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The Moderates Who Lighted the Fuse

By GEOFFREY KABASERVICE -The New Yorkt Times October 3, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 1.09.16 PMWASHINGTON — THE government shutdown is the work of the so-called kamikaze caucus of about 40 Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representatives. But why is the body of the Republican Party in thrall to its erratic right foot? Maybe the real blame should go to the far more numerous non-Tea Party Republicans, from Speaker John A. Boehner down, who have been unable or unwilling to restrain the radicals.

Behind this question lies another. Why are Republican legislators like Peter T. King of New York and Devin Nunes of California unwittingly repeating the errors of a previous generation of moderate Republicans who elevated Newt Gingrich to party leadership?

It was Mr. Gingrich who pioneered the political dysfunction we still live with. His inflammatory rhetoric provided a model for the grandstanding guerrilla warfare of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. And his actions — particularly his move to shut down the government in 1995 and 1996 — undermined popular trust and ushered in the present political era of confrontation and obstruction.

But here’s the catch: Mr. Gingrich, of Georgia, rose to party leadership because he was the preferred candidate of the moderates themselves. They even sided with him against Robert H. Michel of Illinois, the House minority leader from 1981 until 1995, who, in his civility and willingness to cooperate with Democrats, embodied the moderate’s political sensibility.

Mr. Michel once reminded his fellow House Republicans that “we also have an obligation to the American people” to be “responsible participants in the process.” Talk of obligation and responsibility to the greater public good would quickly become obsolete in the Gingrich era of hyperbolic partisanship.

The problem for Republicans was that playing a “responsible” role appeared to consign them to permanent minority status. For a 40-year span beginning in 1955, Republicans were in a minority in the House and were in the majority for only six years in the Senate. By the early 1990s, even moderate House Republicans felt that the ruling Democrats had grown arrogant and corrupt.

As moderates came to believe that nothing was to be gained from cooperating with Democrats, they became more receptive to Mr. Gingrich’s argument that the way to dislodge the entrenched majority was to polarize the electorate while attacking Congress as an irredeemable and illegitimate institution.

And so the moderates propelled Mr. Gingrich into power. One, William E. Frenzel of Minnesota, nominated him for House Republican whip in 1989; Olympia J. Snowe of Maine (later a senator) seconded the nomination. Moderates supported Mr. Gingrich over the more conciliatory candidate of the older conservatives, Edward R. Madigan of Illinois, and Mr. Gingrich carried the New England delegation.

“There’s no question I would not be House Republican whip if activists in the moderate wing had not supported me,” Mr. Gingrich said after his victory. Leading his party to a Congressional majority five years later, Mr. Gingrich did what even Ronald Reagan had been unable to do.

Moderates soon discovered that there were few things more dangerous than getting what you want. Mr. Gingrich quickly succumbed to ideological overreach, particularly when he shut down the government in a bid to squeeze budgetary concessions from President Bill Clinton. The popular reaction against Mr. Gingrich effectively ended his “revolution” before it was a year old.

Moderate Republicans played a significant role in the subsequent negotiations between Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Clinton that led to welfare reform in 1996 and balanced budget legislation in 1997. But the moderates were Republican loyalists to a fault. They failed to protest as Mr. Gingrich transformed their party into an ideological faction and set it on its present course of anti-government radicalism.

Mr. Gingrich himself fitfully understood that a political party has to maintain a balance between its governing and its ideological wings: too far in one direction and the party becomes boring, too much a part of the establishment; too far in the other, and it becomes wild and self-destructive. But he couldn’t control the troops on his right flank because their real loyalty lay not with the party, but with the conservative movement.

Even before databases and computers and gerrymander-loving legislatures allowed Republicans to draw safe conservative districts, the true believers enjoyed the support of a vast right-wing infrastructure of outside donors, highly motivated grass-roots supporters, think tanks and media outlets. No such organizational network has existed for the governing wing since the 1960s. There’s no one to keep the radicals in line.

Moderate Republican voters, governors and financial backers will be horrified if the present confrontation leads to a constitutional crisis or global economic meltdown, but they have scant influence over the radicals in the Tea Party caucus. And many of them fear that launching a direct challenge to the radicals would send the party back to 40 years in the political wilderness, particularly as the party’s demographic base continues to shrink. The Republican Party won’t change course until the Gingrich strategy for winning House elections stops working.

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Geoffrey Kabaservice is the author of “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party.”