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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington February 2, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: SOCIETY POLITICS ENVIRONMENT) - RTR2X7LP(C) Kevin Lamarque / Reuters / REUTERS

The problem with 'centrists' fighting for the soul of the GOP

There's nothing wrong with the idea of GOP voices making a good-faith effort to reform their radicalized party, but in practice, I won't get my hopes up.


Late last week, TPM reported that the Republican Party's "mainstream" wing, to the extent that it still exists, is taking stock of the state of the GOP and "getting nervous." The Hill had a related item:

The Republican Party is riven by internal tensions, and moderate voices fear it is headed for disaster at the hands of the far right. The centrists' worry is that the party is branding itself as the party of insurrectionists and conspiracy theorists. This spells catastrophe for the GOP's ability to appeal beyond a hardcore base, they say.

To their credit, these center-right voices within the party aren't simply wringing their hands about Republicans' ongoing shift to the far-right. The anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project, for example, unveiled this ad last week, as part of what it described as a "fight for the soul of the Republican Party."

The same group recently kicked off a $1 million billboard campaign targeting 12 Republican officials, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).

NBC News also reported last week, "The Republican Main Street Partnership, a moderate GOP group that has supported efforts to repudiate the party's fringe before, is making its pitch in the fight for the future of the party with new plans to spend $25 million on congressional races this cycle."

There's even the U.S. House's Problem Solvers Caucus, which includes Republican lawmakers who are ostensibly committed to finding bipartisan solutions to major issues. Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), one of the group's co-chairs, recently talked to NPR about how eager his caucus is to explore possible areas of common ground with President Joe Biden.

At face value, efforts to drag the GOP back from the right-wing cliff certainly seem worthwhile. Increasing radicalism in Republican politics has dire consequences, so the more there's an organized effort within the party to reform, moderate, and focus anew on governance, the better.

But it's hard to feel any confidence or sense of optimism about these "centrists" and their initiative.

For one thing, they appear to be heavily outnumbered. Most House Republicans, for example, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to help invalidate election results they didn't like. Most House Republicans voted also last month to reject Biden's election victory. More than 90% of GOP lawmakers opposed holding Donald Trump accountable for inciting a deadly insurrectionist riot, and a similar number voted last week to shield Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) from consequences for having expressed support for violence and murder targeting U.S. elected officials.

There are 211 Republicans in the U.S. House. How many voted to accept the results of the 2020 election, hold Trump accountable, and strip Greene of her committee assignments? Three of the 211. If there's a "mainstream" faction within the GOP, it's vanishingly small.

What's more, there is recent history to consider. While political science suggests parties traditionally respond to national defeats by trying to appeal to a broader segment of the electorate, Republicans keep doing the opposite: after major setbacks in 1992, 1996, 2008, 2012, 2018, and 2020, GOP officials responded to losses by moving even further to the right.

There have been contingents within the party that urged a more centrist course, but they've consistently been rejected and ignored. (Remember when the Reformicons generated some attention during the second term of the Obama administration? If so, you also remember how quickly they vanished after the GOP became Trumpified.)

There are also all kinds of institutional and structural barriers to reforming the GOP, including party primaries that too often punish the responsible and reward the radical.

But let's also not forget about a nagging problem that too often goes overlooked: the Republican "moderates," who reportedly stand ready to help bring the party closer to something resembling the American mainstream, really aren't all that moderate.

Several members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, for example, were among those voting to overturn the 2020 presidential election. The same is true about the Republican Main Street Partnership.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), reportedly a leading centrist who's quitting because of the dysfunction in D.C., is nowhere near anything resembling the center.

FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver published an analysis six years ago that noted, as a quantifiable matter, "The most conservative Republicans in the House 25 or 30 years ago would be among the most liberal members now." That same dynamic is vastly worse now.

There's nothing wrong with the idea of Republican voices making a good-faith effort to reform their radicalized party, but in practice, I won't get my hopes up.