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Why ‘moderate’ is the wrong word to describe House Republicans

As House Republicans descend into chaos, the traditional ideological labels of “moderates” and “conservatives” don't seem to apply well anymore.


On Tuesday morning, as the U.S. House prepared to convene for its first round of voting on its next speaker, a Washington Post report described some of the various Republican factions. The far-right members hoping to derail GOP leader Kevin McCarthy’s bid, for example, were labeled “the holdouts.”

The same article added, however, that McCarthy continued to enjoy the support of “the moderates” in his conference.

The label has become quite common of late. The more McCarthy has faced resistance from some of his most radical members, the more many major news organizations have referenced GOP “moderates” who remain in the Californian’s corner.

There is, however, reason to question the label. The New York Times published a compelling analysis today, summarizing the challenge of using traditional ideological labels.

“Nobody is in charge,” John Fredericks, a syndicated right-wing radio host and former chairman of Mr. Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns in Virginia, said in an interview. “Embrace the chaos. Our movement is embracing the chaos.” That ideology of destruction defies characterization by traditional political labels like moderate or conservative. Instead, the party has created its own complicated taxonomy of America First, MAGA and anti-Trump — descriptions that are more about political style and personal vendettas than policy disagreements.

By any fair measure, if the current dispute among House Republicans were simply a matter of moderates fighting conservatives, the fight would be far more coherent. But that’s not the case at all: Many of the competing GOP members agree with one another on practically every issue, but differ over tone, tactics, tantrums and Trumpism.

To see these divisions along clean ideological lines is to misread the partisan landscape, and to see members who aren't as radical as Rep. Jim Jordan as some kind of “centrists” is to strip the labels of any credible meaning.

I’m sympathetic to the idea that arguments over semantics can quickly get tiresome. It’s also unrealistic to think political writers are going to report to the public about “far-right Republicans” and “not-quite-as-far-to-the-right Republicans.”

But there simply aren’t a meaningful number of GOP “moderates” on Capitol Hill in 2023: The conference is filled with conservatives to one degree or another. Indeed, as NPR’s Steve Inskeep noted yesterday, even some of the more pragmatic House Republicans avoid using the “moderate” label to describe themselves.

And if they’re not embracing the label, there’s certainly no reason to do them the favor of using it anyway.

Consider some roll calls from the recently concluded Congress. How many GOP members voted to certify the 2020 election results, impeach Donald Trump over Jan. 6, and create a Jan. 6 commission? Only nine — and only two of the nine were re-elected in the 2022 midterms. The rest either retired or lost in Republican primaries.

Yes, there are GOP factions that are ostensibly designed to represent Republicans aligned with an undefined “center.” But as regular readers know, several members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, for example, were among those voting to overturn the 2020 presidential election. The same is true about members of the Republican Main Street Partnership.

Ideally, there’d be a lot true “moderates” in the House GOP conference, exerting influence. Alas, they’re exceedingly hard to find.