Flight of Republican Moderates

Quietly behind the scenes, a split of exceedingly large and perhaps historic proportions is taking place within the Republican Party. Moderate Republicans, unhappy over what they see as the takeover of the party by the Christian right, are becoming an independent force in American politics.

At a recent Monitor breakfast the Democratic National Committee chairman, Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, said that he'd seen convincing evidence that increasing numbers of Republican "moderates" are voting for Democrats, and that "the Republican split is bigger than the one we have in our own party."

This trend started way back when Republican moderates began to champion civil rights at a time when most of the party's leaders and the bulk of the GOP rank and file were still resisting black progress. That's when these moderates were calling themselves "Eisenhower," and, later, "Rockefeller" Republicans - as opposed to "Taft" and, later, "Goldwater" Republicans.

Even then, these more-liberal Republicans were able to bury their differences with the rest of the party every four years at presidential elections, keeping a Republican in the White House for much of the last half century.

But hatchet-burying time may be over.

Why are today's moderate Republicans - who really are in the "center" and not the "left" of the party - so incensed by the more conservative segment of the GOP? It's not because of differences over spending issues. The moderates are just as conservative on what they call "fiscal matters" as those to the right of them.

What is causing so many Republicans not only to look elsewhere but also to move elsewhere in national elections is their conviction that the Christian right is infusing religion into politics and into the Republican Party in a completely unacceptable way. They see the Christian right abridging the separation of church and state. And, more than anything else, they believe this religious force is seizing the party and the candidates who represent the party.

Talk to those Republicans who are fleeing their party and you will hear many of them compare the political activity of the Christian right to what the Roman Catholic Church was accused of over the years: mixing into politics. These moderates will say how much they had been opposed to the Catholic "meddling," but they believe that that political activity now is largely over.

Actually, the GOP moderates do share the "family values" which the Christian right supports. They just don't like that force's powerful entry into the political scene - in picking candidates to back and in raising money for those candidates.

The Christian right will, of course, sometimes endorse a Democratic candidate. But its powerful influence is mainly exerted within the Republican Party.

Over the last few months I've talked to a number of lifelong Republicans who are seeking another political "home." They argue that the party really belongs to them - that Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, and Bush were all really moderates. They concede that Reagan was a conservative but that the main thrust of the party over the years has been "progressive."

So they are more than unhappy about leaving: They are bitter.

They feel that their party's kowtowing to the Christian right has forced them to make some really unpalatable choices. Many just didn't vote in the last presidential election. Some voted for Ross Perot. Some even voted for President Clinton.

This exit of millions of Republicans is an important political development, one that will affect - and may decide - the next presidential election.

And nothing visibly is being done to try to heal this schism.

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