What Happened to Moderate Republicans?

The past several nominees of the Republican Party for President of the United States were decidedly safe: former governors, long-serving legislators, and an incumbent Vice President. Each Republican nominee since the Reagan Administration has also been to the center of the party, despite the presence of passionate grassroots conservatives throughout this period. Even George W. Bush ran initially as the centrist alternative to then-Vice President Al Gore. This cycle, Republican voters are clearly taking a different approach, leading the smart folks over at FiveThirtyEight to declare in July that Bill Clinton's axiom for presidential politics - "Democrats want to fall in love. Republicans just fall in line." - had been turned on its head. Unless cooler heads prevail, the results of this Republican primary could be disastrous, and the most extreme views of the far-right could win their greatest popular mandate in modern history. 

At this stage, none of the remaining Republican candidates with a reasonable chance of winning their party's nomination could be accurately described as a moderate. Ted Cruz's bona fides as a right-wing ideologue are only surpassed by his reputation as an egomaniac, a trait he apparently developed at a young age. Populist tax policy aside, Donald Trump has run a truly terrifying campaign buoyed most passionately by racist and xenophobic elements of the far-right. Despite his quiet assurances to the so-called "GOP establishment" and since-abandoned views on immigration, Marco Rubio's actual policy proposals are barely distinguishable from those of his opponents. Ben Carson's views are incoherent, but certainly not moderate, and barely worth mentioning. There is a case to be made that John Kasich is a centrist, but his numbers are low and donors are showing him the door.

I would not question Republican voters' analysis that they have been poorly served by centrist nominees. The party has lost four of the past seven presidential elections, and it is probably past time that Republican voters at least try a different approach. However, the sheer absence of centrist voices from the Republican Party landscape has created far too much space for truly dangerous candidates to take hold, with potentially devastating consequences for the GOP and the country. It is time for someone within the Republican Party to speak up - publicly and passionately - against the tone this primary has taken. 

The 2012 primary did not lack far-right ideologues, but I have to believe that the presence of moderates like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman brought a level of seriousness to the race that made the extreme elements look silly by comparison. There have been no such appeals to the center thus far in 2016, as even Jeb Bush's doomed efforts primarily argued that Trump was not sufficiently or genuinely conservative enough. Nearly every other prominent Republican has either downplayed or laughed off Trump and his supporters' increasingly heightened rhetoric. Perhaps most frighteningly, a number of traditionally moderate Republican leaders are even deciding to get on board. Even Jon Huntsman - who I have admittedly had a personal affinity for since I heard him speak in 2012, if only because we're both fans of The Clash - said just yesterday that he could get behind Trump

Gov. Jon Huntsman

A photo posted by Nicholas Blake (@ncblake) on

I am a Democrat with progressive views on many issues, but unlike my counterparts who salivate at the prospect of running in a general election against Donald Trump, I am seriously dismayed by the Republican Party's rightward shift. I do hold center-left views on a number of economic and fiscal policies, and even once served briefly as an intern for a moderate Republican congressional office, although my responsibilities were largely nonpartisan. While center-right nominees may occasionally endanger my preferred candidates, I genuinely believe that our politics and society benefit from robust policy debates at the center of the political spectrum. Now nearly two months into 2016, the debate is headed in exactly the opposite direction on the Republican side.

Republican voters may very well get their wish in 2016: a firebrand nominee after decades of safe choices with questionable success. But the consequences in terms of the level of xenophobia already unearthed by that outrage certainly cannot be worth the experiment. On a practical level, candidates like Cruz or Trump could seriously endanger their party's efforts to appeal more broadly to young and minority voters for years to come. But on a more fundamental level, the damage that either would do should they actually win is even more frightening.