The Symbiotic Relationship Between "Moderate" Republicans And The Tea Party

October 11, 2011 4:37 pm ET — Jamison Foser

Plenty of people have taken the blame for Washington's excessive partisanship and refusal to take bold action to deal with crises, both immediate (unemployment) and long-term (global warming). Arch-conservatives from far-right states and districts where Ronald Reagan couldn't win a modern Republican primary have more than earned their reputation for knee-jerk opposition to anything that's even slightly sane. And it's hard to overstate how much responsibility Republican leaders like Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who have made clear their intent to oppose anything President Obama proposes simply because he proposes it, bear for the nation's problems. Even President Obama has, rather bizarrely, taken hits for supposed insufficient bipartisanship.


But there's one group of people who deserve far more blame than they get for Washington gridlock and the continued failure to fix urgent problems: Republicans who represent swing states and districts, particularly those who portray themselves as "moderates." Because they don't tend to make deeply nasty and comically over-the-top comments, you rarely hear that Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Scott Brown (R-MA) are the problem — but they are. The most moderate Republicans, from the least conservative states and congressional districts, are the members of Congress most responsible for gridlock. 

Remember the 2000 election, in which — for the purposes of discussion — George W. Bush won 271 electoral votes and Al Gore won 266? Had Gore carried Mississippi, with its seven electoral votes, he would have been president. And yet, quite rightly, nobody says "Mississippi determined the outcome of the 2000 election," because there was never any realistic chance Gore could have won Mississippi. Instead, people credit, or blame, Florida and, to a lesser extent, states like New Hampshire, Missouri, Tennessee, and Arkansas — states where the outcome was close, where Gore could have won.

The same principle applies to congressional gridlock. Members like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), and Rep. Steve King (R-IA) deserve the condemnation they receive for their cruelty, divisiveness and stunningly bad policy preferences, but they aren't the people most directly standing in the way of bipartisan action to fix urgent problems — not any more than Mississippi deserves credit for deciding the 2000 presidential election. 

Snowe and Collins and Brown and a few dozen House members from swing districts, on the other hand — they might reasonably be expected to act in a bipartisan fashion to support reasonable solutions to huge problems. They portray themselves as moderates, they represent middle-of-the-road constituents — and yet they've embraced the radical ideology and party-first mentality they claim to oppose. All indications are that Rep. Broun is simply a fool. There's no reason to believe he knows any better. Olympia Snowe, on the other hand, does know better, or used to, yet she falls in line with her party. That's the very essence of "partisanship."

Meanwhile, the Brouns and the Snowes enjoy a symbiotic relationship: The so-called moderates mainstream the nonsensical policy positions peddled by the far right, and the extremist shrieking of the far right distracts public attention from the crucial role the so-called moderates have played in thwarting progress.

National Journal's Ron Brownstein recently detailed several environmental votes on which Republicans from competitive districts displayed remarkable party unity:

GOP legislators from moderate swing areas, including districts that President Obama carried in 2008, are infuriating environmentalists by joining with their conservative colleagues on votes to obliterate an array of federal regulations. That lockstep loyalty sharply departs from the way swing-district Republicans behaved in 1995, the last time the GOP unseated a Democratic House majority. [...]

In February, the House voted to block pending EPA regulations limiting emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases linked to global climate change; even the GOP members from districts that backed Obama in 2008 voted 59-2 for the bill. (Those were the only dissenting Republican votes.) In April, every voting House Republican (including all 61 from Obama districts) opted to overturn EPA's scientific finding that climate change posed a public-health threat. Two weeks ago, the Obama-district Republicans voted 56-4 to shelve EPA rules reducing pollution from coal-fired power plants; the 174 other GOP members who voted all backed the measure. Republicans are expected to produce similar numbers for this week's votes on cement plants and boilers.

Noting that the lock-step voting of swing-district Republicans is in contrast to the voting patterns of current swing-district Democrats as well as mid-1990s swing-district Republicans, both of whom bucked their party more often, Brownstein concludes: "the unity that House Republicans have generated against EPA rules ... reflects their belief that environmental and public-health groups can't hurt them politically, even in traditionally sympathetic upscale districts."

Brownstein's analysis applies more broadly than just environmental issues. And one reason why swing-district Republicans aren't afraid to take far-right stances is that they haven't had to take the political heat for those stances, as attention has focused on the freak show going on even further to the right. It's something of a gamble, though: If residents of Maine and Massachusetts and dozens of congressional districts that voted for President Obama understand the extent to which their own members of Congress are responsible for blocking urgent legislation to create jobs and protect the air — and the people who breathe it — things could get ugly.