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Joanna Weiss

Scott Brown and the near-extinct GOP moderate

Republicans with dissenting voices should be speaking up

Once, long ago, in a distant version of Washington, D.C., there was a type of person known as a moderate Republican, with a wonderful power called “leverage.”

When Connie Morella served in Congress, from 1987 to 2003, she held weekly lunches with a “Tuesday Group” of some 40 like-minded Republicans. They would gather over pizza and soft drinks, talk about a pending bill, discuss ways to make it more palatable. Then they would go to the GOP leadership with a proposition: Accept our changes, and we’ll deliver you at least 25 votes that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

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It’s unlikely that her group could exist today. In 2008, Morella led a study group at Harvard’s Institute of Politics called “An Endangered Species: a Moderate in the House of Representatives.”

“If I were to go back now, I guess I would have to entitle it ‘An Extinct Species,’ ” she told me on Monday.

This is the GOP that will be on display in Tampa this week, as the party nominates its moderate-turned-“severely conservative” presidential candidate. And while Morella correctly notes that the Democrats have their own problems with bipartisanship, the GOP’s obsession with ideological purity carries clear electoral risks. The various women on the convention stage (Tuesday night: Kelly Ayotte, Nikki Haley, Ann Romney) can’t possibly neutralize the lingering impression of Todd Akin and the party’s hard-line, no-exceptions platform on abortion.

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To be sure, abortion is an exceptional issue, something that has roiled party insiders forever. But it’s also a good example of how far rightward things have shifted. Michael Cudahy, a former national communications director for the Republican Coalition for Choice, says that efforts to nose underneath the big tent used to be, at least, more prominent; he had a list of members he could turn to for support. And in 1996, while his group failed to force a floor discussion on the abortion platform, it did manage to squeeze in an appendix, declaring that a woman had a right to be responsible for her own health care.

“Thinking about it now, it seems remarkably benign,” Cudahy told me. “But if you tried to submit that in Tampa, they would swear you were a communist.”

At the time, Cudahy took the platform language as a victory, a possible sign of a minuscule move toward the center. Nope. Today, Republicans are arguing over whether to carve out exceptions for rape and incest, and their platform contains new language declaring that “abortion endangers the health and well-being of women.”

To some degree, such platform battles are academic. Often, language is “put in there just to placate some of these people on the platform committee,” said Morella, who likes to quote Gerald Ford: “Nobody reads the platform, including me.”

She’s more concerned with the structural ways that Congress now discourages moderation; a glut of homogeneous districts; a greater imperative to raise money; a mortal fear of the primary voter. As the president of the Association of Former Members of Congress, she is working to encourage change.

Some of her ideas are shockingly mundane. Impose a regular work schedule so members can spend more time in Washington, getting to know each other socially. Make sure congressional overseas trips, where many personal relationships are forged, are always bipartisan.

And, of course, encourage more moderates to run — which leads us to Scott Brown, with whom Morella sympathizes. (In her district in Maryland’s Montgomery County, she notes, “I couldn’t get elected if I couldn’t get Democrats to vote for me.”)

“He doesn’t have to be a loner,” she said. If he’s reelected, “he’s going to be showing other moderates, ‘Hey, there is room for us.’ ”

That could be true, but it depends a lot on Brown. He continues to declare himself pro-choice. He votes against his party some of the time. The question is how much he is willing to fight — not just for his own electoral future, or his individual votes, but for the future of his party. How hard would he work to shift things from within, at a time when the Olympia Snowes of the world are abandoning ship? How hard would he try to forge coalitions, to build on the leverage he’s earned?

From a voter’s standpoint, there’s an argument for having a voice, within the Republican Party, for moderate Massachusetts values. But that argument only works if the voice is willing to speak.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter
@JoannaWeiss.
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