Politics and Thieves: The Year Moderates Lost Their Mojo

Had a moderate Nebraska Republican endorsed the Democrat in Pennsylvania’s 2006 U.S. Senate race, there would have been talk about ideological extremism in the Republican Party and what it meant to a blue-leaning swing state for the next presidential election.

Today, such an endorsement is received as a ploy on behalf of the moderate to win a cabinet appointment from a Democratic president.

It is the perfect example of why the 2010 political landscape prevents the Democrats from forging a strong national narrative attacking Republican extremism, and why moderates, for the most part, have lost their mojo.

In the last few weeks, the Senate candidacy of Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) has won endorsements from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, once considered the human weathervanes of the GOP’s relationship with the mainstream electorate.

Yet Bloomberg’s visit was overshadowed by a budding debate over a Muslim community center near Ground Zero, and Hagel’s support has been taken as an appeal to Washington Democrats in his bid to succeed Robert Gates at the Pentagon next year. Almost none of the discussion has included what these endorsements say about the Republican nominee, Pat Toomey, a former congressman turned president of the aggressively anti-government Club For Growth. In other years, Bloomberg and Hagel’s snub of their fellow Republican would have turned heads. In 2010, nothing.

With all the attention paid to Tea Party antics, it has been easy to undervalue the reason why almost all of 2010’s electoral backlash seems to come from the right. But the incentive for Republican candidates to push their ideology to the extreme goes far beyond the town hall hoopla.

In a recent column, E.J. Dionne argues that the Democratic Party cannot win by labeling the Republicans the ‘Party of No,’ since a negative attitude toward Washington is exactly what won them elections in 2006 and 2008. Instead, Dionne says Democrats have to create “a loud ‘no’ of their own”—urging voters to reject Republican candidates that are more ideologically extreme than their predecessors during the Bush years.

Unfortunately for Democrats, the loud ‘no’ Dionne proposes will only fall upon deaf ears, and the endorsements in Pennsylvania prove it.

Poll after poll shows widespread discontent with the country’s direction, and with Democrats in control of both the White House and Congress, whoever seems the most conservative also seems the least tied to the status quo.

Thus, calls for Republican moderation are looked upon as calls for more of the same. It is why Bloomberg and Hagel’s Democratic endorsements can gain no traction as nationwide symbols of the moderate members of the GOP bucking the more extreme elements of their party. And it’s why Democrats can’t build a suitable national narrative in opposition to Republican excesses this fall.

Beyond not factoring into an attack on Republicans, moderates themselves are unable to immediately attract the 50+1 appeal they usually garner in places that lean toward their party. Take Sestak for example.

Running for the House four years ago, Joe Sestak’s candidacy itself said something about the Democrats’ outreach to swing voters. As a former three-star admiral and the highest-ranking military officer ever elected to Congress, he was touted as a “Fighting Dem” in his successful 2006 campaign against a 10-term Republican incumbent. At that time, Democrats were capitalizing on their opposition to the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq, yet they wanted to emphasize that their message was anti-policy and not anti-military, so they highlighted the number of veterans they had as candidates. On a whole, the Fighting Dems did well.

But power changes things. Four years later and the Fighting Dem label has faded, its members now known by the moniker, “Representative,” or worse, “incumbent.” Another, Eric ‘Tickle Me’ Massa, became national news earlier this year when he resigned in the wake of a sexual harassment investigation.

Today, their outsider, moderate appeal has been lost to Washington, where they are painted with the same brush as the more polarized figures whose policies they rein in. Pat Toomey has been running ads showing Sestak voting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and capping with, “That’s really liberal.” Meanwhile, it’s Toomey who is closer to Pelosi as an ideological warrior, but his brand is to the right, and that is a label that can do wrong when Washington is looked upon as leaning left.

This negative reaction has energized the GOP, as the same response to Bush’s Washington once had Democrats motivated. Former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer recently noted that in this year’s primaries, 3 million more Republicans have gone to the polls than Democrats. This mirrors 2006, when the opposite was true.

Sestak may yet win because of his extreme commitment to campaigning and hard labor, but moderates and independents have their work cut out for them in 2010, as the only way to win seems to go further and further to the right.