EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial appears in the upcoming September 27, 2004, issue of National Review.
The prominence of moderates at the Republican convention gave rise to two different lines of commentary. The first held that the party was disguising its true nature by suppressing conservatives, the second that moderates were a rising force in the party and could capture the presidential nomination in 2008. The tone with which these things were said depended on whether the commentator was a conservative or a liberal.
But a quick look at the moderates who were featured at the convention or discussed as contenders for 2008 shows that they do not make up a bloc within the Republican party, let alone a powerful one. The issues on which they are out of step with the Republican mainstream vary from person to person. Mitt Romney has been pro-choice on abortion, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudy Giuliani are liberal on social issues generally, John McCain has been moving leftward on economic issues, George Pataki has taken liberal positions on all of the above, and Chuck Hagel has been less hawkish than most Republicans.
This collection of views is not evidence of a rift within the Republican party. It is evidence that the party is a coalition all of whose members do not agree on all issues–which is what one would expect given that America has two major parties and 300 million people. Republicans must appeal to people who want tax cuts and a war against terrorism but favor legal abortion. They must also appeal to people who are pro-life but favor national health care.
There is a broad Republican consensus on the social issues, and it was not disguised at the convention. Everyone who alluded to abortion was pro-life, and everyone who alluded to same-sex marriage was against it. There is, of course, dissent on these issues. But the pro-choice wing of the party is much weaker than it was only eight years ago. In 1996, Governors Pete Wilson, William Weld, and Christine Todd Whitman sought to change the party’s pro-life platform. No such attempt was made this year. Weld and Whitman supported partial-birth abortion and saw their careers limited by it. Most of today’s major pro-choice Republican politicians would ban partial-birth abortion. None of them, judging from the convention speeches, thinks it wise to build a career on attempts to change the party’s position. They may care about “abortion rights,” but they appear to care about other issues, such as the war on terrorism, more. Otherwise they would be Democrats.
George Will has suggested that we are witnessing a revival of “Goldwater Republicanism,” combining the government-cutting of his 1964 campaign with the social liberalism of his later days. Alas, no Republican politician since 1964 has been as consistently anti-statist as Goldwater was, and this crop of moderates is slightly to the left of the party’s center on the role of government. Schwarzenegger is an environmentalist. Giuliani left the high taxes and bureaucracy of New York City largely alone. McCain crusades against pork–a small portion of the federal budget–but is often a proponent of sweeping federal regulations.
All of these moderates have real political talents, and accomplishments. Several of them could make creditable runs for the nomination in 2008. At the same time, so many of them are running that a candidate who agrees with his party’s mainstream on the full range of issues would also have a very good shot. And since polls regularly find that a majority of the American public thinks that abortion should be banned with exceptions for rape, incest, and life, pro-lifers will reasonably expect a Republican nominee who agrees not only with his party but with that public. Under the circumstances, the party’s “moderate” hopefuls would be well advised to moderate their moderation.