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The Myth of the Republican Moderate

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Can we please stop talking as if the phrase "Republican moderate" has any basis in political reality?

This week, North Carolina's Republican governor Pat McCrory signed into law a voter suppression bill that the election law expert Rick Hasen says has no parallel in the United States, dating to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. This brings to a close an extraordinary and well-chronicled legislative session in Raleigh. A state long known as a bastion of relative moderation, particularly relative to the South (I did say "relative"), is now in the thrall of extremists. They've attacked abortion access, thrown an all-purpose roadblock in the path of voting for groups they don't like, shifted dramatically the tax burden in the state to the favored few at the expense of the many, substantially cut education spending when it's already very low by national standards, rejected Medicaid expansion, thus denying perhaps half a million North Carolinians health coverage and much more. And Pat McCrory, who has likened himself to an "Eisenhower Republican," has been a cheerleader for the right wing onslaught every step of the way.

Nationally, of course, the GOP has become a party of radicals, proudly wearing on its sleeve its contempt for the less well off and its ignorance of basic scientific and mathematical reality. Its primary approach to "governing" at this point is to try to keep government from functioning at all, except when it comes to protecting the interests of the wealthy. It can't pass its own budgets, because they make no sense whatsoever. It's seemingly a badge of honor within the party to utter idiotic statements about women's reproductive systems in defense of retrograde attitudes toward women's health. Its most passionate cause now is to try to undermine passage of a bill that would extend health insurance coverage to millions of Americans. This week, the far left wing socialist Newt Gingrich said about today's GOP:

"We are caught up right now in a culture, and you see it every single day, where as long as we are negative and as long as we are vicious and as long as we can tear down our opponent, we don't have to learn anything."

In this context, no one should ever have taken seriously the notion that McCrory would govern as a "moderate," whatever his record as mayor of Charlotte 15 years ago might have suggested. To a substantial degree, the idea gained traction because political media in general still cling to the preposterous belief that the parties are equidistant from some notional "center" in American political life. But that premise -- symmetrical polarization -- is simply and flatly wrong.

McCrory is illustrative in this regard. When he ran for office last year, he promised to end the estate tax and cut corporate taxes, two ideas for which there is no evidence of a larger economic benefit, but which certainly make rich people richer. He more or less promised to slash unemployment benefits, even if that meant losing significant federal dollars in the process, and despite chronically very high unemployment in the state. He took the ridiculous but now obligatory-for-Republicans pledge not to accept any tax increases in any circumstances whatsoever. He has been an unabashed opponent of public sector unions and expressed all of the requisite hostility to organized labor that is now a given in the GOP. He promised to support voter ID, despite there being no credible evidence at all that North Carolina elections suffer from voter fraud. And so on. McCrory -- a man of seemingly no principle -- was already positioning himself as a tea party sympathizer during the campaign, even if he avoided the rabble-rousing demeanor often associated with the tea party.

There is really only one significant issue about which McCrory tried to pretend he was something other than a right-wing conservative: abortion. At a televised debate during last fall's campaign, when McCrory was asked what further restrictions on abortion he would support, he answered flatly "none." That admission provided all the opening many folks still need to tell themselves that one party in American political life hasn't simply driven off a cliff. Last month, in a move that should have surprised no one, McCrory signed the notorious bill that affixed significant restrictions on abortion access to a motorcycle safety bill, blatantly breaking his abortion promise while denying, naturally, that he had done so.

The dynamics of GOP politics are clear -- the biggest threat to state legislators, generally drawn as they are into solidly red districts, is from yet more right-wing politicians. There is almost no incentive to run toward the center and every reason to push farther to the right. That dynamic helps to explain the ever-intensifying feeding frenzy during the now-concluded legislative session in Raleigh. The just-signed voter suppression bill is a good example. While voter ID laws have become de rigueur among Republicans nationally, North Carolina Republicans threw the kitchen sink into their voting bill. Elimination of paid voter registration drives -- check. Elimination of pre-registration of 16 and 17 year olds -- check. Elimination of public financing of judicial elections -- check. Weakening of campaign finance disclosure laws - check. Elimination of same day registration -- check. Reduction of early voting -- check. As Scott Lemieux points out, that last provision is the ultimate tell:

Ending early voting, in particular, gives away the show. There can't even be a pretense that there's a greater likelihood of fraud when you vote on Sunday rather than Tuesday. But there's certainly good reason to end early voting if you'd prefer that fewer African-Americans cast votes.

McCrory's political incentives are, in important respects, different from those of North Carolina legislators. He faces a statewide electorate that is pretty evenly divided -- Obama won very narrowly in 2008 and lost a close vote in 2012 -- and his approval ratings have plunged in the past three months, now dipping below 40 percent. But he is also a weak-kneed politician and it would have taken far more character and integrity than McCrory possesses to resist the tide of extremism that is the contemporary Republican Party, both in North Carolina and nationally. Too many political pundits continue to tell themselves comforting tales about a now-mythical creature -- the Republican moderate. And even if, in his "heart," McCrory has misgivings about the awful laws he's signing, that has no relevance whatsoever for contemporary politics. The GOP is committed to an agenda of stoking cultural resentment, while doing all it can to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. That McCrory managed to utter something about protecting abortion rights during a debate should have been irrelevant in the face of these inescapable realities. It's long past time to stop pretending as if the year is 1973 and not 2013 when it comes to evaluating the likely behavior of Republican officeholders.