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The Pernicious Myth of the Moderate Republican


There was a lot of interesting discussion in last week’s “is New York New York City + Alabama” thread. Before moving on to my broader point, let me address a couple specific issues:

  • I obviously understand that the assertion that upstate New York is like Alabama is a rhetorical exaggeration.  It nonetheless fails on any possible level on which it could mean anything.  The “Pennsyltucky” line is an obvious exaggeration, but there’s at least some truth the label is getting at — the non Philadelphia/Pittsburgh parts of the state are solidly Republican, solid enough that Romney could come within 5 points of Obama and Republicans like Rick Santorum and Pat Toomey can win statewide federal office.  In New York, conversely, Obama carried the counties outside of NYC/Long Island/Westchester/Rockland/Putnam by a margin greater than his national share of the vote.  So the assertion that upstate is like the South either has to be scaled back to utter silliness and/or banality that describes pretty much every state in the union (“upstate New York is more conservative than Manhattan!” “Except for the many liberal areas, upstate New York is conservative!”), or it’s simply wrong.
  • It is absolutely true that there is a substantial problem with residential segregation in the urban areas of upstate New York.  The idea that residential segregation is an “upstate” problem, however, might be the most ridiculous example of urban provincialism since the NYT Styles section assumed that tattoos and yoga studios are unique features of exotic Brooklyn.  As it happens, both Buffalo and Syracuse are top 10 metro areas in terms of black/white segregation…and both trail New York City, which is #3 in the country (just behind Milwaukee and Detroit, but worse than Chicago.)  Stay for next week’s lecture, “not everyone who voted for Guiliani or rioted against busing in South Boston is a racial egalitarian,” at least if your system can handle the shock after you found out that the Easter Bunny isn’t real.

Transparently erroneous factual claims aside, there’s another question about whether there’s any value in describing Obama as really a “moderate Republican from the 80s” rather than the “moderate liberal Democrat” he in fact is.  I cannot tell a lie: the most valuable pundit with space on a major op-ed page went back to this well recently:

It’s an amazing thing: Obama is essentially what we used to call a liberal Republican, who faces implacable opposition from a very hard right. But Obama’s moderation is hidden in plain sight, apparently invisible to the commentariat.

I still don’t see it. Just like the claim that upstate New York is like Alabama, it’s either meaningless, or it’s false.

Saying Obama is like a “liberal Republican” can mean a couple of different things. It could refer to a long-ago period in which American party affiliations were so loose that some actual northeastern liberals were Republicans. In this sense, describing Obama as a “liberal Republican” isn’t exactly false but it’s also completely irrelevant and meaningless. So Obama is a “Nelson Mandela Republican” in the tradition of Bob LaFollette and John Bingham, what does this tell us about his politics that “Obama is a moderate liberal Democrat” doesn’t? Nothing. If we move it up and compare Obama to moderate Republicans of the 80s, the claim might have some bite, but the problem is that it becomes false — misleading about Obama and far too charitable to moderate Republicans. Remember, for example, that even John Chafee’s decoy health care alternative didn’t have a Medicaid expansion in it. Moderate Republicans of the 80s could live with the basic parameters of the New Deal, but they certainly didn’t want to expand major federal programs for the poor. They wouldn’t have wanted a new consumer protection bureau or to tighten regulation on Wall Street or appointed pro-labor officials to the NLRB.

This rhetorical move is similar to comparing the ACA to the Heritage Plan even when you know that they aren’t similar — the idea is to rebut claims that Obama or his policies represent some kind of radical leftism. But outside the very narrow context of making fun of the ad hoc constitutional challenge to the individual mandate, I just don’t see the value. First of all, it’s simply false. And I don’t see any rhetorical advantage to be gained from the lie. If it was intended to stop Republicans from attacking the ACA as a radical far-left takeover of ONE-SEVENTH OF THE NATIONAL ECONOMY, it’s been a massive fail. And the myth of moderate Republicans it perpetuates serves to obscure what the actual Republican offer on health care has always been: nothing. Nuts to this kind of defensive crouch. Democrats want to insure the uninsured; Republicans want them to suffer. That’s the point that should be made, not “don’t be mad at the ACA! It’s really kind of Republican! Stop making fun of me!”

Obviously, the description of Obama is a moderate liberal is more complicated. The ACA is far better than the status quo ante and a major liberal accomplishment, while some elements of Obama’s record are solidly liberal and some aren’t. But the same thing is true of LBJ and FDR, and nobody would think to say that they were really “what used to be called liberal Republicans” or whatever. It’s a bad, pernicious argument. Obama’s not any kind of Republican; he’s squarely a part of the New Deal/Great Society tradition of the Democratic Party, the end. There’s nothing to be gained by pretending otherwise.

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