The Middle Is The Message

Robert Pennoyer registered as a Republican in 1946. He is partial to quoting from a bronze medal given to his father to commemorate the centennial of the party, engraved with a quotation from Dwight D. Eisenhower, in whose administration the younger Pennoyer served for six years. "In all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human," he reads aloud in his New York City law office. "In all those things which deal with the people's money or their economy or their form of government, be conservative." It seems a good way to sum up his political philosophy, and to explain why he just sent out the form that will change his party affiliation, at the age of 76, from Republican to Democrat. "I'm making a clean break," he says.

Moderate Republicans have felt under siege for years now, but for some of them the first hundred days of Bush II have been the last straw. For Barbara Gimbel of the department-store family, a longtime centrist party activist, it was actually the third day that did it, when the president made his social-policy debut by blocking aid to overseas family-planning organizations that offer abortion counseling. The day after that decision was announced, a fund-raising lunch was held in Dallas for Planned Parenthood. Among the hundreds in the hotel ballroom were many moderate Republicans, friends of reproductive freedom and even of the new president, who had quietly assured one another during the campaign that George was no right-wing zealot. Some of them looked as though they'd been hit over the head with a board.

Being a moderate is tougher than it looks. The conservatives and liberals get to blow hot and cold, extravagantly. Moderates get to be--well, moderate. "People whisper, 'I'm with you','' says Lynn Grefe, who runs the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition. "We have to stop whispering." But moderation is not a position that lends itself to shouting, to buttons or bumper stickers, pressure groups or press conferences. And being a Republican moderate has, in recent years, seemed more and more like an oxymoron. When Mrs. Gimbel began working on party politics in Nelson Rockefeller's gubernatorial campaign, moderation was the party's middle name; the reason Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign crashed and burned was that he was seen as too reactionary. "In your heart, you know he's right" was Goldwater's slogan, countered by another: "In your guts, you know he's nuts."

But, as Gloria Steinem likes to remind people, conservative Democrats like Jesse Helms and Ronald Reagan vaulted party lines and took over the Republicans, and so we find ourselves here, with the former guru of the Christian Coalition running the state party in Georgia, an anti-abortion activist running the federal Office of Personnel Management and arsenic replacing the vegetable ketchup as the GOP nutritional additive of choice. The Bush White House is basking in the glow of the president's approval ratings--although it might behoove everyone to remember how high Ann Richards's approval ratings were when Bush beat her in the Texas gubernatorial race--but there are signs of conspicuous slippage. In the last month the president's unfavorable ratings jumped by double digits among young people, women and especially those who describe themselves as moderates.

The Bush team, many of whom have been inside the Republican power bubble since the Punic Wars, may not be entirely clear on the difference between moderate and liberal positions circa 2001. A NEWSWEEK Poll done earlier this year provides an easy road map. More than half of those surveyed were unhappy about the suggestion that the administration might close the White House offices on AIDS and race relations, and half objected, like Mrs. Gimbel, to the end of aid to those overseas family-planning groups. And nearly half didn't like the president's plan to open protected parts of the Alaskan wilderness for oil exploration. When the president seemed cavalier about greenhouse gases, carbon-dioxide emissions and arsenic levels in water, conservative advisers may have thought he would anger only the Sierra Club. But in the years since environmentalists were first denigrated as tree huggers, America's fields have been filled with numbingly identical town-house communities, some towns have come to rely on bottled water for consumption and California is being hit with rolling blackouts. A recent Gallup poll found that a stunning four out of five Americans support tougher pollution standards for industry.

But it is not just his conservative ideology that has turned moderates against the president. The masquerade of the campaign, in which both candidates acted like people moving through a house with an alarm system trying not to set off the motion detectors, has left the gullible feeling snookered. "Bush has been great for our fund-raising because people feel so betrayed," says Lynn Grefe. "They have been stunned at how different he is from the campaign message." Nevertheless, the president will continue to try to sell that message. Reports of ebbing support are filled with suggestions that he will now tack to the center, or shore up the middle. The point of all this tacking and shoring is clear: the next election.

No person of either party can win the presidency without a substantial number of moderates, who by their own description make up 50 percent, give or take a few percentage points, of all Americans. It was only when Bill Clinton dragged them kicking and screaming to the middle of the road that Democrats got two terms in the White House. Richard Nixon called these people the silent majority, but unless they can make their peace with being sold one thing in a campaign and then having to live with something far different and far less desirable, they had better find a way to speak up in the modern din of political discourse. And unless they want many more defections like those of Barbara Gimbel and Robert Pennoyer, the leaders of the Republican Party had better find a way to listen.