In recent columns about moderate voters, I’ve argued center-right Republicans should defend their positions, just as hard-right Republicans do. Today, I’m going to take another crack at what constitutes the center-right by focusing on the beliefs around which this group congregates:
Rein in the debt: These voters agree with the hard right that the debt and deficit are top economic priorities. And they think entitlement reforms are the first step toward curbing them.
They’re frustrated with President Barack Obama for doing too little, too late to reform Medicare and Social Security. They recognize the need to overhaul our health care system, but they’re concerned that the president’s health care bill would turn around and spend the Medicare savings it contains.
Instead, these progressive-conservatives align with GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare overhaul, which is modeled on one that former GOP Sen. Pete Domenci, a classic center-righter, proposed with Democrat Alice Rivlin. Seniors in the future could choose between a private health plan and traditional Medicare.
These voters also back changing how Washington calculates Social Security benefits. GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a center-righter of sorts, has a smart bill to do that.
But, unlike hard-right Republicans, the center-right would raise taxes as part of a grand bargain to lower the debt. Former GOP Sen. Alan Simpson exemplified this thinking when the Simpson-Bowles Commission he co-chaired supported spending cuts and tax hikes to curb deficit spending.
Reform the tax code: What center-right Republicans really want is a major tax code revision: Simplify and flatten rates. Close loopholes. Encourage investment. And, important, keep the overhaul from leading to a net tax hike. That’s the kind of plan Jim Baker helped author, and Ronald Reagan signed in 1986.
This approach differs from abolishing the income tax and replacing it with a national sales tax. Some hard-righters promote that alternative, but center-righters recognize that would be too punitive on working families.
Social fairness: Center-right Republicans believe in a big-tent party, so they embrace social and cultural issues that show women, minorities and the poor that the GOP isn’t hostile to them.
A classic example is the championing of a fair immigration policy, much like George W. Bush and John McCain did. Today, center-righters support secure borders and tough enforcement, but also guest-worker programs, the DREAM Act and letting illegal immigrants earn citizenship over time.
Education, education, education: As part of their social fairness streak, center-right Republicans emphasize school reforms as a way to increase social mobility for all kids. Their work goes way beyond the hard-right mantra about vouchers, although they do favor vouchers that get kids out of poor-performing schools.
Also, progressive-conservatives don’t hollowly chant that the federal Education Department needs abolishing. That’s a rallying cry of the hard right, but center-right Republicans recognize the need for a federal role in education. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law asserted Washington’s role through a stronger accountability system and more funds for low-income schools. Today, Republicans such as Jeb Bush support national standards for schools.
Balancing environment and energy needs: Center-righters are not retro like Rick Perry when it comes to opposing the Environmental Protection Agency. They don’t put a target on the EPA’s back.
Yet neither are they wild about uncompromising environmentalists. Center-right Republicans try to find the sweet spot between environmental and energy needs.
They back domestic drilling and alternative fuels. They oppose Obama’s Keystone pipeline decision.
But they embrace more parklands and strong protection of existing parks. For example, GOP Sen. Rob Portman was part of a bipartisan commission that recently proposed modernizing the park system.
Not all progressive-conservatives will sign onto every part of this political creed. Refreshingly, they are not into litmus tests but rather are pragmatic.
Will they stand up for these beliefs in this and other elections?
That’s a mystery, although this is known: Hard-right Republicans will keep dominating the GOP until center-righters fight back.
William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News.