The Death of the ‘Moderate’ Politician

What do Jon Huntsman and Richard Lugar have in common?  If you said both are Republicans, you’d be wrong, so far as whatever being a Republican means these days. The correct answer is unemployed and unemployable, at least by any meaningful or measurable statistic I can think of.

It must be tough for Jon Huntsman, what being one of the few remaining sane Republicans in the country. Considering the field of presidential nominees his party trotted out for all the world to see this election year, the man might as well have been Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower all wrapped up in one. Though clearly conservative fiscally – his proposals would’ve called for the elimination of ALL itemized deductions – his rejection of his party’s anti-global warming rhetoric and his embracing of evolution made him the political equivalent of a leper. He also had the temerity to work for the dread Pirate Roberts (President Obama). In the GOP of today that’s called three up, three down.

And now the man without a party has apparently had enough of the insanity. He is hinting at the unthinkable: leaving the Republican Party altogether. So says Jeff Greenfield. In an op-ed piece he wrote for Yahoo, called “Why Jon Huntsman is leaving the GOP,” the former Utah governor expresses his frustration at his party’s positions, which he describes as “unsustainable.”

As for his party’s recent success in the 2010 midterms, Huntsman is skeptical about its long-term viability. “It can’t last more than a cycle or two. With the political center hollowed out, the American people are going to say, who’s going to populate the center where you’ll get things done?” Of course the question was meant to be rhetorical.

And while he did mention the “duopoly” of both parties, don’t kid yourself. The main target of his angst is his fellow comrades and their current “orthodoxy;” an orthodoxy that would preclude even Ronald Reagan from being nominated. In another interview he did with MSNBC, Huntsman practically threw his party under the bus:

Gone are the days when the Republican Party used to put forward big, bold, visionary stuff.  I think we’re going to have problems politically until we get some sort of third-party movement or some alternative voice out there that can put forward new ideas.”

Unlike the other Republican candidates in the GOP field, Huntsman had not only an impressive resume but a genuineness about him that was unique. He could be both conservative but respectful. While he was critical of Obama he never crossed the line his contemporaries did. And he was the only candidate to show a willingness to work with Democrats to solve the nation’s problems.

The same can also be said of Dick Lugar. Like Huntsman, he was no moderate – he did after all vote “no” on the Violence Against Women Act – but he also showed a willingness to reach across the aisle and work with his fellow Democratic senators when he felt it was called for, which as it turns out wasn’t that often. Apparently the few times he did – TARP, the auto bailout and the START Treaty – were all the Tea Party needed to challenge him in a primary. They ran Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock against the six-term incumbent and Lugar was routed by 20 points.

Old Dick was understandably upset and had a few choice words for his opponent.

“If Mr. Mourdock is elected, I want him to be a good Senator. But that will require him to revise his stated goal of bringing more partisanship to Washington. He and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate. In effect, what he has promised in this campaign is reflexive votes for a rejectionist orthodoxy and rigid opposition to the actions and proposals of the other party. His answer to the inevitable roadblocks he will encounter in Congress is merely to campaign for more Republicans who embrace the same partisan outlook. He has pledged his support to groups whose prime mission is to cleanse the Republican Party of those who stray from orthodoxy as they see it.” 

True, Lugar ran a lousy campaign, and it didn’t exactly help matters that he resided in another state which, while legal in Indiana, hardly made him look good to his constituents. The point is that another seeming voice of reason will be gone from the Senate next year. With Olympia Snowe, Ben Nelson, Kent Conrad, Jim Webb and (gulp) Joe Lieberman all calling it quits rather than run for reelection, the class of 2013 will be vastly different and far more polarized than the current class, if that’s even possible. When you factor in that both Claire McCaskill and Jon Tester are in for the fight of their lives this year, the term moderate may soon be synonymous with words like dinosaur and ice age.

Short term, the defeat of Lugar and the dismissal of Huntsman as a serious candidate will give the forces of intransigence yet another reason to crow over their supposed good fortune; long term, it will have profound consequences for a legislative branch that has earned its deplorably low approval ratings.  The prospects for bipartisanship are slowly disappearing into that long goodnight along with, perhaps, the very future of the Republic itself.