The Politico and The New Republic both carry stories about Chris Shays, the Rockefeller Republican who has represented “the richest district in the richest state” since 1987. Shays is facing perhaps his toughest re-election battle against Goldman Sachs vet, Jim Himes. He is the last Republican House member from New England.
I figured this would be a close race earlier this summer and covered it for TAC. I discovered that, at least in temperament, Chris Shays was more conservative than his critics from the conservative movement. He favors consensus over conflict, gradual change over crusading enthusiasm.
Oddly, the conservative movement, in substance if not style, more and more resembles its old Rockfeller enemies.
And ironically, the conservative movement, under Bush, has become much more like its old Rockefeller foes. Since 2001, the conservative majority has supported massive spending programs like the faith-based initiatives and huge entitlement expansion like the prescription drug benefit—both at odds with their stated principles. Under the guise of improving standards, they backed No Child Left Behind, a landmark expansion of the federal government’s power in education. And in lockstep with their commander in chief, they supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq—the latest and most ruinous project of liberal internationalism since Vietnam. Who are the Rockefeller Republicans now?
Even as the GOP adopted the moderates’ policies, it was taking on the radical spirit of a movement—the Rockefeller agenda without the appealing compensation of the conciliatory temperament. Democrats were thus left with an open field of voters who wanted competent government that relates to their everyday concerns
I argued that by taking on more and more of the Rockefeller-agenda while retaining the spirit of a ” movement,” conservatives have made Rockefellerism worse, and made the Republican brand unattractive to voters interested in good, principled government. That is where Democrats like Himes come in.
By preaching a message that deficits matter and touting a prudent foreign policy, Himes is taking ideological ground that Republicans have vacated. And he is not the only Democrat capturing old Republican issues.
And so conservatives continue to push moderate voters and their districts into the hands of Democrats. This is not profiting conservatives at all.
There is no danger that the Rockfeller wing will threaten the supremacy of conservatives within the party, as they did in the 1960s. They are a small group that traditionally wins in blue-blood regions where red-blooded conservatives cannot. And without some appeal to the center, Republicans may become a regional party, ideologically cohesive but permanently out of power. “I do best,” says Shays, “and my party does best when we reach people in the center and move them to the right. If we try to be far-right and grab people, we lose.”
This is what the Bush years have done to Republicans. Moderate squishes like Shays seem to exemplify some of the virtues of old-school conservatism. Movement conservatives push Rockefeller-like policies at home and abroad with revolutionary zeal. And the home district of William F. Buckley, the richest district of the richest state will likely be represented by a Democrat.