Define GOP "moderate," please

20081023_mccain_crist_33jpgA long time ago, in a radically different age, then White House scribe Michael Gerson told a circle of mainstream journalists that the crucial internal battles during the first Geroge W. Bush term usually boiled down to a clash between the "libertarians" and the "small-c catholics." It's an old division, of course. But which side gets to wear the all-important label in modern journalism? That label is, of course, "moderate."

As a rule, the GOP "moderates" are supposed to be country-club, fiscal conservatives who are social and cultural liberals -- the legendary Republicans of the Northeast and the old mainline churches. Then the radical "conservatives" are the cultural, ie. moral, i.e. religious activists who are also economic populists (think Mike Huckabee). If you stop and think about it, Huckabee is -- deep down -- a pre-Roe v. Wade Southern Democrat.

Under this 2004 scenario, Vice President Dick Cheney would be the leader of the "libertarian" folks and someone like Gerson would be the voice of the small-c catholics. But wait! If the religious folks are the radical right, then that makes Cheney and his big-money pragmatists the "moderates"?

Confusing, right? You can kind of see why your GetReligionistas spend so much time pleading with journalists to ditch the "moderate" label -- period.

Tell readers what people say they believe and then detail their actions. Readers will figure it out.

Why do I bring this up? The Los Angeles Times ran one of those navel-gazing Republican stories the other day that wandered all over the place, primarily in an attempt to define "moderate" in a GOP context. The hook for the story is the upcoming U.S. Senate bid by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. The long, long headline sets the scene:

Crist's Senate bid represents ideological struggle for GOP

Florida is once again a political battleground -- this time for the Republican Party's future -- as its moderate governor faces a conservative in the primary

And here's the top of the story:

It is a heated debate in the struggling Republican Party: whether to broaden its ideology or follow the advice of Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and others who argue against deviating from core conservative principles.

Now, the GOP has a chance to see whether a moderate can become a model for Republican resurgence, with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist announcing ... that he will run for the U.S. Senate in that politically important state.

Crist, who has bucked the GOP's conservative wing on voting rights, global warming and other issues, enjoys high approval ratings. But with the governor facing a conservative in the primary, Republican leaders across the country have seized on Florida as a battleground in the larger philosophical war over the party's future.

So Limbaugh and Cheney, in this framework, are the conservatives and the moderates are concerned about immigration, the environment and other undefined issues. Later it's clear that Crist is also a heretic on budget and economic recovery issues. So he's a populist or what?

In classic style, we also learn that Sen. Arlen Specter was a "moderate" Republican, which would explain why he is now a Democrat.

Later in the article we read:

Several GOP leaders -- including Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- late last month announced the formation of the National Council for a New America to open a policy-focused discussion designed to help rebuild the party. But the group has been ridiculed by leading conservatives, who complained that the rollout touched on economic and national security issues but not on social concerns such as abortion, gay marriage and guns.

Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee wrote a derisive column on the Fox News website poking fun at the GOP leaders for needing a "listening tour" to understand the American psyche. In it, he accused the council of treating "values voters as if they were embarrassing distant cousins who are allowed to come to the family gatherings a couple of times a year, but aren't expected to be seen beyond that."

huckabeecross-viOK, so now we have another set of "conservatives" called the "values voters" who are clearly not "moderates." But note that when push comes to show, Huckabee and these "values voter" always seem to clash with the GOP establishment -- which would be Limbaugh, Cheney and Co. -- who are (wait for it) the hard-core "conservatives" who we were told keep clashing with the "moderates."

What happens if some of the "values voters" are actually populists on health care, the environment, blue-collar economic issues, etc., and they, too, clash with the old-guard GOP types?

Here's one more example of what's going on in this fog bank of meaningless words:

In a television interview over the weekend, former Vice President Cheney said he would "go with Rush Limbaugh" as a true Republican over former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, a moderate who last year endorsed Obama's candidacy. Limbaugh, the conservative talk show host, also has been critical of Republicans who do not adhere to core conservatism, saying recently that when Specter left the party he should have taken 2008 presidential nominee John McCain with him.

Complicating the GOP's challenge in presenting itself as a unified party is the presence of the powerful pro-business Club for Growth, which helped push Specter out of the GOP and has been harshly critical of Crist.

So Powell is a "moderate" because he endorsed Obama, yet McClain also seems to be a moderate of some kind. And then there are the "pro-business" true conservatives who shunned Spectre, who is a "moderate," when "pro-business" is usually a term used to describe the country-club moderates who fight with the religious right.

Read on. I dare you.

Try to make sense of it. According to this story, who or what is a Republican "moderate" and what does this term have to do (a) with the religious, moral and cultural wedge issues that are so important in American politics and (b) with the split between people like Cheney and people like Huckabee?

Photos: A moderate and a sort-of moderate, during the 2008 campaign. Huckabee in stealth minister mode.

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