Yesterday’s New York Times had a sympathetic front-page feature article on Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, focusing on Dent’s role as one of the small band of Republicans who have indicated a willingness to vote for a “clean” (i.e., no strings attached) resolution to fund the government. Even though Dent is quoted in the article as calling himself a “sensible conservative,” the Times repeatedly refers to him as a “moderate” Republican. The Times’ usage of the word “moderate” reflects the extent to which the spectacle of Republican craziness has skewed our political language. The radical right-wingers who dominate the Republican Party are called conservatives, so what do you call actual conservatives? Moderates, of course.
It struck me as interesting that the Times insists on giving Dent a label that he doesn’t use himself, and would probably reject if asked. (“Moderate” is practically a dirty word in the Republican Party these days—it’s considered practically synonymous with RINO—“Republican in Name Only.”) My curiosity was piqued enough for me to look up Dent’s voting record, as scored by two very different organizations: the right-wing Club For Growth and the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA).
The Club for Growth gives Dent a 55% rating. That’s low for a Republican—only 21 out of 235 House Republicans were equal or lower (while only one out of 200 Democrats was higher). So, it looked like maybe Dent could rightly be considered a moderate, at least in relative terms. But then I looked up his ADA rating, and it turns out to be a big fat zero. That compares to an average score of 6% for all House Republicans and 80% for the Democrats. Thus, according to the ADA’s scoring system, Dent is actually to the right of the average Republican. The apparent inconsistency is explained by the fact that the ADA scores legislators on a relatively small number (just 20) of big issues designed to measure the liberal-conservative divide; Club for Growth looks at a larger number of issues, apparently in an effort to distinguish relatively fine gradations of “conservative” ideological purity.
So, even though the Club rates Dent’s voting record far from stellar, he is by any reasonable standard a solid conservative if not a reactionary, having voted repeatedly for massive cuts in federal spending on a wide variety of programs, to repeal Obamacare, to extend all the Bush tax cuts and grant new business tax breaks, to loosen environmental regulations, etc., etc. Really, the only basis for calling Dent a moderate is the fact that he is willing to call off his party’s efforts to govern by extortion. The assumption, apparently, is that if you’re a Republican and not a bomb-thrower, you must be a moderate.
Dent’s self-description as a conservative is more than justified, but the Times won’t call him that, partly because it is not quite ready to acknowledge that there are practically no moderate Republicans left in public office. It would be a bit of a stretch to call an ADA scorer of only 25% a “moderate,” but even using that low bar I counted just 6 Republican moderates in the House. In the Senate, too, only 6 Republicans reached a 25% ADA score in 2012, but three of them are now gone: Olympia Snowe, retired in disgust; Richard Lugar, defeated for re-nomination by a “real” Republican; and Scott Brown, defeated for re-election.
A problem for the Times and other media is that, if they appropriately describe Dent and others like him as conservatives, how do they describe the Ryans and Bachmans and Cruz’s? They call themselves conservatives, so it won’t do to call them radical rightists or reactionaries: our canons of “objective” journalism prohibit giving politicians labels they don’t use for themselves. Unless, of course, you’re a conservative like Dent, in which case you get called a moderate.