe Lieberman is a pariah in his own party for acknowledging that terrorists have declared war on the US and we have to defend ourselves. Sam Nunn retired. Who was the last real expert from the Democrats on military affairs? Even Bill Clinton had to pick a Republican to run the Department of Defense to have any credibility. Instead of moving towards the center, the Democrats have run for the leftmost fringe in politics, chasing after the money that MoveOn and George Soros provides. Now we have leaders such as Russ Feingold, who proposes to censure or impeach a president during wartime for intercepting messages from suspected agents of the enemy attempting to communicate with people inside the country, a program that many liberal legal scholars consider within his authority and similar to actions taken by Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter during peacetime.

When Hillary Clinton is considered the conservative Democratic candidate for president, then the Democrats have moved so far to the left that lamenting the loss of moderation in the GOP looks more like projection.

Dionne's point about the increasing migration of conservatives to the GOP and mine about the leftward migration of the Democrats describes a transition in American politics that has been a long time in coming. In this age of mass communication, we have finally begun to change the political parties from sheer electoral machines to actual ideological havens. It provides a manner for American voters to clearly understand what their vote supports in national terms in a way that perhaps didn't exist thirty years ago. That may not be a bad idea.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 21, 2006 6:43 AM

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