Four decades and counting — the GOP’s shift to the right is bigger than the Democrats’ shift left

By Jason Dick
Posted December 16, 2020 at 6:00am

OPINION — It was late June 1980 when I arrived in Washington after teaching political science for three years at Bucknell University. My job was to write for The Political Report, a little-circulated weekly newsletter that reported on House and Senate races.

The nation’s politics were in the process of changing more than I realized.

In November, Ronald Reagan would be elected president, Republicans would make significant gains in the House and win control of the Senate for the first time since 1954, and a new crop of conservative candidates were showing their political muscle — sometimes by challenging relatively moderate GOP incumbents — in both the House and Senate.

In Alabama, liberal Republican Rep. John Buchanan Jr. lost his bid for renomination to ultra-conservative Albert Lee Smith Jr. Even more noteworthy for me, growing up in New York, Al D’Amato scored an 11-point victory over veteran liberal Sen. Jacob Javits in the state’s GOP Senate primary.

Also in the Senate, conservative Republican Steve Symms ousted Idaho Democratic incumbent Frank Church; conservative Republican Bob Kasten upset Wisconsin Democratic incumbent Gaylord Nelson; conservative Republican John East ousted North Carolina Democratic incumbent Robert Morgan; and Iowa Rep. Charles E. Grassley beat Democratic Sen. John Culver (after first beating moderate Tom Stoner in the GOP primary).

But while both the country and the GOP were moving right, the Republican Party still had room for a substantial contingent of moderates.

In the Senate, liberal Republican Charles “Mac” Mathias was reelected easily in Maryland, Arlen Specter retained an open seat in Pennsylvania, and moderate Warren Rudman knocked off a Democratic incumbent in New Hampshire.

In addition, the GOP Senate majority included moderates such as Illinois’ Chuck Percy, Kansas’ Nancy Kassebaum, Maine’s William Cohen, Oregon’s Mark Hatfield, Pennsylvania’s John Heinz, Rhode Island’s John Chafee and Virginia’s John Warner.

The House had its share of moderate and liberal Republicans, including Jim Leach of Iowa, Stewart McKinney of Connecticut, Lynn Martin and Tom Railsback of Illinois, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Silvio Conte and Margaret Heckler of Massachusetts, William Frenzel of Minnesota, Bill Green and Ben Gilman of New York, Claudine Schneider of Rhode Island, and Jim Jeffords of Vermont.

Since 1980, Democrats made a corresponding move to the left, but much of that was fueled by the exit of conservative Southerners, like Sens. Howell Heflin of Alabama, John Stennis of Mississippi and Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, as well as moderate Democrats in increasingly conservative states, including Louisiana, Georgia, Texas and Arkansas.

Today, conservatives and Republicans like to point to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and the “squad” in the House to argue that Democrats have moved so far to the left that their party can’t compete for voters in the political center.

There is, of course, some truth to that, but those same Republicans always seem to forget that their party includes Reps. Mo Brooks of Alabama, Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar of Arizona, Jim Jordan of Ohio, Jody Hice of Georgia, Mike Johnson of Louisiana, and Louie Gohmert of Texas — all of whom are political extremists who have shown little regard for compromise or the democratic process.

A veteran former lobbyist mentioned to me recently that while both parties have changed rules from time to time — such as when former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and current Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell weakened the filibuster by lowering the threshold to cut off debate for virtually everything but legislation — only Republicans have rejected a whole set of norms that have protected the democratic process by refusing to accept the election results and, instead, kowtowing to President Donald Trump’s demands.

In the past, the losing presidential nominee was always free to demand recounts, complain about irregularities and even turn to the courts for relief. But aside from 2000, they haven’t done that. Even Richard Nixon did not drag out a challenge in Illinois in 1960.

But this year, hundreds of GOP members of Congress, state legislators and statewide officials sought to overturn election results, relying on little more than kooky stories and anecdotes that, taken together, never demonstrated anything close to massive voter fraud.

Other Republicans who knew better — senators like Roy Blunt, John Cornyn and John Thune, to say nothing of McConnell — kept silent when Trump proclaimed election fraud or defended the president’s lawsuits to overturn the election. Finally, after the Electoral College ratified Joe Biden’s victory on Monday, those senators started recognizing the former vice president as the winner. But for six weeks, the extreme voices of their party dominated the narrative.

What we have seen over the past few months is that Republican officeholders have refused to embrace norms that have protected the democratic process. If that doesn’t constitute “extremism” and lunacy, I don’t know what does.

Unfortunately, there is no reason to expect conservative troublemakers like Jordan and talking heads like Sean Hannity to give Biden a chance to unite this country, reestablish vital norms and address the nation’s ills. Whatever the dangers of the progressive left (and there are some), the lunatic right has shown it is a far greater threat to democracy, national security and national cohesion.

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