With John Boehner safely installed for another term as Speaker and Jeb Bush emerging as apparent frontrunner in the presidential race, Republicans activists must break the bad habit of demonizing moderates. Insults to the crucial swing voters who decide every election inevitably undermine GOP hopes for a durable governing majority.
With this reality in mind, common right wing complaints that moderates – or “RINO’s” (“Republicans in Name Only”)- deserve blame for past defeats count as both historically illiterate and practically counter-productive. The GOP nominees who lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections (George Herbert Walker Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney) didn’t describe themselves as moderates. They campaigned as mainstream conservatives, managing to win hard-fought primary campaigns in an unequivocally conservative party.
Moreover, before their current losing streak Republicans enjoyed an even longer winning streak, capturing seven of ten presidential contests from 1952 through 1988. Those victories came to candidates who were, as a group, far more centrist than the losing nominees who followed them, featuring notorious compromisers Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush.
The only right wing winner was Ronald Reagan who earned his landslides not just by mobilizing conservatives but by appealing to the center. Exit polls in 1980 show Reagan carrying self-identified moderates (46% of that electorate) by six points. Conservatives comprised only 28% of national voters, so Reagan would have lost to Jimmy Carter had he not prevailed among centrists.
The same pattern applied more recently: Mitt Romney drew greater concentrations of conservatives (35%) to the polls than Reagan, and did even better among them (carrying 82% to the Gipper’s 73%). But he lost moderates by a crushing 15 points, and with them the election.
But what about the talk radio myth that 4,000,000 conservatives stayed home, thereby dooming “RINO Romney’s” campaign? Actually, Mitt drew more conservatives than did GOP candidates in their midterm Congressional sweeps of 2010 or 2014. Triumphant Republican House candidates got 45 million total votes in 2010 and 39 million in 2014; Romney won 61 million. He didn’t lose because conservatives failed to vote; he fell short because moderate voters rejected him overwhelmingly.
For Republicans, the key to reaching voters in the center isn’t abandoning conservative principles; no GOP candidate can win his party’s nomination by shunning the party’s base.
The only way to succeed is matching clearly articulated conservative ideals with a moderate tone, as Reagan did. He combined ideological consistency with an affable, accommodating personality that won over non-ideological, centrist voters. By comparison, candidates like Dole, McCain and Romney, despite pragmatic backgrounds, seemed harsh, stiff and occasionally angry, losing moderates by devastating margins.
If the GOP dismisses centrist voters as wishy-washy or uninformed their future candidates will meet similar fates. The last time a Republican nominee denounced moderation he alienated precisely the voters he needed most. “May I remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” Barry Goldwater told wildly cheering convention delegates in 1964. “And may I also remind you that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Actually, extremism in defense of liberty becomes a vice if extremist tactics undermine that defense, just as moderation counts as virtuous if moderate strategies advance your righteous case. Candidate Goldwater lost 44 of 50 states so his strident rhetoric served neither liberty nor justice.
In most of life’s endeavors, moderation amounts to a positive quality. If you’re moderate in what you eat or drink, how you handle money, the way you settle disputes or manage moods, most people agree that’s a good thing. When choosing a business partner or spouse, someone described as “moderate” become more appealing than individuals who strike others as “extreme.” The idea that we should evaluate political candidates on a dramatically different basis makes no sense.
Today, the public tells pollsters they want cooperation among leaders they send to Washington. Regardless of ideological perspective, most people recoil at confrontational rhetoric and apocalyptic strategies like government shutdowns. In the midst of polarization and pessimism, Republicans’ best chance requires reasoned rhetoric and moderate means to lead America toward worthy conservative ends.
This column appeared first in USA Today.