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In search of GOP moderates

IS THERE any room for Republican moderates? There is certainly a need for them.

One sure indicator of the power of the Republican conservative base is the posturing of candidates looking toward 2008. Our own Mitt Romney, who got elected as a moderate, has evidently concluded that a moderate can't get the GOP nomination. His recent shifts to the right have been almost a parody of pandering.

New York's George Pataki, another blue-state moderate GOP governor, is playing similar games. In vetoing over-the-counter sales of the ''morning after" contraceptive, Pataki infuriated both the abortion-rights community for his opportunism and the antiabortion lobby for insisting that still supports ''choice."

On the other hand, the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, stunned the radical right by announcing that he now supports embryonic stem cell research. The far-right view of this issue has always been lunatic -- these are embryonic cells discarded as a byproduct of helping infertile couples conceive, an enterprise the Christian right otherwise supports. However, the preachers have defined life-saving stem cell science as antilife, and President Bush cravenly obeyed.

Frist, a medical doctor, is a right-to-lifer. He just doesn't put stem cell research in the same category as abortion. Is Frist's move a calculated repositioning toward the center aimed at 2008 -- or a rare expression of principle? Possibly both.

As a red-state politician who has loyally done Bush's legislative bidding, Frist has more running room than Governors Romney and Pataki. Even something as peripheral as this stem cell shift, however, is seen as treasonous to the White House and the fundamentalist right.

If the pandering to the far right in the jockeying for 2008 is one indicator of the bleak state of Republican moderation, the other indicator is the very faint condition of GOP moderate life in Congress. Here, too, profiles in principle are very much the exception.

President Bush has just given a recess appointment as UN ambassador to the wildly intemperate and mendacious John Bolton. You may recall that back in May, Ohio's Republican Senator John Voinovich made a great, tearful show of opposing Bolton on the Senate floor. The only problem with this fake bravery was that Voinovich supported the nomination in committee, where one more opposing vote would have blocked the nominee.

Similarly, consider the group of 14 alleged bipartisan moderates, who struck the supposedly historic deal to keep the filibuster option alive but limit its use. A reasonable observer might have concluded that several of the GOP moderates, having broken the filibuster against three far-right judicial nominees to allow a floor vote, might then have voted against them on the merits.

After all, these supposed moderates, like Maine Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, describe themselves as prochoice. But no. Only Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee voted not to confirm.

The radical conservatism of John Roberts is gradually coming to light. You'd be a fool to think he'd be remotely like Sandra Day O'Connor. But don't expect a single Republican moderate to vote against him, much less join in a filibuster.

Dozens of Republican moderates, concerned about excesses in the USA Patriot Act, voted to limit fishing expeditions in library records. But when the bill came back to the House floor for final passage, stripped of that amendment, nearly all Republicans backed it anyway. For the most part, Republican ''moderates" in Congress do the administration's bidding whenever they are needed.

The one happy exception to this bleak story is the recent effort by Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and John Warner to write legislation clarifying the status of POWs at Guantanamo and explicitly prohibiting degrading or cruel treatment of all prisoners of war by the US government.

This initiative has been welcomed by both civil libertarians and many military officers and lawyers. It is bitterly resisted by the Bush administration. Unlike the posturing by Romney, Pataki, et al., the senators' initiative on prisoners of war seems a rare case of genuine principle.

Graham and Warner have nothing to gain politically by confronting the Bush White House. McCain, a prospective Republican nominee, has infuriated the White House and the Republican base, and this won't help. McCain is actually quite conservative in most of his positions. But such is the state of American politics that he'd stand a better chance of getting nominated as a Democrat.

As Bush becomes a lame duck president, let's hope more Republicans and temper his extremist policies. The Democrats may have the will but lack the votes.

Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect, can be reached at His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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