GOP Moderates: A Wing Not to Be Underestimated

REPUBLICAN moderates are a force to be reckoned with. It's arguable that they defeated George Bush through their defections. Many voted for Ross Perot; many voted for Bill Clinton; many sat out the election.

What is a Republican ''moderate''? A precise definition is impossible. The only consistent ingredient among those who call themselves moderates is their refusal to be regarded as conservatives.

Perhaps President Eisenhower's self-analysis comes closest to a definition. Ike said he was a conservative on economic matters and a progressive on social issues.

Liberals, of course, saw Eisenhower as an all-out conservative. But in the Republican world in 1952 it was a ''moderate'' Eisenhower who beat out the ''conservative'' Robert Taft for the presidential nomination.

Nelson Rockefeller and Gerald Ford called themselves Eisenhower Republicans. Ronald Reagan's roots clearly went back to Taft. And George Bush?

For years I counted Bush to be an Eisenhower man. But when he signed on with Reagan, he muted that side of himself. Yet the conservatives were slow to really get behind him -- not until the Gulf war -- and then left him in droves during the election. Even then, Bush might have withstood the conservatives' defection, had it not been that so many moderates pulled away from him, too. In the end, poor George was pretty much a man without a party.

I've been reminded of this split in party philosophy of late when listening in on some conservative-led talk shows. They were branding GOP moderates as ''liberals'' who had no place in the Republican Party. They were talking as if this GOP revolution that has taken over Congress is the product entirely of conservatism. This ''new'' party embraced Democratic conservatives. But GOP moderates, they emphasized, had played no substantial part.

Republican moderates aren't comfortable in voting Democratic. They feel they are the authentic Republicans, claiming that their roots really go back to Lincoln. ''Most of us are just as conservative as the conservatives on fiscal matters,'' one party leader told us recently. ''We are just more compassionate.''

Jack Kemp is a moderate who has decided he isn't comfortable seeking the presidential nomination of a party he thinks isn't sufficiently mindful of the problems of the poor. He thinks his party should be one of ''inclusion'' not ''exclusion.'' Is he really a ''moderate''? Absolutely -- even though his economic philosophy mirrors that of Reagan's.

Again, there is no clearcut way to define GOP ''moderates.'' But this compassionate thread is usually there. In the 1992 election many of these moderates rejected Bush because of his close ties with the Christian right. Also, many moderates were pro-choice on abortion.

I grew up in Urbana, Ill., where Lincoln would sometimes practice law when he was riding the circuit and where a forebear of mine got to know him. The Republican Party in my youth was the party of Lincoln. But it was not an ''exclusive'' party. Blacks voted Republican then in gratitude to Lincoln.

I still think the real Republican party is the party of Lincoln and that it will, over the years, fare better if it remembers where it came from.

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