The impact of the moderate Republican

On Oct. 28, 1980, a beleaguered President Jimmy Carter stood on a debate stage with his Republican challenger, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan.  Carter’s one chance to save his presidency depended on his ability to portray Reagan’s views as extreme. The best levers appeared to be Reagan’s criticisms of Social Security, but especially his vocal opposition in 1961 to a federal program to provide medical care to seniors — a plan that became law, as Medicare, in 1965.  

With his characteristic pinched and humorless mien and preachy schoolmarm look, Carter noted that Reagan had begun his career by opposing the future Medicare program. As Carter spoke, Reagan laughed, and when it was the Republican candidate’s turn to respond, he said, “There you go again,” and went on to say that rather than opposing the concept of Medicare itself, he had actually preferred an alternative piece of legislation that was before Congress.  (There is no evidence of such legislation at the time.) Carter’s charge drifted away, and with it, the election.

The process of reassurance continued, even into Reagan’s presidency. In fact, it was Reagan who, as president a year later, invented the term “social safety net,” to assure voters that his budget cuts to domestic programs would not eviscerate support for the “truly needy.”

As we observe the final days of the 2012 election campaign, I’m reminded of the difficulty Democrats have faced in their attempts to highlight the rightward turn the Republican Party has taken since Reagan’s rise. Even as Republicans have adopted positions that are increasingly unpopular with the American electorate, they have nevertheless managed to remain closely competitive in presidential elections. How have they done this? The question is particularly relevant as Mitt Romney, who committed to very conservative positions throughout the campaign, now seeks to move toward moderate positions that will resonate with voters in the final days before the general election.  

While Republicans have marginalized their moderates, Republicans nominate presidential candidates with moderate histories like John McCain and Mitt Romney, then demand that they toe the conservative line and bring on running mates like Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan to lock in the base. It was McCain who memorably said in 2008 that, if his own immigration plan came to his desk, as president he would certainly veto it.

Voters want to believe that the Republican candidate for president does not really share, or would not really act upon, the party’s extreme views in such areas as abortion, immigration, international relations, taxes and spending. The slightest moderate noises are magnified by voters’ own wish that it be so.  According to Robert Draper in The New York Times (July 5, 2012), Democratic pollsters have found that when they “informed a focus group that Romney supported the Ryan budget plan — and thus championed ‘ending Medicare as we know it’ — while also advocating tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing.”

It is, indeed, hard to distinguish between a real moderate (such as Arlen Specter, who died on Oct. 14, or former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan) and moderate-sounding politicians. A long history of moderate Republicanism remains ingrained in our minds and clouds our view of the contemporary Republican Party. It was ingrained in my own mind growing up in New Jersey.  Clifford Case, a moderate Republican, was my U.S. senator. In New York, Nelson Rockefeller was the popular Republican governor, and Jacob Javits was a well-loved Republican senator.

This is why the Obama campaign made the shrewd decision not to focus only on Romney as a “flip-flopper,” someone whose positions on issues such as abortion or Medicare seem to be constantly in flux. A politician who changes positions may seem safe if the change is in the moderate direction that voters prefer. While we like consistency in our politicians, we also like them to agree with us and to reassure us that they could not possibly hold such extreme positions as giving tax breaks to the rich while privatizing Medicare.   Fortunately for the Democrats, Romney’s insensitivity to working Americans has provided a much more fruitful target than the hard-to-pin-down charge of extremism.  

This analysis suggests that Republicans can remain competitive at the presidential level, as long as they nominate candidates who can seem moderate when they need to, and who reassure voters that the real changes in the Republican Party will somehow not affect them. The picture, though, is quite a bit different at the state level.

In the states, to the joy of Democrats, Republicans are far less cautious and have nominated some candidates who are obviously out of the mainstream.   Democrats openly rooted for Republicans to nominate candidates like Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell in 2010; her bizarre campaign (including denials of witchcraft) helped keep the Republicans from winning a majority in the Senate. Todd Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape,” have turned a sure Republican victory in Missouri against the vulnerable Claire McCaskill into a likely Democratic win. And Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown is being dragged toward defeat by his association with his national party, and therefore with candidates like Akin.

Democratic candidates have a stake in encouraging Republican radicalism at the state level. In 2002, Gray Davis helped Richard Riordan lose the Republican nomination by highlighting to Republican primary voters Riordan’s moderation on abortion. Davis then went on to win against the more conservative and much weaker Bill Simon. When Davis faced the moderate Arnold Schwarzenegger the next year in a recall election, he had no chance. So, while conservatives go after Republican moderates for ideological reasons, Democrats want those same moderates to lose Republican primaries for tactical reasons.

At this point, Democrats would rather face right-wing Republicans than Republican moderates. But, as unlikely as it seems today, it would certainly be better for the states and for the nation if real moderates somehow recovered their standing in the Republican Party. A moderate Republican party would force Democrats to compete to offer the best solutions, with both parties offering to solve problems, respect science and weigh real-world evidence. 

Wishing, though, will not make it so, nor will a willingness to accept reassurance instead of real moderation. 

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

Fervid Moderation

The horrifying images on Israel’s Channel 10 were probably the most graphic I had ever seen on television. A suicide bomber, a Muslim religious teacher from Hebron — himself the father of young children, had blown up a Jerusalem bus filled with ultra-Orthodox men, women and children on their way home from worship at the Western Wall. Twenty-one innocent people were murdered, scores were wounded and maimed, many of them — so many of them — children. The following morning, the mass-circulation Yediot newspaper ran front-page photos of some of the victims, a heart-breaking picture of a 5-month-old baby girl in intensive care and the opening paragraphs of four Op-Ed pieces, including one by Israel’s most famous author, Amos Oz.

“The Islam that has lost its mind,” Oz wrote, “can be healed only by moderate, sane Islam…. Moderates, by their nature, do not tend to be fervid defenders of moderation … [but] maybe what is needed is a bit more fervid moderation — on all sides.”

Many Israelis, I believe, would second Oz’s assessment. It is crucial for the sane, silent center to overcome the demoralization that is inevitably sown by new waves of violence and terrorism. The great majority of Israelis, and their leaders, still believe in territorial compromise. But when people lose faith in the prospects of a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fringe ideas start to find a place at the table.

A few weeks ago, many Israelis were rattled by an article by influential Ha’aretz journalist Ari Shavit that ran in the paper’s Friday supplement. Its title, “Cry, the Beloved Two-State Solution,” may seem awkward or cryptic if you don’t pick up the tragic allusion: “Cry, the Beloved Country” is the title of Alan Paton’s classic, lyrical novel of South Africa, published in 1948. Shavit’s piece consists of two monologues, woven from separate interviews, by two veteran leftists, Haim Hanegbi and Meron Benvenisti, both native-born Israelis of mixed Ashkenazi-Sephardi lineage, older men looking back on a lifetime of political activism.

For Hanegbi, the more radical of the two, Jewish sovereignty in this land is predicated on the “dispossession” of another people. In his view, Israel finds it so hard to dismantle West Bank settlements — a prerequisite of any two-state solution — because such a concession casts a “threatening shadow” over every other part of the country as well.

“Maybe in the end,” he told Shavit, “we have to create a new, binational Israel, just as a new, multiracial South Africa was created.”

Benvenisti stresses the demographic dimension: “[I]n the end, we are going to be a Jewish minority here. And the problems that your children and my grandchildren are going to have to cope with are the same ones that de Klerk faced in South Africa. The paradigm, therefore, is the binational one. That’s the direction. That’s the conceptual universe we have to get used to.”

The idea of a binational polity in the Land of Israel is not a new one, of course. Back in the 1920s, a circle of Jerusalem intellectuals launched a movement known as Brith Shalom, which sought to persuade the Zionist leadership that coexistence in Mandatory Palestine was more vital than Jewish sovereignty. Philosopher Martin Buber was a member of the Brith Shalom chapter in Berlin. In 1972, the great kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem, a founding member of the Jerusalem group, told an interviewer that the central tenet of Brith Shalom was “that the Land of Israel belongs to two peoples, and these peoples need to find a way to live together.”

Buber, Scholem and company were roundly scorned and politically marginalized even before the rise of Hitler greatly amplified the urgency of creating a sovereign state that would be a refuge for the world’s Jews. And if binationalism ever comes to pass here — which is not unthinkable, if Palestinian Arabs deprived of political and civil rights become a majority population in the greater Land of Israel, and the rest of the world increasingly views Israel as another South Africa, and pressures us accordingly — it would spell the demise of the Jewish State. Just imagine a democratic state of Israel/Palestine in which Arabs outvote Jews.

But the story doesn’t end here. As we speak, some members of the Israeli right wing, and their supporters abroad, are doing the same math and arriving at the same conclusion — that there can be only one state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Of course, the one state they envision is rather different. Tourism Minister Benny Elon, a West Bank rabbi and head of the Moledet party, has been spending a good deal of time in the United States lately, aiming to promote his plan, cleverly dubbed “The Right Road to Peace,” among sympathetic Americans, most specifically Evangelical Christians, including leading figures in Congress. “This plan,” as described on Elon’s Web site, “is founded on the fundamental historic and biblical truth that the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people.”

For Elon, a “two-state solution” means “two states for two nations on either side of the Jordan River.” In other words, Jordan, whose population is already mostly Palestinian, becomes Palestine.

Elon’s analysis of today’s hard realities — with a few rhetorical adjustments — could have come from the lips of a card-carrying binationalist: “Without the complete destruction of Israel, Palestinians Arabs can only be offered a state-like entity, unable to sign international agreements, without an army and made up of a number of small and overcrowded fragments of territory. This quasi-state would not have natural borders. Rather, population centers on both sides will straddle the border, perpetuating continued friction between Israelis and Palestinians…. From every aspect — geographic, economic and demographic — it is clear that it will be impossible to resolve the problem within the small, overcrowded area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea…. It is clear that what is needed is a paradigm shift.

For Elon, it’s all so clean and simple: “As part of the plan to end the conflict and create a new and stable map in the Middle East, the border between Palestine and Israel must be drawn at the Jordan River, and all the areas west of the Jordan must be formally annexed to the State of Israel.”

Somehow, the Jordanians will agree; Palestinian terrorists and inciters will be deported; refugee camps will be “dismantled”; large numbers of Palestinians will move to Jordan — nowhere is the unpleasant word “transfer” mentioned in Elon’s plan, merely “resettlement” or “relocation” — and those who remain in the West Bank and Gaza will be citizens of Jordan, not Israel.

When Jewish babies are blown up by Palestinian bombers, and the “road map” and Camp David and Oslo look like the debris of yesterday’s hopes, a wand-waving panacea like Elon’s may appear attractive, even to reasonable and decent people. Morality and democracy and feasibility aside, however, would such a scenario be good for Israel? Imagine the United States — for who else could make it happen? — imposing this plan on Jordan and the Palestinians. The toxic mix of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism that swirls today through the Arab world and Europe (and elsewhere) would surely be intensified. Unless, of course, Jordan becomes Palestine as a result of a devastating, map-smashing war — an unimaginably awful prospect for all concerned.

But Benvenisti and Elon are both correct about one thing: We do need a paradigm shift. Nothing revolutionary, just a passionate reaffirmation of Scholem’s conviction that we are not engaged in a zero-sum game, and that the two peoples in this land have no choice but to learn to live together. There is still time for leaders of vision and courage in Israel, Palestine and the United States — “fervid moderates,” in Oz’s phrase — to bring about a historic, life-saving compromise.

Stuart Schoffman is an associate
editor of the Jerusalem Report and a columnist for the JUF News of Chicago. His
e-mail address is