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Republican Cannibals: Hunting for RINOs

by John NicholsReleased: 27 Aug 2004

He criticizes conservatives who campaign on a hot-button agenda of "God, guns and gays" in order to divert the attention of voters from fundamental economic and foreign policy issues. He says "government is good and government is necessary" and condemns those who would dramatically downsize federal and state programs as "nihilists." He asks thoughtful questions about the Bush Administration's approach to the war in Iraq. He opposes the Bush Administration's push for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. And he proudly touts the backing he has received from the League of Conservation Voters and the United Auto Workers union.

Who is this guy, John Kerry? No, he's Joe Schwarz, the newly minted Republican nominee for an open House seat in a Michigan district that leans strongly enough in the party's favor to pretty much assure that he will win a ticket to Washington in November.

Schwarz calls himself a "mainstream Republican" or, when the 66-year-old physician is waxing ideological, a "traditional conservative" who respects both individual liberty and civic responsibility--as opposed to the current batch of neoconservatives and "extremists" who, he suggests, have warped the moniker beyond anything Barry Goldwater or even Ronald Reagan would have recognized. But in the shorthand parlance of the current political debate, Schwarz is best described as a moderate--some would even say liberal--Republican. In a party that has swung hard to the right in the past decade, that makes him a rarity. And winning a contested primary over several more-conservative candidates, as Schwarz did in early August, makes him downright remarkable--so much so that the beleaguered band of Republican moderates and mavericks in Congress is hailing his nomination as a sign that their fortunes have finally turned. Arizona Senator John McCain, who campaigned for Schwarz, went so far as to suggest that the Michigan Republican's election could ease the overall pattern of ideological polarization in Congress.

McCain is being overly optimistic. Moderate Republicans can point to a few victories this year--including Schwarz's nomination and Senator Arlen Specter's narrow win over a conservative challenger in a Pennsylvania primary--but the trends do not seem to be running in favor of those whom right-wing strategists dismiss as RINOs: "Republicans In Name Only." The conservative jihadists, who seek to cleanse the party of all but true believers, are quick to dismiss Schwarz's victory over a fractured conservative opposition as an accident of political nature. Far from being the harbinger of a new era of political cooperation, they argue, Schwarz is simply the last egg to hatch from an ideological breed that will soon be every bit as extinct as the dinosaurs. To hasten the process, right-wing operatives have formed "RINO Hunters Clubs," and they are pouring time, energy and their considerable resources into hunting down the last of the moderates. In a party where crude conservatives like Senate majority whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas call a lot more of the shots than John McCain and Joe Schwarz, don't bet on the moderates to prevail.

To be sure, the RINOs will have their moment in the spotlight when Republicans meet in New York. Despite the fact that President Bush and Vice President Cheney have shaped what is arguably the most radically right-wing administration in the nation's history, the GOP national convention that will renominate them will shine its spotlight on many of the party's most moderate members. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and current New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, all supporters of abortion rights and gay rights, will have prime speaking slots, as will McCain, the maverick senator who has broken with the Bush Administration on everything from environmental protection to budget policy. The moderate-and-maverick-heavy schedule has caused a lot of grumbling among conservative purists, who complain that--aside from the President and Vice President--the most sincere right-winger on the podium during prime time may turn out to be Georgia Senator Zell Miller, who still claims to be a Democrat. They argue that the roster of speakers is unrepresentative, and of course they are right: The cavalcade of moderates is nothing more than cover for a right-wing party that is trying to cling to power by showing its most mainstream and appealing face--much as Bush did in 2000 with his talk of "compassionate conservatism."

By every measure, the Grand Old Party--which was founded by radical foes of slavery, spawned the Progressive movement and served as the political home for twentieth-century liberals such as Senators Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, George Norris of Nebraska, John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky, Jacob Javits of New York and Mark Hatfield of Oregon, as well as former New York Mayor John Lindsay and former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller--is now more conservative in its makeup than at any time in its 150-year history. While a number of Republican governors, such as Ohio's Bob Taft and New York's George Pataki, are still classified as relative moderates--either because of their refusal to demagogue on social issues or because they are not prepared to embrace tax and spending cuts that would render government completely dysfunctional--the situation has gotten so dire that former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, President Bush's most moderate appointee, felt compelled to write a New York Times opinion piece earlier this year in which she argued on behalf of the GOP's moderate wing "that there was still room for us in the party of Lincoln."

Whitman's complaint that "many conservatives act as if they wish we moderates would just disappear" is well founded. Even the slightest deviation from the conservative playbook brings an accusatory cry of "liberal!"--which is absurd, considering the fact that old-school Republican liberalism has all but disappeared. Using the measures that progressives might reasonably apply to define a liberal--support for abortion rights and gay rights, enthusiasm for public education and protection of the environment, sympathy with tax policies that make it possible to maintain a functional federal government, respect for international law and concern about military adventurism as evidenced by opposition to the authorization for President Bush to use force against Iraq--it is possible to point to just one senator, Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee, and two members of the House, New York's Amo Houghton and Iowa's Jim Leach. Those three Republicans have regularly been rated as more liberal in National Journal measures of Congressional voting patterns than many prominent Democrats with whom they serve. A somewhat larger circle clings to the moderate GOP mantras of a Gerald Ford or a Richard Lugar, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But they are fading fast as a force in Congress. Mike Castle, the Delaware representative who was one of ten House Republicans to support the Clinton Administration's positions on most issues and who has clashed with the Bush Administration on issues like support for stem-cell research, presides over the Republican Main Street Coalition, which has emerged in the past six years as the primary grouping of party moderates. "There are not that many of us," Castle has said, claiming that forty to forty-five GOP House members, out of 229, still identify themselves as moderates.

That's actually a bit of a stretch--either of the numbers or of the definition of "moderate." On most issues that might define a Republican as a moderate, the circle is far smaller. Only thirty-four Republican House members voted to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) from oil and gas development. Only seventeen opposed the "Marriage Protection Act," which would prevent federal courts from ruling on the constitutionality of state same-sex marriage laws. Only nine opposed the ban on late-term abortions. Only eight supported cooperation with the International Criminal Court. In the Senate, where there are fifty-one Republican members, only eight members of the GOP caucus cast a key vote to protect ANWR, while six voted to block the same-sex marriage amendment and roughly that many can be counted on to consistently support abortion rights. Just two Republican senators backed cooperation with the ICC.

To be sure, though their numbers are small, moderate Republicans can still have a big impact. For instance, the same-sex marriage amendment was doomed in the Senate when McCain, Chafee, Colorado's Ben Nighthorse Campbell, New Hampshire's John Sununu and Mainers Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins joined the majority of Democrats in opposing it. If Bush loses in November, moderate Republicans will be quick to argue that it was because party leaders veered too far to the right. McCain will make the talk-show rounds, and either he or Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel will ramp up a "mainstream Republican" campaign for the party's 2008 presidential nomination. But they will be countered by conservatives who will claim, as some already do, that Bush went soft on the fundamentals--slashing government spending, eliminating programs, erasing the line of separation between church and state, reversing protections for the environment that are portrayed as threats to business and chipping away at the right to choose--and that Congressional moderates prevented hard-liners from holding the White House accountable. "Yes, we do have Republican majorities in both houses, but we don't have conservative majorities," grumbles former US Representative James Rogan, a California conservative. "On any given day, just a handful of moderate or liberal Republicans can band together with the Democrats and reshape policies that aren't conservative policies. That forces the White House, and the House and Senate leadership, to compromise with the moderate and liberal members."

Thus, the argument goes, the moderate wing of the party must be eliminated. Right-wing strategists such as Grover Norquist and Stephen Moore, leader of the Club for Growth, say that by making the Republican Party more conservative they can achieve the sort of sweeping policy shifts that they feel were denied them during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. They note that, after the 1994 "Republican revolution" election put the GOP in charge of the House and Senate, President Clinton moved quickly to outconservative the conservatives on issues such as welfare reform and support for the federal Defense of Marriage Act. In their view, the RINOs simply slow the inevitable march to the right. Moore says that a Republican primary between a conservative and a moderate such as Michigan's Schwarz must be seen as a "good versus evil showdown" over the future not merely of the party but of the country.

For his part, Schwarz, a lifelong Republican who proudly notes that Jackson, a town in his district, claims to be the party's birthplace, hates the term RINO. "That little sobriquet is so baseless and so outrageous," he says. "[The RINO attack] was ginned up by people who don't believe you can be a Republican unless you're hard right on social issues."

Nonetheless, the Taliban wing of the GOP gleefully sells memberships in what the National Federation of Republican Assemblies, a coalition of state-based right-wing groups, refers to as the "RINO Hunters Club," whose stated goal is to "root out and hunt down RINOs" in order to "prevent liberal Republicans from receiving the GOP nomination to offices throughout the nation." With big-money support from the Club for Growth, as well as floating alliances with anti-abortion and pro-gun groups, RINO hunters have scored a number of recent victories. In 2002, for instance, they upset the best-laid plans of White House political czar Karl Rove when former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a moderate who was potentially electable, was beaten in a GOP primary for governor of California by Bill Simon, a conservative who was unelectable but politically "pure" in the eyes of the RINO hunters. This year, the RINO hunters probably would have taken down Pennsylvania's Specter, a pro-choice and reasonably labor-friendly senator, if it had not been for the timely intervention of Bush and Cheney. The White House, which feared that knocking the Senator off the ticket would undermine Bush's re-election prospects this fall, saved Specter's RINO hide. Still, the result was so close that the right claimed a moral victory.

In the House, the RINO hunters have made it increasingly difficult for moderate Republicans to win nominations for open seats; on the day Schwarz won his Michigan primary, Kansas Republican primary voters rejected a relatively moderate candidate backed by former Senator Dole in favor of a former aide to Attorney General John Ashcroft who attacked his opponent for failing to endorse the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. At the same time that they bar the door to new moderates, the RINO hunters hound senior House members who deviate from religious-right stances on abortion and gay rights or who display a willingness to work with Democrats. In just the past two election cycles, a parade of veteran Republicans with centrist sentiments have opted to retire; this year alone, five of the House's most moderate Republican members--New Yorkers Houghton and Jack Quinn, Pennsylvania's Jim Greenwood, Nebraska's Doug Bereuter and California's Doug Ose--are leaving. Another, New York's Sherwood Boehlert, one of the most respected environmentalists in Congress, faces a fierce September primary challenge from a right-winger who, campaigning in 2002 as a "real Republican," came within 2,700 votes of ousting him.

Increasingly, progressives are coming to recognize that the ideological cleansing of the GOP caucus is not just an internal party matter. With Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress, the exodus of moderates means that the boundaries of federal policy-making are defined by what Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Robert Matsui accurately describes as "a House dominated by the extreme agenda of GOP leader DeLay." Matsui would, of course, prefer that progressives simply back Democrats. But groups such as the League of Conservation Voters and a number of major unions, including the UAW, the Teamsters and the National Education Association, have begun to recognize that in districts such as Michigan's Seventh, where Schwarz is running, the choice that matters is not likely to be between Democrats and Republicans but rather between moderate Republicans whom they can work with on at least some issues and conservative Republicans who will never cooperate with them--and who will move the party even further to the right. The LCV spent some $400,000 on an independent campaign backing Schwarz in this year's GOP primary, while the UAW, a political powerhouse in Michigan, encouraged members to back him. Schwarz welcomed that help in a primary fight in which the Club for Growth raised at least $150,000 for one of his opponents. "The ability to reach across party lines and find allies in the other party, and in groups that are usually associated with the other party, is a lost art," says Schwarz. "I think it's something that needs to be rediscovered."

Even as Schwarz was talking cooperation, however, the RINO hunters were on the prowl. Come 2006, they noted as soon as this year's results were announced, there will be another primary. And like every other Republican moderate, Joe Schwarz will have a target on his back.


John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade.

Copyright © 2004 The Nation
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Released: 27 August 2004
Word Count: 2,503
Contact: Agence Global, +1.336.686.9002, rights@agenceglobal.com


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