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The Last Rockefeller

Conservatives wanted to take the Republican Party from moderates. Now moderates are giving the majority to Democrats.

Chris Shays is the last Republican member of the House from New England. He is also a nice guy. “My opponents will say, ‘He’s a nice guy and he’s good on the environment, but I’ll be better,’” Shays suggests. That’s exactly what they say. George Jepson, the former chairman of Ned Lamont’s antiwar primary campaign against Joe Lieberman and a longtime Shays foe, concedes, “He’s built up a lot of goodwill in the community. He shows up for everything.” One top aide of Shays’s current electoral opponent admits, “I really like Chris Shays” and repeats, “he’s just a really nice guy.” These are the men who want to put him out of a job.

Shays is a moderate Republican—something he advertises at every opportunity. Constituents who visit his Congressional office receive packets graphing his presidential support: Shays only voted with the president 33 percent of the time over the last year and 50 percent the year before that. Conservatives have branded him a RINO—a Republican in Name Only. But given the reputation of conservatism in the Northeast after two terms of Bush, “moderate” functions as a synonym for “sane.”

Shays has to be a sane Republican: the Connecticut district he has represented since 1987 is as moderate and nice as he is. It includes famously wealthy New York City suburbs like Greenwich—known as “Wall Street by the Sea”—the tony cul-de-sacs of Ridgefield and Darien, and the hip arts and crafts enclaves in Westport. The Almanac of American Politics names it “the richest district in the richest state in the country.” When Bush and the Iraq War became unpopular, this GOP safe seat was nearly taken by Democrat Diane Farrell in two extremely tight contests. Shays won by just 3 points in 2006.

The district and the state continue to swing to the Democrats, and now they have recruited business executive Jim Himes to finish what Farrell started. He has already raised more money than any previous Shays opponent—over $1 million before the state convention. Jepsen met him during the 2004 election cycle and saw in him a near-perfect candidate for the fourth district: “He’s quite modest, self-effacing, very accomplished, an impressive guy.” At 41, Himes is like a young Chris Shays: bright, practical, wonkish, moderate, and nice. CQ Politics has changed the race from “lean Republican” to “toss up.”

Few conservatives would shed a tear if a squish like Shays lost his seat. After all, driving Rockefeller Republicans like him out of power then out of the party has been a goal of the conservative movement for over 40 years. These yes-men to the liberal establishment were budget busters prone to proposing ad-hoc solutions divorced from principles. They wanted to make government programs run more efficiently, but not necessarily cut them. They were socially liberal. And as liberal internationalists, they tended to be the most hawkish members of their party, supporting the disastrous wars that Democrats started.

But conservatives are not replacing the Shayses of the world with their own upstarts. Instead, they are driving moderate candidates and constituents—the capstone of a long-term majority—to the Democrats.

When the Gingrich majority stormed the Capitol in 1994 with the “Contract With America” raised aloft, the final exorcism of Rockefeller’s ghost seemed possible. The South had finally realigned behind the GOP, trading in conservative Democrats for conservative Republicans. The new majority retained laissez-faire rhetoric, showed flashes of non-interventionism when they opposed Clinton’s actions overseas, and championed a combative, polarizing style of politics. They forced a Democratic president to sign welfare reform. This ideological shift to the Right and stylistic shift toward activism and conflict would inevitably put pressure on GOP moderates—especially in the Northeast.

New York’s Congressional delegation had 14 Republicans in 1994, but only six in the last session of Congress. Republicans lost moderate David Levy, first to conservative Daniel Frisa, but ultimately to Democrat Carolyn McCarthy in 1998. Sue Kelly was replaced by antiwar folk-singer John Hall in 2006. Republicans held both of New Hampshire’s House seats in 1995; now they belong to Democrats. In 2001, Vermont’s Jim Jeffords, long out of step with the conservative direction of his party, renounced his GOP membership to caucus with the Democrats.

Shays also feels the weight of his party affiliation. When he was engaged in a tough re-election campaign in which the Iraq War was the top issue, his Republican colleagues unveiled “The America Values Agenda,” a battery of items that included removing the federal courts’ jurisdiction to hear cases on the Pledge of Allegiance and promoting a Constitutional amendment to prohibit flag burning. Shays told the New York Times, “It was stupid and gross. … They have this obsession to satisfy conservative Republicans who will probably be re-elected no matter what happens. They get job satisfaction, but they are making it more difficult for me to win my race.” He says that his constituents would “approach me and ask, ‘While Rome is burning, your party wants to push a constitutional amendment? Why should we re-elect Republicans?’ I didn’t have an answer.”

Shays has long positioned himself as a skeptic of the conservative movement—cordial but gently critical. He speaks warmly of his relationship with one of his constituents, the founder of the modern conservative movement, the late William F. Buckley. Shays was an occasional dinner guest at Buckley’s Stamford home, dining with the Kissingers or senior editors of National Review. “It was great fun, but I wasn’t the intellectual,” he recalls. “I couldn’t make reference to what [Edmund] Burke said, but I could tell what I saw in my daily life.” In these dinner debates, Shays tried to address Buckley in a “practical and nonideological way. And once in a while I felt I stumped him.”

Shays takes similar satisfaction in occasionally quieting his conservative colleagues on the Hill. When Republicans get excited about cutting government intervention into the economy and Shays deviates from his party’s line, he says, “My more conservative colleagues come to me and lecture me. I ask, ‘Did you vote for the Farm Bill?’ and they know exactly what I’m talking about.” The Farm Bill, Shays says is “the biggest market-intervention Congress does. We pay people not to farm. We pay others to farm too much.” He prefers market solutions, but doesn’t make a fetish of the free market. “I have a constitutional obligation to represent my district, not just people who voted for me, but everyone,” and “speaking for New Englanders, we want honest talk and aren’t into ideology.”

But ideology is a slippery thing. The English philosopher Michael Oakeshott defined conservatism as being anti-ideological, describing it instead as a temperament:

What others plausibly identify as timidity, [the conservative] recognizes in himself as rational prudence. … He is cautious, and he is disposed to indicate his assent or dissent, not in absolute, but in graduated terms. He eyes the situation in terms of its propensity to disrupt the familiarity of the features of his world.

Shays’s preference for “practical and non-ideological” solutions, his determination to represent the opinions of his district, and his preference for consensus over conflict may alienate him from the conservative movement, but it reveals something of Oakeshott’s conservative temperament. And in New England, Shays benefits from this approach to politics.

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. Michael Sacshe, Himes’s communications director, says “Shays keeps going to Iraq trying to figure out what he did with his vote in 2003. We are focusing on the issues Connecticut cares about.” The young Democrat wants to leave the crusades to Republicans. He promises instead to seek a seat on the Transportation Committee, hoping to update the New Haven line’s rail stock. He also wants to focus on creating more affordable housing throughout the district so that people no longer have to commute from Stratford to Greenwich, causing even more congestion on I-95.

Because of the misgovernance of the conservative majority, Republicans have lost their traditional advantages on fiscal constraint and reliable defense. Shays’s own party, and the movement that animates it today, are weighing on him like a millstone. Unable to punish red-state congressmen, Shays’s “nonideological” New Englanders have been exacting their revenge on conservatives by taking out their moderate party allies.

Lincoln Chaffee, the Rhode Island liberal Republican who lost his Senate seat, complained that people voted against him just to end the Republican majority. Nancy Johnson, a moderate Republican representative from a district neighboring Shays’s, remained popular for two decades until voters suddenly dropped her in 2006.

In May, retiring moderate Tom Davis warned, if the Republican Party “were a dog food they would have to take us off the shelves.” Davis wrote that the best thing the party could do was let independents like Chris Shays “define their own brand” in 2008. John McKinney, Connecticut Senate minority leader and a friend of Shays, confirms the danger for the GOP in New England. He says, “When I talk to almost anyone under 35, they can’t even conceive of being a Republican.” Worse, McKinney continues, “when I tell them what I believe—fiscal discipline and limited government—they ask me, ‘Then why are you a Republican?’”

Himes even threatens to capitalize on conservative dissatisfaction with Republicans. The former Goldman Sachs executive promises to clean up Washington’s profligate ways. Campaigning on economic issues may seem an odd choice for a district where the median income is over $66,500. But in an era when a Republican president proposed the largest federal budget ever, then doubled it, words like “fiscal responsibility” come easily to young Democrats. Jepsen smiles and says, “It’s good for job-making and good for the Democratic Party that we have candidates who are comfortable with the business community.”

Himes can also frame his position on the war as sensible and moderate. In 2006, Shays became the first Republican to propose a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. He was pilloried by conservatives and hailed by moderates. But he never voted for the timetables that were proposed and came to support the surge. Shays now links his position to John McCain, saying that he criticized the president when the strategy was failing but is able to recognize progress on the ground. This allows Himes to parody Shays’s position as “for a timetable, something like John McCain’s 100 years.”

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. In 2004, Howard Dean told Democrats that they would have to compete in every state to build a new majority. With the help of Rahm Emmanuel, the party began recruiting its own moderates. In the South, Heath Schuler appealed to border restrictionists; in heavily Catholic Pennsylvania, Bob Casey Jr. won his Senate seat running as a nominally pro-life Democrat. In Himes, the Connecticut party has found a fiscally conservative Democrat who is as comfortable speaking to the resident CEO’s as he is to recent immigrants.

Conservative Republicans shouldn’t console themselves that a moderate Democrat is just as useful (or useless) as a moderate Republican. A Chris Shays may occasionally infuriate conservatives, but he still votes with Republicans about two-thirds of the time. The same will not be true of Jim Himes.

Republicans, now relegated to minority status in the House, are in no position to throw their moderate colleagues out. 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.”

Voters in Connecticut still like Chris Shays, but sometimes nice guys lose. Under Bush, movement conservatives adopted the worst traits of Rockefeller Republicans, then magnified them with their pugnacious style. By doing so, they have nearly succeeded in ridding their party of the likes of Shays. But instead of pulling the party to the right while maintaining a majority, they are pushing moderate constituents—and the majority they can grant—to the Democrats.