Is There Any Future in Being a Moderate Republican?

How and why the party abandoned the middle.

President Donald Trump speaks at the 146th NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits on April 28 in Atlanta.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

The last time I spoke to Geoffrey Kabaservice, nearly a year ago, Donald Trump was solidifying his control of the Republican Party. Trump’s capture of the GOP shocked most, but Kabaservice was unsurprised. A historian and the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party, Kabaservice has written extensively about the way in which the party has become increasingly unified in its extremism over the past several decades.

Is he still unfazed? To discuss the state of the GOP amid the turmoil that followed the firing of FBI Director James Comey, I reached out to Kabaservice again. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why Republican moderates caved on repealing Obamacare, the psychology of partisanship, and the secret ingredient that keeps the Republican Party united.

Isaac Chotiner: What’s been most surprising to you about the Trump presidency so far?

Geoffrey Kabaservice: I actually thought that Trump, having established his brand as someone who cares a lot about the white working class, would have pushed that populist angle once he got into office. But instead he has more or less outsourced significant legislation to Paul Ryan. So that came as a surprise. On the other hand, the fact that Trump is not really interested in the details of governing has not come as a surprise.

So the Republican Party still has a Reaganist ideology?

I think that one of the things that very few people thought through was that the Republicans have brought us into a new era of complete political polarization. Trump, again, could have taken some steps to change that dynamic by leading off with a proposal for infrastructure, for example, which is something a lot of Democrats want. And there were indications he might have gone in that direction. He invited construction leaders into the White House in his first week in office. But instead he kind of allowed the Republicans in Congress to lead off with the attempt to repeal Obamacare, and that was guaranteed to set the table for complete polarization. And what happens when you have this inability to make any coalitions across the aisle is that you empower the most extreme wing of your party.

So although last fall a lot of people were saying the Freedom Caucus would no longer be an important factor, in fact they have more power and influence than ever. They have really determined a lot of the way that Congress is approaching its legislation and they in effect have veto power. It doesn’t benefit Trump that they have this dynamic, but nonetheless that’s where we are. It’s not even the ideas of Reaganism. It’s a few zombie ideas of Reaganism and making up the rest as they go along.

What is the state of moderate Republicanism today? Many moderate Republicans caved and eventually voted for an Obamacare replacement that was probably even more conservative than the one they opposed several weeks ago.

I was surprised and shocked. The key amendments that enabled the passage of Trumpcare Part II were actually put forward by Tom MacArthur of New Jersey, who has a reputation of being a pretty thoughtful and moderate Republican. A lot of the explanations coming forward are not about them liking the bill, but that they were counting on it to be changed in the Senate. I am sure a lot of them worried about being primaried. I think there was also a sort of desperation to show that Trump and Congress could achieve a main promise and get something passed.

The problem is that moderates had always staked their reputation on not just being agreeable men and women who talked to the opposition, but also people who really knew the details of legislation and studied these things and put forward white papers and had staffs who knew the policy ins and outs of the issues. That is anything but what the AHCA was. It is really a desperate nothing burger. Moderate Republicans are going to run into major problems next year. Very few of them are even bold enough to face their constituents in town halls because they know they don’t like this legislation. They know they are voting against their own self-interest, and politics is something a lot of them don’t seem to like, but I don’t think it is obvious what the way forward is.

You have seen this with Democratic centrists over the past several years too, where moderates like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman didn’t seem ideologically inclined so much as just looking for any sort of middle ground. There is no reason a moderate couldn’t be ideological or thoughtful, but here we are.

The charge had always been that moderates don’t believe in anything. But the fact is that moderate Republicans used to have a lot of fixed beliefs. They were strong on civil rights, they were strong on civil liberties and they believed deeply in fiscal responsibility. And it’s hard now to say what these people who were moderates actually stand for. Civil rights is not a cause that the Republican Party seems to believe in much anymore.

That’s one way to put it.

Moderates used to think of themselves as dealmakers, but there are no deals to make with Democrats in an age of polarization. That doesn’t happen anymore. Some of the moderates are somewhat empowered, just as the Tea Party is, because it takes all of the Republicans voting together to pass things. Susan Collins could demand the Congress meet in Maine once a month and the Republicans might go along with it. But the moderates in the House, they don’t seem to know what the political world has come to. I think they are waiting for some sign from above that they have a role to play and things to stand for, but at this point, they are pretty much being forced to do things they don’t like by political pressures they don’t understand.

Have you been at all surprised by the complete Republican capitulation to Trump’s violations of norms and democratic niceties?

No, in the sense that in every party there are strong pressures to go along, especially with a new president. And people have been very reluctant to say anything against him or to vote against things he doesn’t want [them to vote against]. FiveThirtyEight has a graphic about Republicans from districts Clinton won or Trump did poorly in, and a shocking number of them have 100 percent voting rates in favor of Trump’s legislation.

That may seem shocking, but it isn’t given the dynamics of what goes on in Congress, and the understandable wishes of Republicans in Congress to have Trump succeed. But there is going to come a point where it isn’t enough to support your president and wash your hands, and I think a lot of Republicans have gotten themselves in trouble for 2018 with their vote on the Trumpcare bill. And now they are going to be judged on how they respond to this potential constitutional crisis of Trump’s firing of Comey.

So do you view the GOP behavior as just another indication of polarization, or is it a function of the particular extremism of the GOP?

I have been reading a lot about Richard Nixon lately. And Nixon was not a typical conservative. He endorsed all kinds of things that conservatives came to hate, like the Environmental Protection Agency, and OSHA, which were both created during his term. Nonetheless, Nixon embraced a kind of conservative populism which said essentially that it doesn’t really matter what we do, whether it is ethical or in keeping with past norms. Instead, what is important is that we smash our enemies. And as long as Nixon was taking that position, conservatives were actually on his side, even if they didn’t agree with a lot of the legislation he pushed. When it came to Watergate, they all rallied around him and even applauded the dirty tricks.

For a while.

So there is a part of modern conservatism that says it doesn’t really matter whether Trump is ineffective or even incompetent or maybe even unethical so long as he keeps upsetting the liberals and the media and the academics who are leading America down the wrong path. There was that survey from a few weeks ago that [showed] only 3 percent of Trump voters regretted their vote, and my suspicion is that the Comey situation may not change that.

We started by talking about Trump’s ideas for infrastructure and his new ideas for the GOP, but it seems like at some level it doesn’t matter, because what binds the party together is just angry resentment.

There is an old political truism that people don’t vote for, they vote against. And so people’s positive feelings for Trump may just have been less than their negative feelings for Hillary Clinton and what they think she embodies.

There’s an old Captain and Tennille song called “Love will Keep Us Together.” I don’t think that will be the Republicans’ theme song. It will be something else that keeps them together. If you believe that the opposition is not just misguided but actually evil and out to destroy your country, then you will put up with an awful lot from your leadership before you will accede in that opposition coming to power. The level of distrust for opposing parties, and even the people who vote for those parties, is so high. You are not going to see people coming together to do the right thing. I wish it were otherwise.

Actually, last year I felt much more optimistic about this situation for Republicans generally. The Republican Party in Congress was actually pushing some legislation that I thought responded to real national needs. You had the first mental health legislation since Kennedy passed. You had a good start on tackling the opioid crisis. You had the 21st Century Cures Act, which put billions more into the National Institutes of Health. These were all things that not just Republicans could gather around. This year, there has been none of that. There has been no wish to create collaboration or cooperation. Just pure power politics. And I don’t think that dynamic will change.

In France you had a Trump-like figure who was opposed by the conservative establishment, part of which had to do with the fact that she was not from the mainstream conservative party. Could that ever happen here?

Both the Republicans and Democrats would be two or three different parties in a different system. Normally this isn’t much of a problem because the moderate elements of both parties usually form coalitions to get things accomplished. But now neither party can decide what it stands for aside from attacking the opposing party.

Obama’s whole idea of hope and change was that you could create coalitions in Congress from reasonable members of both parties. And as it turned out, the Republicans from day one decided that they would oppose him on everything, even minor issues. We are in an era where playing defense is a winning strategy.