I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the brewing hostility between moderates and conservatives in the Republican Party. Not only does it look like “RINO-hunting” is back in vogue, but we now have “Charging RINOs” to go with them. Meghan McCain, for instance, seems almost giddy about the prospect of a civil war over the soul of the GOP.
Now, personally I fall firmly on the conservative side of this skirmish and there are people who I think the party can do without. On the other, I’ve never been a big fan of “RINO-hunting” or even the term “RINO”. There are a lot of center-rightists in this country, and in many cases they are a great asset to the GOP (and at the very least we need their votes). In fact, I’ve realized just how two-minded I am on the issue by examining my own opinions on two potential Senate primaries in 2010.
On one hand, I would love to see Pat Toomey knock off Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. On the other, I have openly advocated taking out Louisiana’s conservative-yet-tarnished Senator David Vitter and replacing him with the extremely moderate Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao. So, why take out one centrist while working to elect another? For me, the answer lies in defining the difference between what I would call a “constructive moderate” and a “destructive moderate” (or, if you’re not into tact, a “true RINO”) - and I can find no better prototypes than Specter and Cao.
We’ll start with Specter. He’s not necessarily a liberal, and he votes with us most of the time - so it’s hard to make the case that he’s in the wrong party. Furthermore, he seems pretty strongly rooted in his socially and fiscally moderate beliefs. He’s not a guy who operates with his finger in the wind, and I respect that. However, there is a serious problem with his attitude. He has no problem labeling himself as a Republican, running on our tickets, and cooperating with our legislators when we happen to agree with him on something. However, when there are disagreements (and they occur often), he goes completely AWOL.
Not only does he vote with the Dems, but he makes a show of shoving it in our face and kvetching about what a horrible party we’ve become. Yes, he’s with us more often than not, but he only gets excited when he’s poking us in the eye - and he is happy to soak up press that results from being the guy tearing down GOP plans from within. He’s not interested in building the party as much as he is in being the kicking, screaming voice of an otherwise long-dead brand of Rockefeller Republicanism. He has become a cancer, and he needs to be cut out - period.
Now, let’s look at Rep. Cao. He may be almost four decades younger than the Gentleman from Pennsylvania, but like Specter he seems to be a moderate if there ever was one. He’s been a Republican less than two years, he’s open to working with Democrats, and he flirts with breaking ranks on every single budget vote. Furthermore, he is more than happy to request lots of earmarks for his district. Now, in his defense, I would note that he always comes down right on those budget votes and that, as the representative of New Orleans, he has more justification for those funding requests than any other Congressman. Still, we can safely say that he is clearly a moderate on everything but the life issue.
However, Cao’s attitude is radically different than Specter’s. He’s the type of guy who got into politics because he genuinely wanted to help people, and he talks constantly about the fact that his goal is always to do what is best for his district. And whereas Specter is bridge-burner, Cao is a bridge-builder. He’s there to build consensus solutions, and while he sticks firmly to his center-right principles, he’s willing to work with both parties to make sure things get done. That, in my opinion, makes him a class act and the very definition of a statesman. Far from being a cancer, he could be a productive coalition builder in Congress for years to come.
This brings me back to my original point about the rise of moderate voices like Meghan McCain, who not only claim to be the only future of the GOP, but are ready to go to battle for their cause. I happen to have a good deal of respect for Miss McCain, but people like her need to decide whether they are with Specter or Cao. They can work with us to help acheive our common goals - in which case, I’m ready to support them wholeheartedly. However, if they continue the march toward some sort of apocalyptic ideological confrontation between the various wings of the party - they will find themselves significantly outnumbered and doomed to failure.
So, Meghan, shall we build bridges or burn them? The choice is yours.