01/26/2006 07:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Myth of the Moderate Republican

"When you talk about [confirming] judges who would change the right of a woman to choose, overturn Roe vs. Wade, I think that is unlikely... I would expect the president to be mindful of the considerations which I am mentioning." - Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa)

"It is my opinion that John Bolton is the poster child of what someone in the diplomatic corps should not be... The United States can do better than John Bolton." - Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH)

"We commit to oppose the rules changes... which we understand to be any amendment to or interpretation of the Rules of the Senate that would force a vote on a judicial nomination." - The "Gang of 14" (including seven Republican senators)

What do unicorns, J.T. LeRoy, and moderate Republicans have in common?

They don't exist.

The similarity with unicorns more or less stops there - can you imagine pre-pubescent girls decorating walls and notebooks with drawings of Arlen Specter? - but the LeRoy analogy is more useful: Both LeRoy and moderate Republicans engage in a kind of exhibitionist transgression, a gender- or genre-bending meant to titillate and occasionally shock and, most importantly, to fleece the gullible in service of a larger agenda, be it book sales or political fraud. LeRoy has recently been unmasked, despite a fair amount of stealth and evasion; when will the moderate Republicans, whose ongoing sham is about as convincing as Duke Cunningham's tears, be similarly exposed?

In spring of 2004, just before the Republican primary in Pennsylvania, I wrote a letter to Steve Elliott suggesting that Democrats throw their support behind Patrick Toomey, who was challenging Specter for the GOP nomination. Toomey, a Club for Growth poster child who makes Bill Frist look like a Mensa candidate, was giving Specter such a run for his money that in the end President Bush had to come to Specter's aid. Steve's hysterical reply, and I paraphrase, went something like: "But Arlen Specter's a moderate! He's such a good guy! He's pro-choice! He once gave me a dollar when I was on the streets! He's like my best friend! I love Arlen Specter! I want to have his grumpy little babies! Why would we want him to lose to a right-wing religious nut like Pat Toomey?"

The answer should become clear next week. Arlen Specter, who has built a career and bipartisan respect on his claim to be a moderate in general, and a pro-choice Republican specifically, is no friend to true moderates or to women. His post-November grandstanding, in which he got all Dirty Harry and warned the White House not to nominate far-right judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade, sparked an outcry from the right wing and almost lost him the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee he'd waited twenty-four years for. After sniveling and polishing James Dobson's shoes with his tongue, they finally gave ol' Arlen the gavel - in return, he has given them Samuel Alito.

There is no question that, given the opportunity, Alito will vote to further restrict, and possibly overturn, a woman's right to determine the course of her own pregnancy. Specter, who has staked much integrity on his position in the matter, is going to be 80 years old when his fifth term ends in 2010. He has survived brain cancer, Hodgkin's disease, and bypass surgery. It's hard to believe this isn't his last term, a perfect time to stand on principle rather than party allegiance, to cement his legacy as a defender of women's rights rather than as a Republican lackey. To put it more simply, now is the time for "pro-choice" to be more than a slogan.

We all know the results. Though Specter's one vote could have deadlocked the Judiciary Committee and defeated the nomination, in the end there is no indication he even hesitated to vote Alito out of committee.

Score one for the moderates - uh, I mean the religious right.

It's reminiscent of the nomination of John Bolton for Ambassador to the U.N., a nomination provocative and puzzling considering that Bolton was quoted as saying "there's no such thing as the United Nations" and making terrorist threats against its offices. Ohio's heroic moderate Republican, George Voinovich, "strongly opposed" Bolton in the Foreign Relations Committee, but when push came to shove he abstained from the vote, rather than disobey orders and defeat the nomination. Democrats had to filibuster in the full Senate; when the President installed Bolton with a recess appointment, I don't recall Voinovich making much of a kerfuffle.

Score another for the moderates.

Time after time, we see the same thing. John McCain strives mightily against the administration to get a ban on torture signed into law, only in the end to agree to a compromise in which the President issues a "signing letter" that basically says, "Just kidding!" Where is McCain now, having reaped all the positive PR for his 2008 Presidential campaign? If he truly believed his own rhetoric, we might expect him to loudly protest the President's duplicity.

Seven Republican senators make a deal with seven Democrats to end filibusters of judges Priscilla Owen, William Pryor, and Janice Rogers Brown, promising in return to block the so-called nuclear option in the case of future filibusters. The agreement explicitly says each senator is free to decide what constitutes the "extraordinary circumstances" that justify a future filibuster. Sounds like a pretty good deal, right? But that, apparently, was only a press release - five of the seven have threatened to renege on the deal and vote for the nuclear option if Democrats try to filibuster Alito, because in their view the circumstances don't qualify as extraordinary.

In other words, there was no deal. As usual, there was only rhetoric.

There are no moderate Republicans. There are only administration patsies, sent out to reassure the public that not all Republicans are knuckle-draggers, warmongers, and plutocrats, to drape the shiny veneer of "compassion" over conservatism, to sniffle and wring their hands for the viewing audience and give cover while their own party tramples the constitution and sells the country to Abramoff and Halliburton.

Where were the moderates when the war in Iraq was being marketed and sold? Where were they when generals were being fired for telling Congress the truth, when Medicare officials were being threatened for even thinking about telling Congress the truth, when Rove and Libby were outing Plame? Did any of them object to Rod Paige calling public school teachers "terrorists"? How loud were their voices when the tax code was being restructured to benefit the rich and plunge the country five trillion dollars further into debt? Where were they when Colin Powell was being humiliated, John Kerry slandered, Jack Murtha smeared?

Ask Harriet Miers how moderate Republicans came to her defense.

Now we have moderate Republicans putting up resistance to an extension of the Patriot Act, in a dog-and-pony show meant to prove that right-wingers care about civil rights. I'll bet anyone $5 that, in the end, Larry Craig and John Sununu vote with the administration.

We have Specter announcing hearings on NSA domestic surveillance, in which, presumably, someone (Sam Brownback, maybe?) might decide to do something about the President's flagrant lawbreaking and abuse of power. Pacified by Specter's promises, Democrats are largely keeping their mouths shut, not wanting to seem shrill or unpatriotic or, god forbid, partisan.

If you believe there will be any significant consequences from the Judiciary hearings, I've got stock to sell you in this great energy-trading company based in Houston.

It's called Bait and Switch. Time after time, the Republicans march out Specter, or Lindsay Graham, or Susan Collins, or Lincoln Chafee, to present a modicum of thoughtfulness and ideological diversity. And the Democrats give them the benefit of the doubt, hoping against hope that someone on the right wing actually cares about average Americans, about truth, about community and morality and real values. But, like Charlie Brown trying over and over again to kick Lucy's football, the Democrats will always end up on their asses, because the GOP is a party without integrity, without true philosophy other than the consolidation of power, without compassion, and without scruples or hesitation when it comes to getting what they want.

Democrats had better start seeing through this ruse. And they'd better start losing some of their own hesitation and self-doubt if they expect to bring the country back anywhere near something that could be called the center. There has never been a more vulnerable ruling party, thanks to the parade of gaffes and revelations since September, from Katrina to Libby to DeLay to NSA. But it's testament to the Democratic party's terminal timidity that no one has even asked the President to stop his illegal activity, let alone prosecuted him for it. All in the name of winning back Congress, say the Bob Schrums and Donna Braziles, the brilliant architects of 2000 and 2004. We wouldn't want to alienate moderate voters by being too strongly against the President. Let's work with moderate Republicans to handle these issues in a dignified manner. We cannot accomplish anything while we are still in the minority...

Guess what? We will always be in the minority as long we are afraid to alienate voters. Because what truly alienates voters is a politician who won't stand up for what s/he believes in. Give 'Em Heck Harry Reid's recent speeches are a good start. Hilary seems to be coming back from Rambo-land and ratcheting up her opposition. But when the most passionate Democratic voice belongs to Al Gore, you know there's a real problem.

What good is a moderate Republican who won't stand up for moderation?

What good is a Democrat who won't fight for democracy?

About as good as unicorns and J.T. LeRoy: intriguing, entertaining, cute perhaps - but ultimately irrelevant.