The Australian

By David Weisbrot

Moderates are now a dying breed

Australia recently moved to protect the koala and the humpback whale, designating them as endangered species. In the US the Great American RINO — or Republicans in Name Only — appear to be on the verge of extinction.

The Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, once aspired to being the sort of ''broad church'' that Robert Menzies envisioned for the Liberal Party.

As a child growing up in a Democratic Party-supporting family, in heavily Democratic New York City, every adult that I knew routinely voted for an array of liberal Republicans, including senator Jacob Javitz, mayor John Lindsay and governor Nelson Rockefeller.

The scion of a wealthy family, with a name synonymous with enormous riches, Rockefeller's three terms as governor (1959-73) resulted in a massive boost to infrastructure in New York, building up an excellent state university system, roads and mass transit, public hospitals and housing, and creating an environmental protection regime. Rockefeller was pro-growth and pro-business, and ran balanced budgets — but he raised taxes to do so.

At about the same time, Earl Warren was a three-term Republican governor of California, who was appointed by Republican president Dwight Eisenhower to become the chief justice of the US Supreme Court, with the Warren Court now regarded as the most progressive in US history.

Eisenhower, a retired five-star general and war hero, ended his two-term presidency in January 1961 with a remarkable speech warning that democratic government faced a grave threat from ''the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex''.

Compare that with the performances this year of the conga-line of candidates for the Republican nomination.

Talented moderate hopefuls like Jon Huntsman, a Chinese-speaking former governor of Utah and ambassador created no buzz, raised no money and were quickly bundled out. Billionaire Donald Trump, who once espoused liberal social views, had to re-invent himself as Birther-in-Chief. Texas Governor Rick Perry bragged about the number of prisoners executed under his watch, which even outnumbered the federal government departments he hoped to abolish.

Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann sought to make a Palin-like virtue out of their utter lack of knowledge, or even curiosity, about world affairs.

Newt Gingrich went in the opposite direction, pledging to establish a US colony, and eventually a state, on the moon. Rick Santorum aimed his campaign directly at evangelical Christians and fellow cultural warriors, and revealed that John F. Kennedy's famous speech about separation of church and state under the US constitution made him ''want to throw up''.

All the Republican candidates felt obliged to disavow anything in their philosophy, previous public utterances or resumes that doesn't fit the new hard-Right template, even if this means abandoning science, the arts, learning and higher education.

Support for the latter by President Barack Obama was famously decried as ''elitist'' by Rick Santorum, BA, JD, MBA.

To prevail in the primaries, Mitt Romney fought off accusations of ideological apostasy and tried to reinvent himself from the moderate Massachusetts governor who pragmatically worked both sides of the aisle to a fire-breathing, hyper-partisan hardliner.

The conventional political wisdom suggests that successful candidates must play to the margins during primary season in order to energise their core and secure the nomination, but then must return to the middle to win a general election.The question now is whether Romney can credibly change tack yet again and return to the middle, when there are lingering doubts about whether he actually believes in anything.

It seems likely that he will be pushed to choose a vice-presidential candidate who reassures the base, such as Tea Party hero senators Jim DeMint and Marco Rubio, or congressmen Paul Ryan and Rand Paul. A respected centrist such as governors Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty or Susana Martinez, would broaden the appeal of the GOP ticket but raise doubts among the core.

Romney and his advisers will not fail to learn the lesson of Indiana senator Richard Lugar's recent failure to secure the Republican nomination. Lugar, the equal-longest-serving member of the Senate, ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and internationally respected expert on nuclear disarmament, faced a well-financed challenge from Richard Mourdock, a candidate supported by the National Rifle Association and the Tea Party movement.

Despite Lugar's 77 per cent conservative rating from the American Conservative Union, he was judged to be too accommodating; for example, he voted to confirm Obama's two Supreme Court nominees, and favoured the auto industry bailout and immigration law reform. As Mourdock put it: ''The time for being collegial is past, it's time for confrontation.''

There has yet to be a poll suggesting that what most US voters really want is even greater levels of confrontation, partisanship and polarisation in Washington. So, as the economy flounders, infrastructure crumbles and US influence declines, who thinks the solution is extending the open season on the RINO?