Political moderates fade as extremes gain support

Where have all the moderates gone?

A recent survey, from a reputable source during a time of doubtful polls, found that 35 percent of voters consider themselves moderate. Some lean toward each major party, while 19 percent say they are truly independent.

Who is a moderate? There’s clearly no moderate political philosophy. Instead, a moderate is a person who sometimes agrees with conservative policies and sometimes agrees with liberal policies.

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins is widely regarded as a moderate, one of a vanishing few in the U.S. Senate. Her voting pattern proves the point.

One day in early December, she voted against a bill to prevent people on the government’s terrorism no-fly list from buying guns. On the same day, she voted against a bill to gut Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood.

On the first vote, she aligned with GOP conservatives, and on the second, she lined up with Democratic liberals. That’s what gains her the moderate label.

But her willingness ever to oppose GOP positions may impose a political price. Though she has much greater seniority than many of her fellow Republican senators, she heads a much less influential committee than some of them. Perhaps she sees her Committee on Aging as being important to Maine, the oldest state.

Her position on the two bills reveals a problem for moderates. Instead of following a set policy menu, they deal with issues a la carte. That makes it more difficult to assemble a reliable moderate voting group.

The current Republican presidential campaign emphasizes the ineffectiveness of the moderates. In the unusually large field, possibly only two candidates – Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – could position themselves as moderates.

If the polls are remotely close to accurate, Republicans are not connecting with either. Bush has moved to the right, repositioning himself as a conservative. Kasich is perhaps the only outlier from the field, apparently betting that he will pick up support as the GOP comes to recognize that he’s their best bet to win the general election.

It is widely believed that the nominee selection process in both parties is dominated by their extremes, hardcore conservative or liberal. Republican conservatives reject any candidate straying from complete loyalty to their positions, which may explain why Kasich is not catching on.

Why can the extremes take control of the process? After all, they probably do not account for a majority of party supporters.

The answer is the indifference of the majority. Whether people believe that nothing they do matters or simply don’t care about their government, most people do not participate in the caucus and primary process to select nominees.

The absence of most party supporters in the process leaves the opportunity for well-motivated, ideology driven extremes to capture control of the choice of the party nominee. In short, moderates don’t show up and total turnout remains small.

The process itself may sometimes favor participation by only small numbers. Take the Iowa caucuses, scheduled for February 1. Relatively few voters will participate in these caucuses, and their choice is far from certain to be the ultimate nominee. Still, the caucuses can provide candidates a big public relations splash.

The process in the Democratic Party seems less likely to be controlled by an extreme liberal element this time. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to galvanize enough liberals to dominate the selection process. But most Democrats support former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who may come across as more of a moderate.

The general election is considered the great corrective to the faults of a nomination process that pays little heed to the supposed moderate center. While voters may not be enthusiastic about their options, they might support a candidate who seems closer to the center.

That could explain why Clinton, with lukewarm support by many Democrats, looks like a winner when compared with leading GOP hopefuls. And it may explain why Kasich and perhaps Bush hang on, hoping to emerge as the winning alternative to Clinton.

The success of Donald Trump and hardcore conservatives might indicate all of these calculations are wrong.

Suppose discontent with government and fear of terrorism have driven large numbers of voters to the right. If that were happening, then the country would shift from center-right policies to hardcore conservatism.

In that case, we could discover the moderate ranks in American politics have shrunk to near invisibility. And, if that is not true, the moderates’ influence depends on their showing up to participate in the political process.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.