Ross discusses Specter’s defection, describes the moderate and conservative reactions to it and then says:

This doesn’t mean that Republicans should be happy that their tent is shrinking toward political irrelevance. But more Lincoln Chafees and Olympia Snowes aren’t the answer. What’s required instead is a better sort of centrist. The Reagan-era wave of Republican policy innovation — embodied, among others, by the late Jack Kemp — has calcified in much the same way that liberalism calcified a generation ago. And so in place of hacks and deal-makers, the Republican Party needs its own version of the neoliberals and New Democrats — reform-minded politicians like Gary Hart and Bill Clinton, who helped the Democratic Party recover from the Reagan era, instead of just surviving it.

Hart, Clinton and their peers were critical of their own side’s orthodoxies, but you couldn’t imagine them jumping ship to join the Republicans. They were deeply rooted in liberal politics, but they had definite ideas for how the Democratic Party could learn from its mistakes, and from its opponents, in order to further liberalism’s deeper goals.

Ross is right that there is not really any comparable group in the GOP, but then it’s not clear what the agenda of such “centrists” would be and it isn’t at all likely that their interpretation of conservatism’s “deeper goals” would be seen as another way to pursue conservative ends. After all, are the main “deeper goals” of conservatism community and order with their related goods of social solidarity and broad, equitable distribution of wealth, or are they primarily individual autonomy and “growth,” or something else? How you prioritize these goals will inevitably define the agenda and reveal what you think conservatism means. It is likely that advocates of the first set of goals will tend to see advocates of the second set as badly misguided, if not actually something other than conservative, and vice versa.

Would a center-right equivalent of the neoliberals call for reform of the warfare state as the neoliberals did with the welfare state? After all, it is the foreign policy and national security elements of center-right policy thinking that are some of the most calcified, reflexive and tied to entrenched interests. They are also among the least popular in large swathes of the country–the same swathes where Republicans are dwindling in number. There is a growing number of domestic policy reform thinkers on the right, but to the extent that there are any who are interested in significantly changing and reducing the size of the warfare state it is typical that they are libertarians or hard-right conservatives, the very opposite of the supposedly reasonable and appealing “centrist.” The present “centrists” are the ones most wedded to the status quo on the size and use of the military and the U.S. role in the world. We certainly need a better sort of “centrist,” assuming such a thing is possible.

It is debatable whether any “centrism” is possible that does not end up in practice as a form of triangulation or a split-the-difference, worst-of-both-worlds muddle. As a rule, someone earns the name “centrist” in our political discourse by simply endorsing a major goal of the other party: McCain was granted this description by a once-fawning press corps because he backed campaign finance reform and later backed amnesty, and Lieberman’s hawkishness has earned him this title despite his otherwise left-liberal voting record. This occsasional, sometimes single-issue “centrism” is not really all that different from what the Northeastern moderates have done for decades, except that it is less frequent and therefore somehow more “principled” than the relatively more ideologically consistent moderate and liberal Republicans who are less reliable partisans. In effect, the “centrist” is someone who betrays the party on key issues, but votes with them the rest of the time, while the hated, “unprincipled” moderate is a less reliable vote for what might actually be more coherent reasons.

In practice, what pundits and journalists usually describe as “centrism” is capitulation to the other side on high-profile pieces of legislation by going against the grain of one’s own party in a melodramatic way and usually by backing the position that had won the approval of political establishment figures. What distinguishes a moderate Republican such as Specter from this kind of “centrist” is that Specter seems to have been largely unreliable on a number of issues, while a McCain was a reliable partisan on most things but would occasionally engage in his ad hoc bipartisan, self-serving troublemaking. The differences between Specter and McCain can probably best be explained by the different constituencies in Pennsylvania and Arizona: organized labor for some, defense contractors for others. Somehow McCain has been idolized as a man of high principle (and not just by friendly journalists but also by quite a few Republicans), when he was mostly a man of great ambition, and Specter is mostly treated as an unprincipled worm (and not just by hostile conservatives). It seems to me that both of them are something between those two, and the different reactions to them on the national stage are instructive in how arbitrary the line between principled “centrist” and unprincipled “moderate” is.

It is important to remember that “centrist” is a designation that refers to someone’s position within a party, which in effect means that on most things the “centrist” in one party is likely to have more in common with “centrists” in the other, at least on certain issues, and it is not very long before you are back in the world of “hacks and deal-makers,” because the “centrists” are in the best position to make the deals with relatively like-minded colleagues on the other side of the aisle. What kind of “centrist” do we imagine we will have in the future that will not fall into similar patterns? Indeed, isn’t the pattern of deal-making and bipartisan cooperation supposed to be one of the things that makes “centrists” desirable in a political coalition?

It seems to me that there is a very thin line between the “hacks and deal-makers” who are supposed to be despised and the serious “centrists” who would never permanently cross party lines for their own political ambition. However, as we know, out of little more than personal pique two of the most famous “centrists”–Joe Lieberman and John McCain–either broke with their party when denied re-nomination or seriously contemplated switching sides after being denied presidential nomination. In the end, long-term ambition prompted reconciliation with their respective parties, whereas in Specter’s case ambition dictated that he jump ship. Beyond that, the differences are minimal, which raises the question: is there such a thing as a principled “centrist” and what would such a creature look like?