There’s No Such Thing As A Moderate Republican In 2021. It Wasn’t Always This Way.

Former New York governor and, later, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller (seen here with President Nixon) was one of many Republicans from an earlier era who were moderate or even progressive. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbi... Former New York governor and, later, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller (seen here with President Nixon) was one of many Republicans from an earlier era who were moderate or even progressive. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

Some pundits and politicians are hailing the Senate’s approval of a bipartisan infrastructure bill — with all 50 Democrats and 19 Republicans voting in support — as evidence that bipartisanship is possible and that there’s no need to scuttle the filibuster rule that requires 60 votes to pass any legislation.

After the vote, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) proclaimed, “I was proud to support today’s historic bipartisan infrastructure deal and prove that both sides of the political aisle can still come together around common-sense solutions.”

“This is what it looks like when elected leaders take a step toward healing our country’s divisions rather than feeding those very divisions,” said Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), who led the negotiations for the Democrats.

Here’s how the Los Angeles Times described how the infrastructure bill was passed: “After months of negotiation among President Biden, Democrats and a group of moderate Republicans to forge a compromise, the Senate voted 69 to 30 in favor of the legislation.”

The Times then listed the “ten centrist senators” — five Republicans and five Democrats — who worked to craft the bill: Republicans Rob Portman (OH), Bill Cassidy (LA), Susan Collins (ME), Lisa Murkowski (AK), and Mitt Romney (UT) and Democrats Jeanne Shaheen (NH) Jon Tester (MT), Joe Manchin (WV), Mark Warner (VA), and Sinema.

But by what stretch of the imagination are Cassidy, Portman, Romney, Collins and Murkowski “moderate” or “centrist” Republicans? None of them are even close to the “center” of America’s ideological spectrum. They all have opposed raising taxes on the wealthy, toughening environmental standards, expanding voting rights, adopting background checks for gun sales and limiting the sale of military-style assault weapons, and other measures that, according to polls, are overwhelmingly popular with the American public.

The five allegedly centrist Republicans voted with Trump between 65% and 89% of the time. (Collins, 65%, Murkowski, 65%, Romney, 75%, Portman, 88%, Cassidy, 89%). The five so-called centrist Democrats, in contrast, only voted with Trump between 30% and 50% of the time (Shaheen and Tester, 30%, Warner, 35%, and Manchin and Sinema, 50%).  McConnell sided with Trump on 91% of key votes, while Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) did so only 23% of the time. Ideologically, the Democrats and Republicans live on different planets.

The idea that there are some “moderate” and “centrist” Republicans in Congress reinforces the myth that there is a group of Republicans who would work with Democrats to pass bipartisan legislation if both sides were only willing to compromise and be more pragmatic.


There is no overlap between the parties — this is not always true of the voters, but it is true of the elected officials. Political scientists describe this as ‘asymmetrical polarization.’ "


In truth, it is likely that the vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill — designed to rebuild the nation’s deteriorating roads and bridges and fund new broadband and climate resilience programs — will be the only time that some Republicans will join forces with Democrats to pass major legislation. Polls showed that the bill was extremely popular among Republican voters. They didn’t want to have to run for re-election next year having opposed legislation that would create jobs and repair dangerous roads and bridges.

But don’t expect any Republicans — especially McConnell — to support Biden’s $3.5 trillion budget plan that would strengthen the social safety net, expand health care, provide free preschool and community college, extend a tax credit for child care, mandate that employers provide family leave, and implement new climate change programs. Ditto with Biden’s other priorities, including legislation to strengthen voting rights, expand workers’ rights (the Protect the Right to Organize Act), and provide undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship.

Neither political party is ideologically monolithic. The Republicans are divided between conservatives (like Senators Romney, Collins, and Murkowski) and reactionaries (such as Senators Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Marsha Blackburn and the 44-member House Freedom Caucus).

Democrats exist along a spectrum as well, spanning from liberals like President Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Schumer to the most progressive members like Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey (D-MA), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). There are a handful of moderate Democrats — like Senators Sinema and Manchin and House members Conor Lamb (D-PA), Carolyn Bourdeaux (D-NC), Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), and Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), but they are all considerably to the left of any Republican in Congress.

There is no overlap between the parties — this is not always true of the voters, but it is true of the elected officials.

Political scientists describe this as “asymmetrical polarization.” For example, in their book, Polarized America, Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal reveal that in the past few decades, Republicans have moved far to the right, while Democrats have moved slightly to the left. That suggests that, today, Republicans would have to compromise more than the Democrats to reach an agreement and they’ve demonstrated no desire to do so. Recall McConnell’s statement in May that he was “100 percent” focused “on stopping” President Joe Biden’s administration from being successful.

Once upon a time the Republican Party was more ideologically diverse. In the early 1900s, there were even progressive Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt (New York governor and later U.S. president), Hiram Johnson (California governor and U.S. senator), and Robert La Follette (Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator) and, during the Depression, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. They favored workers rights, sought to put limits on corporate irresponsibility, supported consumer protection laws, and sought to give women the right to vote, among other causes.

By the 1950s and 1960s, amid the Cold War and Red Scare, the bold progressive wing of the Republican Party had disappeared, but the GOP still had a liberal wing, including Senators Jacob Javits (NY), Charles Percy (IL), Margaret Chase Smith (ME), and Clifford Case (NJ), Governors and Senators Caleb Boggs (DE), Mark Hatfield (OR), George Aiken (VT), Lowell Weicker (CT), and John Chafee (RI), Governors Nelson Rockefeller of New York and George Romney of Michigan, and congressman and later New York City Mayor John Lindsay. That made it possible for Democrats and Republicans to find common ground.

Republican liberals were concentrated in the Northeastern states, but they eventually went the way of the manual typewriter and fountain pens. What remained was a small group of moderate Republicans like Senators Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania, and John Warner of Virginia.

But by 2008, the Tea Party faction had taken over the Republican Party in those and many other states. That trajectory went even further once Donald Trump announced his run for president in 2015. By the time he entered the White House, the GOP’s central tenet was loyalty to Trump. The moderates were evicted from the party. Even the handful of Republican members of Congress who occasionally disagreed with Trump — such as Reps. Paul Mitchell of Michigan, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, and Liz Cheney of Wisconsin, and Senators Romney, Collins, and Murkowski — are hardline conservatives. The only moderate Republicans of any stature today are governors — Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Phil Scott of Vermont, and Larry Hogan of Maryland— and they are outcasts within the national party.

The Republican Party’s dramatic shift to the right began with Barry Goldwater’s failed president campaign in 1964. His backers eventually rallied behind Ronald Reagan’s successful presidential campaign in 1980. The rightward swing took a giant leap when Newt Gingrich became House Speaker in 1995, accelerated when the Tea Party emerged after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, and went on steroids after Trump took office in 2017 and encouraged the white supremacist wing of the party.

Fueling the takeover of the GOP by the reactionaries was the growing political sophistication of the religious right (white Christian fundamentalists, who gave Trump 81% of their vote and accounted for almost half of his total vote in 2016), the rightward turn and growing militance of the National Rifle Association, the emergence of major right-wing funders like the Koch Brothers and Robert and Rebekah Mercer, political operatives like Jim DeMint, Grover Norquist, and Steve Bannon, and the right-wing echo chamber dominated by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.

To consolidate the extremists’ control of the party, they’ve used gerrymandering and restricted ballot accesswhile using dog whistle slogans about immigrants, and, this year, COVID-19 vaccines, and the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen to mobilize resentments and increase turnout among Republican votes.

In this context, the idea that Biden can build on the success of his infrastructure plan to corral more Republicans to join him in a revival of bipartisanship is foolish. The only way that Americans will see progress on the issues they care about is if the handful of moderates in the Democratic Party — particularly Sinema and Manchin — are willing to vote with their fellow Democrats rather than pretend that even a single Senate Republican will put country before party or re-election.


Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College and author of “The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.”

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