The casual viewer of national politics may see the Republican Party as drifting ever more to the right on social issues. The reality is otherwise. Even individual states long viewed as bastions of the Right are now edging toward the middle of the road, at least by the definitions of what has traditionally been called "the Right." And ironically given the Left's current hatred of him it's the George W. Bush administration that has exemplified and led this new course.
Consider Georgia and Florida, both among the 10 most-populous states in the U.S. and both widely labeled as Republican-ruled. Both states this fall will be electing U.S. senators to fill vacated seats. And both may well send actual or perceived moderates to Washington.
In Georgia, Republican Congressman Johnny Isakson was set to rake in majority support in the state's July 20 GOP primary. This despite his being labeled as the dreaded "moderate" in a field of three hopefuls. Keep in mind that Isakson has earned plaudits from most major conservative advocacy groups you can name. Even so, his opponents have charged him with being soft or silent on abortion, tort reform and other supposed GOP calling-card issues.
Evidently Georgia voters didn't receive their litmus-test rating cards. InsiderAdvantage polling just prior to the primary showed Isakson defying conventional wisdom. He was picking up huge margins of GOP voters in metro Atlanta, as well as sizeable support in less populous, allegedly more conservative areas of the state.
All the while in Florida, recently departed federal Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez is apparently running strong among a batch of GOP contenders in that state's U.S. Senate race, even though some of his opponents enjoy prior constituencies or higher statewide name identification. Martinez is facing similar attacks to Isakson for not being conservative enough for the Republican Party's voters in the Aug. 31 primary. But Martinez is turning conventional analysis upside-down in recent polls, and he's doing it with what is essentially the Bush machine behind him.
When Martinez recently was pummeled by his primary opponent, former Congressman Bill McCollum, for Martinez's past associations with trial lawyers, even Gov. Jeb Bush denounced the attack as having gone too far even though Bush is widely known for his dislike of the trial bar.
What does all this mean within the confines of the supposedly hard-right Republican Party? The answer lies in a look to the past and another at the present. Consider Jeb Bush's image among the general public in Florida. He is generally viewed as an effective and polished leader. And while even many GOP legislative leaders sometimes look at him as stubborn on matters close to his political heart, the governor time and again has proved successful in effecting his goals. And doubtless his skill in the Sunshine State will be in absolute demand when his brother the president comes calling for help in carrying Florida against John Kerry this fall.
The real story of how candidates like Isakson and Martinez have come to represent the new mainstream of their party can be found in the history of Bush the father, President George H.W. Bush. Only old-time Republicans will remember that in his 1980 presidential bid, the elder Bush was viewed as a moderate Republican amid a sea of ultra-conservatives that included the likes of John Connally and Ronald Reagan.
Even as he ran for his party's nomination for president in 1988, Vice President Bush was under constant siege by Pat Robertson, who labeled Bush as pro-choice, too soft for gun rights and too elitist. With the strategic help of the late Lee Atwater, Bush blew apart those accusations, only later to be mortally wounded in his 1992 re-election bid by another labeler of Bush as too moderate Pat Buchanan. Then, in the general election, Bush found himself up against another hard-talking populist in Ross Perot. The result was a loss to Bill Clinton.
In responding to the '88 and '92 challenges, the Bush wing of the national party refashioned itself. That laid the groundwork for the current brand of conservatism of Jeb and George W. Bush. Even Ralph Reed, one-time chief lieutenant of Pat Robertson, now serves as President Bush's southeastern states chair.
The end result is that in places like Georgia and maybe Florida, being a Bush Republican looks to be the best approach any GOP candidate can take in a primary contest this year.
While some media and most Democrats still view the GOP as a monolithic, ultra-right party, the truth is that a journey that started years ago with the senior Bush is now producing candidates more likely to appeal to a broader segment of voters in general elections. For both major parties and nearly all candidates, it seems the "moderate" label carries a different meaning.
Matt Towery is chair of InsiderAdvantage, which works in conjunction with The Marketing Workshop to conduct polls for his syndicated column. He is based in Jacksonville, Fla.
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.