Still room for pragmatic Republicans?

Published 1:00 pm Saturday, November 30, 2013

We have a young friend who ran the Young Republicans during her college years and now works for a GOP consulting firm. She’s a loyal party member, but she has a problem. She’s from New York — her father and grandfather were both New York City cops — and she feels increasingly alienated from a party whose center of gravity has moved steadily to the South, the West and the Right.

A generation ago, many conservative Southern Democrats became Republicans and explained their shift with some version of the phrase, “I didn’t leave my party, my party left me.” Today our young friend feels the same way, and she’s not alone. A GOP dominated by the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz and the tea party is in danger of strangling its centrist wing.

But Tuesday’s election provides a spark of hope for the GOP’s Constructive Caucus. The decisive re-election of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — a card-carrying pragmatist — and the defeat of Ken Cuccinelli — a tea party hero who ran for governor of Virginia — shows that pragmatists might still have a place in the GOP after all.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

That’s a good thing for the Republicans and a good thing for American democracy. In recent years, the United States has come to resemble Europe, dominated by ideologically pure parties on the left and the right. The center of American politics has hollowed out. Two vital political species — right-leaning Southern Democrats and left-leaning Northeastern Republicans — are in danger of extinction.

Christie stands as an important counterweight to that trend, a reasonable Republican who can chart a winning path in a deep blue state. And he’s part of a long tradition of successful GOPers in states like New Jersey.

Tom Kean (1982 to 1990) and Christine Whitman (1994 to 2001) both won two terms in the state house as pragmatic problem solvers and then served in the administration of Bush 43: Kean as head of the 9/11 Commission and Whitman as administrator of the EPA.

There used to be plenty of reasonable Republicans in the Senate as well. Robert Stafford of Vermont authored a program that provides low-cost loans to college students. Bill Cohen of Maine became Secretary of Defense in Bill Clinton’s second term. Richard Lugar of Indiana worked with Democrat Sam Nunn on a bipartisan bill to dismantle nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union — and was then defeated by a tea party challenger in the primaries last year.

Hardly any Christie-type Republicans are left in the Senate. One exception is Susan Collins of Maine, who once worked for Cohen, took his seat in the Senate, and emerged as a key dealmaker during negotiations that reopened the government this fall after a 16-day shutdown.

She’s pretty lonely on Capitol Hill these days, but there are more GOP pragmatists serving as governors. After all, senators make speeches but governors make decisions, and that discipline forces them to be more practical. One example: John Kasich of Ohio defied the Republican legislature this fall and managed to expand the state’s Medicaid program. It was “a matter of life and death,” as he told the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Christie showed a similar governing style when he worked with President Obama during Hurricane Sandy last year, infuriating Mitt Romney in the middle of his campaign. The New Jersey governor expressed the pragmatist’s creed when he told Politico: “People expect government to work for them … and you can compromise without compromising your principles. It’s not a dirty word.”

Significantly, Christie asked only two Republicans to campaign with him this year: former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani (many of his former aides now work for Christie) and Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, a young Hispanic woman who, like Christie, managed to win a blue state. No Ted Cruzes need apply.

Cuccinelli took exactly the opposite approach in Virginia, calling in right-wing stalwarts like Ron Paul and Marco Rubio and endorsing a government shutdown that put thousands of Virginia voters out of work. That strategy might be successful in a pure-red state like Texas or Kentucky, but it’s a loser in a purple state like Virginia. And purple places decide national elections.

It’s not at all clear that Christie can win the Republican nomination for president in 2016. Voters in Republican primaries tilt far to the right, as the governor’s pal Giuliani discovered in 2008. But with Christy, reasonable Republicans know they are not completely alone. There’s still a home for them in the GOP, at least in New Jersey.

(Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at