The elected leaders who run our government today are very conservative. On a left-right ideological spectrum in which the left champions a strong role for government in protecting the environment, regulating business, and providing economic security and the right supports a more limited role for government in these areas and champions private property rights, they are generally quite far to the right. They are not just far to the right of the Republican leadership of a generation ago. They are also far to the right of the programs and policy ideals established in the past three to four decades of bipartisan public policymaking. And most important, they are far to the right of the middle-of-the road American voter. Our nation's leadership is off center.
This is our view, but it is not simply our opinion. As we show in this chapter, overwhelming evidence points to a growing distance between the views of ordinary Americans (generally moderate) and those of American political elites (increasingly conservative). This divorce is itself revealing-and troubling. Whatever else elected officials are meant to do once in office, they are supposed to represent (not perfectly, of course, but broadly) the views of the voters in whose name they exercise power. For this reason, we generally expect that our nation's political leaders will try to be ideologically in sync with middle-of-the-road voters. We also expect that they will not shift dramatically in one ideological direction or another unless Americans do, too. We expect these things to hold true, but they do not.
The Great Republican Right Turn
If a modern Rip Van Winkle fell asleep in 1975 and woke up thirty years later, the world would look very different indeed. Cell phones in every hand, computers in every briefcase, a vast and strange territory called cyberspace beckoning with commerce, sin, and knowledge-how strange it all would seem. Yet perhaps the most jarring realization would come when our good-natured Rip logged onto one of those exotic computers for the first time. After marveling at the wonders of cyberspace, he might ask himself what Republicans and Democrats were up to after all those years. And then he would get one of the biggest shocks of all.
Through his sleepy haze, Rip might recall the moderate Midwestern Republican Gerald Ford and the staid conservative party he momentarily led. He might remember that in the early 1970s, Republicans helped push for a bevy of new environmental and consumer regulations, higher Social Security benefits, and national price controls, not to mention a huge increase in social spending for the poor (including a near-miss on a Republican-developed plan for a guaranteed minimum income). And so he might be more than a little surprised to discover that the Republican Party of 2005 defines itself roughly in opposition to all those causes.
Now a party firmly grounded in the South, all but extinct in its old stomping ground of the Northeast, the GOP is headed by a former Texas governor who wants to carve private accounts out of Social Security, make Medicare more reliant on private health plans, and slash taxes while holding the line on social spending. Meanwhile, the party's most bellicose congressional strongman, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, is against federal regulation as a matter of course, gleefully likening the Environmental Protection Agency-created under Republican presidential rule in 1970-to the Nazi Gestapo.
But you do not have to take our fictional character's word for it. The evidence to back up his perceptions is abundant and clear. The story is the same whether one looks at the party's base of grassroots activists, GOP members of Congress, the president, or the tight circle of power brokers who sit at the pinnacle of the new Republican hierarchy. Wherever one looks, the Republican Party has sped rightward.
The Base Moves to Right Field. The Republican "base," the most committed supporters of the GOP in the electorate and activist community, has come to play a starring role in contemporary American politics. It burst into popular consciousness in the lead-up to the 2004 campaign, when Bush's key adviser, Karl Rove, made it known that the president would not be tacking toward the center. Rove believed, as BBC News put it, that the key for Bush "lay not in reaching out to the middle ground, but in solidifying and energizing the base of the Republican party." Rove's strategic calculation reflected two simple realities: the power of the Republican base has increased, and as it has, the base has grown much, much more conservative.
The figure below tells the story (fig. 1). The top line shows the trajectory of Republicans relative to independent voters on a liberal-conservative scale. (This figure draws on the highly respected National Election Studies [NES].) In the 1960s, Republican activists were about 20 percent more conservative than independent voters. By 2002, the last year for which we have poll results, they were almost 40 percent more conservative. Put another way, in the year that Barry Goldwater was crushed by Lyndon Johnson after declaring that "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice," Republican activists were half as extreme-relative to independent voters-as they are today.
What is most striking about these trends is that Democratic activists, who never gravitated as far from independents, have actually moved back to the center in recent years even as Republican activists have strayed sharply from it. Indeed, although the figure does not show this, Democratic activists in 2002 were actually slightly more moderate than run-of-the-mill voters who identify with the Democratic Party. By contrast, Republican activists are not only far to the right of independents; they are also far to the right of ordinary voters within their own party. And they have been heading ever more sharply right since the 1980s.
GOP Politicians Abandon the Middle. The base has not been alone in its speedy rightward journey. The rightward march of rank-and-file Republican politicians has been every bit as striking. Thanks to the long labors of two respected political economists, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, this statement can be documented with surprising precision. By tracing the recorded votes of every person who has ever served in Congress, Poole and Rosenthal have constructed a complex measure designed to answer a simple question: How far to the right (conservative) or left (liberal) is an individual member of Congress? And what they have found confirms what our Rip Van Winkle intuitively realized: The Republican Party in Congress is far more conservative than it was even a quarter century ago.
Take the simplest measure of rightward movement: the median ideological position of Republican members of the House and Senate. (The median is simply the midpoint-in this case, the Republican exactly in the middle of the House or Senate GOP delegation.) Starting around 1970-when the two parties began to polarize sharply, according to expert observers of Congress-Republicans have moved almost uninterruptedly to the right. In the early 1970s, those in the middle of the House Republican delegation were approximately as conservative as current Republican Congressman Steven LaTourette of Ohio, whom the Almanac of American Politics notes has "the most moderate voting record of Ohio's Republican members." In 2003, the conservative anti-tax group the Club for Growth labeled LaTourette a "Republican in Name Only"-which may not be so surprising when one considers that the median House Republican in 2003 was about 73 percent more conservative than the median House Republican of the early 1970s. Rather than a moderate like LaTourette, the typical GOP "centrist" in 2003 was someone like Congressman Mark Souder of Indiana-a one-time leader of the House Conservative Action Team, "an organization of fiscally and socially conservative House Republicans dedicated to protecting the traditional family, preserving mainstream American values, reducing the influence of the federal government, and respecting Congress' limited constitutional authority."
The rightward shift of Senate Republicans is even more dramatic. The median stance for Senate Republicans in the early 1970s was significantly to the left of current GOP maverick John McCain of Arizona-around where conservative Democrat Zell Miller of Georgia stood before he retired in 2004. By the early 2000s, however, the median Senate Republican was essentially twice as conservative-just shy of the ultraconservative position of Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a "strong conservative," according to the Almanac, who sparked controversy in 2003 when he compared consensual gay sex to polygamy, incest, and bestiality.
Of course, the Democrats have moved left at the same time Republicans have moved right. This is almost entirely due, however, to the decimation of the Democratic Party's once-powerful coterie of Southern moderates at the hands of fiercely conservative Republicans. In contrast with the common view, partisan polarization in Congress has not been caused by Republicans moving right and Democrats moving left in equal proportion. To the contrary, the rightward shift of the GOP is the main cause of polarization.
The Poole and Rosenthal statistics make this clear. As the median score for Senate Republicans moved rightward from Miller past McCain and nearly to Santorum, the median for Democrats moved leftward by less than a seventh as much. Roughly speaking, this means that the median Senate Democrat has switched from a moderate-to-liberal Midwestern Democrat like Byron Dorgan of North Dakota (an upholder of the "Non-Partisan League" tradition, according to the Almanac) to, well, a moderate-to-liberal Midwestern Democrat like former Senate Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. In the House, the Democrats' leftward shift has been larger, thanks in part to the steady depletion of the Southern Democrats who once dominated the House party. But the increase in the liberalism of House Democrats of roughly 28 percent still pales in comparison to the 73 percent increase in the conservatism of House Republicans.
The contrast implied by these numbers is striking in itself. But more important, it directly belies the common assumption that the Republican and Democratic Parties, like two similarly charged magnets, are simply repelling each other. What the Poole and Rosenthal statistics show is that the parties are indeed moving apart, but by no means at the same rate or from a fixed central point. Rather, Republicans are galloping right while Democrats are trotting left. There is indeed a widening gap in the political middle. But it is largely the result of the transformation of the Republican Party.
"The Right Man." On 5 June 2004 conservative icon Ronald Reagan died peacefully at ninety-three. Reagan's passing occasioned an outpouring of remembrance from all points on the political spectrum-but especially from the American Right. For two decades, conservatives had claimed Reagan as their patron saint, the most consistently conservative president of the post-New Deal era. Now, they came to pay tribute. At the ceremony, the nation's Republican president, George W. Bush, eulogized Reagan before an audience that prominently featured most of the powerful GOP leaders currently running the Republican-controlled House and Senate.
The moment seemed fittingly symbolic of the enduring legacy of Reagan's conservative revolution. Bush, after all, has made Reagan's 1981 tax cuts the guiding light of his domestic agenda. He has called, like Reagan, for a fundamental transformation of the most enduring legacies of Democratic rule: the Social Security program of FDR and the Medicare program of LBJ. And yet, in many ways, Bush's conservative positions on these issues are even more ambitious than Reagan's. With the popular anti-tax tide of the late 1970s at his back, Reagan indeed cut taxes dramatically in 1981. But less than two years later, his party engineered a dramatic reversal of those cuts to reduce the deficit. And Reagan himself supported a major tax reform bill in 1986 that slashed taxes on the poor.
By contrast, Bush has led congressional Republicans in cutting taxes in every year since 2001, despite little public enthusiasm for the goal and a spiraling budget deficit. After his reelection in 2004, Bush explicitly invoked Reagan in calling for major tax reform. Yet it was clear that for Bush, the ideal proposal for tax reform was a plan that sheltered ever more business and investment income from taxation, lowering taxes on the rich even further. Of course, if he were to keep his promise of keeping the overall amount raised by taxes constant, this would imply raising taxes for ordinary workers and the poor.
The contrast on social policy is even more striking. Though Reagan attacked the public sector and conjured up images of "welfare queens," his achievements were considerably more modest than was his rhetoric. George W. Bush, by comparison, has adopted less vividly antigovernment language. Yet as president, he has sought policy reforms that Reagan never dared. On Social Security, for example, Reagan briefly broached benefit cuts, then ceded the initiative to a bipartisan commission headed by Alan Greenspan, which adopted changes that essentially preserved the government-centered system. In stark contrast, Bush has embraced a fundamental transformation of the system to divert a large share of workers' payroll taxes into private accounts, and he has deliberately ruled out a compromise that would preserve the existing framework.
Whether Bush is a more conservative president than Reagan is hard to say. Reagan's conservative goals were greatly tempered by the comparatively moderate Republican Party he led, as well as the reality that Democrats controlled the House throughout his presidency. But whatever their relative conservatism, Bush and Reagan are without question the leading contenders for the title of most conservative president since World War II. Certainly, the word "conservative" follows Bush in the news as it has not any president since Reagan. And the main reason for this is that Bush consistently defines himself as a conservative through his words and deeds.
Back in his first (unsuccessful) run for Congress, for example, Bush ran very far to the right-as an "uncompromising hard conservative," in the words of Bill Minutaglio, whose book First Son offers a nonpartisan account of Bush's political rise. Among the indicators of Bush's "uncompromising hard conservative" stance were his public spurning of proposed campaign visits by President Ford, his call for privatizing Social Security (when this was an extreme conservative view), and his opposition to both sanctions against South Africa and the Equal Rights Amendment.
Still, in judging Bush's ideology, his campaigns are less revealing than what he has done once in office. After the contested election of 2000, no one could credibly claim that he entered the White House with a mandate to enact a conservative agenda. And yet, as two political analysts from the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute wrote in 2003, "those predicting consistent bipartisanship or a cautious and incremental approach to policy making were wrong.... George W. Bush has chosen a tough-minded, sometimes confrontational, and strongly conservative approach to making policy-tossing aside conventional wisdom as to how to approach a narrowly divided Congress."
The New Power Brokers. To sense the full scale of the GOP's ideological shift requires looking beyond the congressional rank and file, and even the president. The contours of the contemporary Republican Party cannot be understood without focusing attention on a group we term the "New Power Brokers"-a tight circle of political elites who oversee relations among the GOP's many factions and work to orchestrate the advancement of its political agenda. To say this is not to cry conspiracy. These individuals are far from all-powerful, and they often feud among themselves. But they are key players in an increasingly networked and coordinated conservative movement.
Excerpted from OFF CENTERby Jacob S. Hacker Paul Pierson Copyright © 2005 by Paul A. Offit. Excerpted by permission.
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