Where Are All the Moderates? Conservative Republicans and Moving Goalposts

In recent months, a certain narrative has taken hold in the media about Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan, it seems, was poised to counter Trump. The rumblings began near the Republican National Convention, with some Republicans hoping for a coup that would replace presumptive nominee Trump with the “moderate” Ryan. Once Trump won the election, the strength of this narrative grew. As Speaker, he was held up to be a balance, a centrist opponent who could challenge or even curb Trump’s more right-wing ideas. Paul Ryan was the moderate savior of the Republican Party: the last hope of principled conservativism under the Trump administration. He was just short of being their knight in shining armor.

This is not the Paul Ryan that I know. Paul Ryan burst onto the scene nearly six years ago as Mitt Romney’s Vice Presidential nominee. At that time, he was viewed as a concession to the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party. Indeed, Tea Party chairwoman Amy Kremer expressed stronger support for Ryan than for Romney during the election. He championed a bare-bones tax plan that would have cut entitlements and gutted federal spending. A few years after his failed Vice Presidential bid, Ryan once again garnered national attention when he won the internal election to replace former House Speaker John Boehner.

Again, Ryan’s victory was in large part due to the Tea Party faction within the Republican Party. He was seen as a counter to the more moderate Boehner, who was demonized for working with the Obama administration and not opposing Obama’s legislative measures vehemently enough. In neither case was Paul Ryan chosen for his status as a moderate. In fact, the exact opposite is true. So why, all of a sudden, is Paul Ryan being heralded as a centrist?

The short answer is, as you all can guess, because of Donald Trump. But in a much larger sense, we are dealing with continually moving goalposts. Paul Ryan didn’t get more moderate. The rest of the Republican Party just became less moderate.

Donald Trump is, by all measures, an unconventional president. His views on immigration are certainly more extreme than those of most of his colleagues in Congress; furthermore, his cabinet nominees faced high levels of skepticism throughout his first one hundred days. Yet a FiveThirtyEight analysis of Senate votes since his presidency began shows an unprecedented level of conformity. Senators are lining up behind Trump, and there are fewer voices of dissent than ever before. So again I ask, where are the moderates?

The problem is pervasive. Consider, further, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. Gorsuch is seen as a “true conservative”, and has been similarly held up as an antidote to Trump. The language was present from the very beginning: Neil Gorsuch was, in a word, safe. A well-liked judge, Gorsuch was chosen in part because it was believed that it would be difficult for Democrats to oppose him. Trump obliquely referenced this in his speech when he formally nominated Gorsuch, calling his record “beyond dispute”. Indeed, much of his confirmation hearings involved criticism over the delay of Merrick Garland, but Democrats were less able to attack Gorsuch’s own record. Yet scholars and analysts evaluate Gorsuch’s jurisprudence as being as conservative as his mentor Antonin Scalia. Scalia was by no means a moderate—he was one of the staunchest conservatives on the Court. If Gorsuch’s voting record proves to match that of Scalia, he will be no moderate. But then why is he held as so?

The answer is once again Trump. Gorsuch does indeed have a more moderate record on immigration. In his confirmation hearings, he professed a willingness to challenge a sitting President. Both of these qualities make him seem more level-headed than President Trump himself. On that count, I am forced to agree. But is that really enough? Analysts at FiveThirtyEight have noted that, on issues like religious freedom, Gorsuch is by no means a moderate. He is, as previously mentioned, just as far to the right as Antonin Scalia was. With that in mind, how much does it really matter that Gorsuch is less extreme than Trump on immigration?

This is not a problem that exists solely because of Trump. Polarization has been steadily growing over the past few years. In fact, a Pew Research Center study discovered a growth in actual animosity between the two parties; polarization may have caused the Trump presidency, and not the other way around—consider how many voters selected Trump over Hillary because of wedge issues like abortion, or simply because they always vote Republican. However, because of Trump, conservative Republicans are able to sit comfortably right of center.

At the same time, while more “moderate” Republicans can safely occupy the right, other Republicans push it even further. Some are, in fact, even further right than Trump. The “Freedom Caucus” is growing in power as a conservative stronghold in the House. Composed of 33 members of the House Republican Party, the Freedom Caucus holds hardline right stances. Most recently, the Freedom Caucus opposed the American Health Care Act (AHCA), earning them the ire of the President. This organization of ultraconservatives both speaks to and contributes to the polarization of the parties. These Congressional members can make or break bills for Republicans, as we saw with the AHCA. In a very real sense, even moderate conservatives need the support of the Freedom Caucus to pass legislation. If there are any Republican moderates in the House, they’re being forced to compromise with the most conservative members of their party. Now there is a case of moving goalposts.

The media, too, plays a role in this recasting of conservatives. The Paul Ryan-as-a-moderate narrative took hold especially in news outlets. With so much coverage focused on Trump, it’s difficult to have a conversation about what the Republican Party itself wants or is doing. Sensationalized coverage of Trump simultaneously props up supposedly more level-headed actors like Paul Ryan, while failing to acknowledge how fully these actors have abandoned the center.

Take, for instance, headlines from the New York Times, Slate, and Reuters, which presented the failure of the AHCA as Trump’s failure and not Ryan’s. Then hours later, the media pivoted to Trump blaming Democrats for the failure. The discourse focused overwhelmingly on Trump and not Ryan, and in their coverage, essentially absolved Ryan of his role in the process.

Despite current trends, there is such a thing as a political center in politics—though you’d be hard pressed to find evidence of it. With increasing polarization, it’s easy to lose sight of where that center is. But the narrative being put forth by the media, and by Republicans themselves, is that conservatives like Paul Ryan and Neil Gorsuch are the moderates. The fact is, that simply isn’t true. No matter how far right the executive is, the center is not dragged in the same direction. The lesson here is to not be fooled by moving goalposts. If we acquiesce to calling conservatives centrists, then we accept that polarization is the new absolute law. Instead, we need to pressure lawmakers to once again target the center, and not simply hide under the cover of a more extreme executive.