Republicans for Kerry?

After enduring a sustained offensive from conservatives, Republican moderates are quietly mounting a counterattack against Bush, DeLay & Co.

Topics: Environment, 2004 Elections, Tom Delay, George W. Bush, Iraq war, John McCain, R-Ariz., Karl Rove, John F. Kerry, D-Mass.,

Republicans for Kerry?

Victor Fasciani, a 40-year-old asset manager, pays membership dues to the Republican National Committee, the only party he’s ever belonged to. He was at the 2000 Republican Convention in Philadelphia, where he was a New York delegate for John McCain. He’s no fan of John Kerry, but come November, he says, “I’m probably not voting for Bush, and I’m not voting for Ralph Nader, so that leaves me with a quandary.”

It’s a quandary afflicting many moderate Republicans, who feel alienated by their party’s rightward lurch and economic irresponsibility, and who fear that another four years of Bush will consolidate the power of the party’s most hard-line conservative elements. Even as moderate Republicans make gains in liberal states like New York and California, they’re feeling squeezed by their own party. Elements of the Republican right have declared jihad on the values party moderates hold dear, and though the White House claims to embrace all Republican factions, for most moderates there’s little doubt where its loyalties lie.

Few politicians want to admit the split, but it’s getting almost impossible to ignore. Former Bush counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, a Republican who has served four administrations — three of them Republican — slammed Bush this week for a weak response to the threat of terrorism before the Sept. 11 attacks. Now he’s being savaged by fellow Republicans who have, in essence, accused him of working to aid the Democrats. McCain, the Arizona senator, along with Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, have made headlines by openly defending Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, a fellow Vietnam vet, against Bush campaign charges that Kerry is weak on national defense. The White House is incensed.

McCain and Hagel insist they still support Bush for reelection. The same holds for the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group of GOP moderates that includes Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, Gov. George Pataki of New York, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California; all of them claim to avidly support the president’s reelection.

But there’s little doubt that behind the scenes, some moderate Republicans are rooting for the other side. If Bush wins, one aide to a moderate Republican says privately, “that would be the worst possible situation.”



That’s because some Republicans say that a Bush loss may be their last chance to take their party back. “If Bush were defeated by Kerry, it would certainly call into question the Republican leadership, people like Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert,” says Fasciani. “That axis of the party may lose its weight and its power. The Powell and Giuliani wing of the party would certainly gain some prominence and may, during the next four years of a Kerry administration, perhaps even gain control of the party and increase the tent.” Such hopes have even led some Republicans to found a grass-roots group called Republicans for Kerry.

It’s no wonder moderates are feeling desperate. After all, a faction within their own party is fighting to purge them — and that faction includes some of the nation’s most powerful Republicans. In 1999, right-wing operative Steve Moore founded the Club for Growth, an anti-tax lobbying group that targets moderate Republicans, which it calls RINOs, “Republicans In Name Only.” Since then, the group, which funds right-wing primary challenges against centrist incumbents as well as general election campaigns, has become one of the most powerful financial engines of the right. Its Web site boasts: “We are now #1 in funds for Republican candidates outside the Republican Party itself!”

So far, the Club has failed to defeat any of the moderates it’s set its sights on. But it plans to raise $15 million for conservative candidates this year, and it’s going after one of the pillars of GOP centrism, veteran Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, by bankrolling U.S. Rep. Patrick Toomey’s primary challenge. Specter’s defeat, Moore has said, would be a “major scalp on the wall.”

The right smells victory. On March 23, the National Review ran a story titled “The Specter of Defeat — Pennsylvania polls look promising for Toomey.” Specter is still ahead, but polls show that his once commanding lead has shrunk — a recent poll by KDKA-TV Pittsburgh/WNEP-TV Scranton/Survey USA had him only nine points ahead of his challenger.

The primary contest is shaping up to be a referendum on the party’s future. According to a March 1 Wall Street Journal article, “Rep. Toomey is testing the strength of what appears to be a growing fault line in the Republican Party this year, between ideologically pure but increasingly disgruntled conservatives and established, but more moderate, figures such as Sen. Specter. The April 27 Senate primary here will see the only major intraparty fight this election year, and is being closely watched as an indication of how deep conservative sentiment is running. ‘It’s the best battle for the soul of the GOP this year,’ says Toomey consultant Keith Appell, referring to the name Grand Old Party.”

It’s hard to tell whose side the president is on. Karl Rove has reportedly repudiated the club for sowing discord in the party during the primaries, but Bush has undercut Specter on issues like overtime rules, an important one in an industrial state like Pennsylvania. “U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao has denied a public request from Pennsylvania’s senior senator to delay loosening the nation’s overtime rules,” said a Jan. 21 story in the Washington Times. Several paragraphs later, it continued: “Specter, facing a re-election fight against conservative Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., scheduled the hearing so the topic could get a ‘full airing.’ Besides asking Chao for the delay, Specter also asked her to remain in the hearing room for subsequent discussions.” She refused.

Even as Bush holds himself somewhat aloof, other members of the Republican leadership have actively embraced the Club for Growth. In 2002, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, then House Majority Whip, gave $50,000 to the club through his political action committee, enraging party moderates.

More than anyone else, DeLay is a symbol of what moderates hate about the direction their party is going in, and he revels in displaying his power over his less zealous colleagues. As Nick Thompson wrote in Salon in September, DeLay has used the allocation of committee chairs to punish those who swerve even a little bit from his party line. “This is why moderate Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who generally supports DeLay, was blocked from becoming chair of the Government Reform Committee, a move even he says he knew would be a consequence of his support for campaign-finance reform,” Thompson wrote. “Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J., simply left Congress after DeLay boxed her out of several positions. In several primaries, DeLay has also worked against several moderate Republicans in favor of less electable conservatives, showing that the Texan would sometimes rather lose with a conservative than win with a moderate.”

It’s not surprising that some moderates are starting to feel similarly uncompromising. After all, old-fashion establishment Republicans have made a tactical alliance with fundamentalist right-wing revolutionaries like DeLay, but few want to see his vision of America realized.

Moderate Republicans are often fiscal conservatives but social liberals — in many ways, the exact opposite of this administration. They believe in balanced budgets, environmental conservation and a foreign policy that’s strong without being needlessly belligerent. They see themselves as the heirs of former President Teddy Roosevelt, the avid conservationist and trustbuster, and former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, the philanthropist, statesman and governor of New York. The party they joined was staid and dignified. It was the other party that seemed shrill and radical.

When George Bush was elected in 2000, moderate Republicans thought he was on their side. But that illusion was dispelled in his first few months of office. “When the president was elected, everyone was looking for a breath of fresh air — Democrats and Republicans alike — for the good of the country we wanted a bipartisan effort,” Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., tells Salon. “We were all so weary of partisan trench warfare, and now it is deeper than ever.”

“The president’s agenda has been so different from his campaign rhetoric,” Chafee says. “He is pushing an extreme agenda, from the abandonment of Kyoto, to banning access to abortions for service members overseas.”

For a while, Bush’s extremism was overshadowed by Sept. 11, and some moderates continue to support Bush because of the war on terror, despite being appalled by his domestic policies. Roger White, an associate professor of political science at Loyola University and self-described Rockefeller Republican, actually gave up his party membership four or five years ago out of disgust with the dominance of cultural conservatives like DeLay. Yet he supports Bush’s foreign policy, and says, “I don’t see the main danger as coming from cultural conservatives. I see the main danger coming from international terrorists.”

But Bush has squandered much of his post-9/11 popularity by using it as cover to pass a right-wing domestic agenda. “After 9/11, Republicans could have become the majority party for the next 50 years,” says professor Alan Wolfe, the founding director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. “But for whatever reason, Bush kept up the same polarizing approach. Everyone wanted to rally behind Bush. This is the biggest act of political stupidity in my lifetime.”

Moderates, says Chafee, “could have made a huge difference to the president,” had he not abandoned them and tried to “bludgeon them into compliance.” Now, those on the receiving end of that bludgeoning must decide whether they can support an administration that doesn’t support them. Leaving the party can be a wrenching act of personal redefinition, but if Bush wins another term, there may be no hope of changing things from within.

“My decision to leave the Republican Party was deeply personal and one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made,” former Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords told Salon. The Vermont independent famously quit the party in 2001, incurring the White House’s wrath and briefly handing control of the Senate to the Democrats.

“I left the Republican Party because I feared the Bush administration and the GOP-controlled Congress was moving too far to the right, and not listening to moderate Republicans such as myself,” he says. “Much of what we have seen since then has only confirmed those fears. We are in a war that we shouldn’t be in; the wealthy get tax cuts while our schools get shortchanged; the deficit grows by the day while millions of jobs are lost here at home. Meanwhile, the White House tries to placate the far right by supporting a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, diverting the nation’s attention from where it should be focused. We are headed on the wrong course, and it troubles me deeply.”

Despite the fervent hopes of many Democrats, it’s unlikely that waves of Republican officials and voters are likely to follow Jeffords. Most Republicans continue to back their president. The moderates are a small group within the party, and it remains to be seen whether their unhappiness with Bush is a harbinger of electoral trouble for the administration in November.

“If I am talking anecdotally to moderate Republicans, it’s very hard to find one who is going to vote for Bush, very difficult,” says John Zogby, president and CEO of the polling firm Zogby International. “On the other hand, strangely enough it’s not showing up in our polling.” In fact, Zogby’s latest polls show 87 percent of Republicans backing Bush. “I’m just watching and waiting and saying to myself maybe there’s something going on here, because I’m hearing it,” he says.

So if moderates are disenchanted, why isn’t that showing up in the polls? In part, it’s because moderate Republicans as a whole are a rapidly diminishing species in most of the country. According to Zogby, 80 percent of Republicans self-identify as conservative. Asked about the role of moderates in the party, Rick Shaftan, a conservative Republican pollster in New Jersey, says: “It’s not that many individuals you’re talking about in terms of votes.”

Moderate Republicans, he says, are traditionally “mainline protestant WASPs like [former New Jersey Gov.] Christie Whitman. There aren’t that many WASPs. I don’t know where they’re a significant share of the vote.”

Those places where old-school Republicans are concentrated, on the East Coast and in California, are largely not in play in the 2004 election. Because they carry so little electoral weight, the national party has little incentive to cater to them.

The Republican Party has been moving away from its East Coast roots since the 1960s, when there was a split in the party between its liberal establishment wing — so-called Rockefeller Republicans — and the insurgent followers of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who lost the 1964 election in a landslide, but whose conservative movement went on to take over the party.

During the 1980s, as Southern conservatives flowed into the Republican Party, coastal sophisticates were again pushed out, and in the last two decades the Southern right has continued to consolidate its power. In a 1998 essay called “The Southern Captivity of the GOP,” Weekly Standard editor Christopher Caldwell wrote of how even non-Southern conservatives were “put off to see that ‘traditional’ values are now defined by the majority party as the values of the U-Haul-renting denizens of two-year-old churches and three-year-old shopping malls.”

Even Goldwater’s widow, Susan Goldwater Levine, recently told Salon that he “hated it that the right-wing zealots took over the party.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, right-wing populist rhetoric, with its attacks on cosmopolitans and urbanites, has alienated those who don’t like to think of themselves as Bible-thumping rubes. “I don’t like the polarization, the idea that people who don’t live on the coasts are morons who watch NASCAR and drink Budweiser all day,” says Fasciani. “It’s posturing. When it comes down to it, do they really care about Joe six-pack? I don’t buy that populist notion that they espouse.” Nor does he relate to it.

Fasciani, a native of Westchester, N.Y., is a Republican of the old school who counts Abraham Lincoln and Roosevelt among his heroes. He’s proud of the party’s tradition of environmental stewardship — it was Richard Nixon, after all, who established the Environmental Protection Agency — and the military valor shown by people like Eisenhower and McCain. The party he loves is one where strength and erudition aren’t mutually exclusive.

“Teddy Roosevelt, this man read more books than Bush could name,” says Fasciani. “He wrote 50 or a hundred books in his lifetime.” (Fasciani is being hyperbolic — Roosevelt authored a mere 36). “Then you’ve got a guy in the White House now who’s probably read one book in the last 15 years and maybe didn’t even finish it.”

But unapologetic philistinism is considered an electoral virtue in many parts of the country, and it’s practically a first principle of the contemporary right. “Every Republican candidate now has to ‘make his bones,’ to prove his good faith by declaring his unequivocal willingness to alienate the ‘elites’ of the country,” wrote Caldwell in 1998.

Bush, of course, has been superbly willing to alienate such elites — a term that, when used by the right, seems to encompass most educated people who live in coastal cities. “My values are not Mr. Bush’s,” says Susan Cosgrove, a 59-year-old lifelong Republican who owns a communications firm in Pittsburgh. “The Republican Party as I think of it — the party of Rockefeller — had a profound respect for character, and I don’t think Mr. Bush is a man of character. I think his presidency is one of cronyism and pandering to the most radical wing of the party.”

“What I see happening is a split among Republicans I know,” she says. “A lot of them are becoming as alienated as I am, and a lot of them are moving in the same direction that the president is going. It makes for interesting dinner-table discussions.”

Cosgrove isn’t ready to leave the party yet. “There’s something to be said for trying to change things from inside,” she explains. Still, she’s getting close.

“Maybe this is a lost cause. You try to change things from the inside and if you can’t, it’s time to step outside.”

Meanwhile, she plans to volunteer for Kerry in the upcoming election. “I am in ABB mode,” she says. “Anybody but Bush.”

There’s a group for people like her, though Cosgrove hadn’t heard of it. Republicans for Kerry was founded on Jan. 16 and now has about 100 members who plan to do outreach to fellow moderate Republicans during the campaign. (At least, it had 100 members until recently, when it moved to a new Web site and started its membership roster from scratch.) Among them is Peter McLaughlin, a former McCain intern in Brookfield, Conn.

A volunteer firefighter who owns a security business with 35 employees, McLaughlin has seen the administration’s failures close-up. “First responders are being underfunded at the same time that we’re promoting the importance of the war on terror,” he says. “I can tell in my town that if something happens here, we’re going to be the first ones sent and as of today we don’t have any particularly specialized equipment.”

McLaughlin’s problems with Bush are ideological as well as practical. “A conservative conserves,” he says. “Blowing out the deficit by having these ill-advised tax cuts while conducting a war is not conservative. I’m a Teddy Roosevelt conservative, which means conserving the environment. Certainly, if you look back in history that was a Republican issue, and the Bush administration is trampling all over it. I think that’s terrible for the world and for our country.”

Bush’s record has been so terrible, he says, that another term might drive him out of the party altogether.

“It would be very difficult to go through another four years of what we’ve seen in the last three-and-a-half years,” says McLaughlin. “Certainly if there were another four years beyond that, I don’t think there’s any way that I can stay in the party. But I feel like this is my home too, and I want to fight for it. I don’t want it to be taken over by this extreme group, and to feel like I have to leave my home.”

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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