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A time when Republicans could be moderate

Will someone please wake me from this bad dream that is the coming election? No matter how kooky, mean or incoherent Republican candidates get, voters seem willing to support them. Maybe former witchcraft dabbler and perennial deadbeat Christine O'Donnell won't be taking a U.S. Senate seat in Delaware, but there are plenty of other congressional races from Florida to Colorado to Utah in which radical tea party-backed Republicans have a good (or certain) chance of victory. Extremism is the new Republican must-have accessory for fall, and it's working for them.

Tea party-Republican fulminating is primarily focused on a few initiatives that are well known by now: the $787 billion federal stimulus package, the health care reform bill, and the TARP bailout program for troubled banks. The party line is that these actions expanded government, squelched freedom and increased the deficit, and anyone who voted for them is a big Karl Marx-loving ninny.

The huge up-sides to these programs are irrelevant. The bailout saved the economy from collapse; health reform is already keeping health insurers from dumping people who get sick; and the stimulus probably prevented another Great Depression, according to economists. But a crowd with pitchforks doesn't much care about facts, as long as someone hangs, which in this case are Democrats and establishment Republicans.

I never thought I'd say this, but the election is making me nostalgic for Republicans — at least for those who used to be in the party.

Progressive Republicans did, in fact, exist, and you don't have to reach back to Honest Abe Lincoln or Teddy "Trust Buster" Roosevelt to find them.

Growing up in New York I was represented by Jacob Javits, a U.S. senator and a Republican who played a key role in passing civil rights legislation in the 1960s. He was a brilliant man with liberal instincts who authored the seminal legislation that protects pension funds for working people, known as ERISA.

I remember Lowell Weicker fondly, too. This Republican senator from Connecticut rejected President Nixon's attempt to use executive privilege to shield his aides from testifying at the Watergate hearings. Weicker said the national interest was to get at the truth.

Full-blown liberals like Javits and Weicker and even moderate "Rockefeller" Republicans who were fiscally conservative but socially and environmentally liberal had their eulogy read a long time ago. The Christian Right ousted them from the Republican Party, except for a few stragglers like the ladies from Maine. But this election has taken the purge a step further. Party activists have now banished conservatives who had the audacity to go slightly off script.

Take Charlie Crist's hug heard 'round the world. When our governor embraced President Barack Obama and expressed support for the job-saving stimulus last year, Crist unknowingly severed his careerlong relationship with the Republican Party. Marco Rubio, former state House speaker and tea party darling, used the visual to unseat Crist as the front-runner in the Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat, forcing Crist to run as an independent.

Tea party insurgencies used that same tactic in primaries across the country. They tarred establishment-backed Republicans who gave off the slightest hint of cooperation with Democrats or Obama.

American voters claim to be tired of the bitter partisanship in Washington, but this election is about to usher in a class of Republicans so committed to sabotaging Obama in particular and government in general that the last 10 years will look like a Kumbaya sing-along.

Rand Paul, a Republican running for the Senate in Kentucky, has said he believes Democrats have a secret plan to wipe out the borders and turn North America into a "borderless, mass continent."

Sharron Angle, the Republican Senate candidate in Nevada, said if she loses to Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, conservatives might have to turn violent. "I look at this as almost an imperative," she said.

This year, the Republican Party slate resembles the country's crazy aunts and uncles, and yet voters are going along. Where is the next Jack Kemp, a self-described "bleeding-heart conservative"? He's a Democrat. The Republicans no longer want him.

A time when Republicans could be moderate 10/09/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 9, 2010 5:30am]

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