Don Pesci: In New England politics, 'moderate Republican'' is a term of art

An 1874 cartoon by Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly.

An 1874 cartoon by Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly.


A historical repetition, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard reminds us, is not possible, because it is not possible to recreate historically the precise conditions that occasioned the event we wish to replicate. Karl Marx, a poor economist but a passable social critic, put it this way: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy, and the second time as farce.”  

The shadow of a not too amusing farce hovers over a recent Hartford Courant story.

The central premise of the report is this: Charlie Barker of Massachusetts is a successful Republican governor, his approval rating an astonishing 71 percent. Baker is the usual New England moderate Republican, one who is conservative on fiscal issues but liberal on social issues. If only Connecticut were able to field a Charlie Baker-like gubernatorial candidate in the upcoming 2018 race, the GOP might be able to sweep the boards and restore to the gubernatorial office – held for two terms by Dannel Malloy, a progressive governor with an appalling approval rating of 29 percent, the lowest in the nation -- a “moderate” governor such as John Rowland, Jodi Rell or Lowell Weicker.

Here is the paragraph upon which the proposition precariously rests: “In both style and substance, Baker evokes the New England moderate, a breed that traces its lineage from Leverett Saltonstall and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. to John Chafee and Lowell P. Weicker Jr. On the federal level, this type of politico has gone largely extinct in Connecticut following losses by former U.S. Reps. Nancy Johnson and Chris Shays. Since 2008, the state has only sent Democrats to Washington.”

Just to begin with, U.S. Sen. Lowell Weicker was by no means a moderate Republican. His eccentric political posture is signaled very clearly in the boastful title to his own autobiography, Maverick. Before Weicker had been dethroned by former state Atty. Gen. Joe Lieberman, his liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) rating was higher than that of U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, who was neither a Republican nor a moderate. Indeed, during Weicker’s long reign as a U.S. senator, there were many Republicans in Connecticut who seriously doubted that Weicker was a Republican at all.

As governor, Weicker operated as a fiscal progressive, and he strained to the breaking point the compromised affections of fiscally moderate Republicans and Democrats by instituting an income tax. Governors Ella Grasso and Bill O’Neill, both moderate Democrats, were unalterably opposed to an income tax – for the soundest of reasons.  They supposed, correctly as it happened, that an income tax would spare legislators in the General Assembly the ordeal of a) reducing spending, and b) disappointing unionized state workers, Connecticut’s fourth branch of government. Following the imposition of an income tax, state spending tripled within the space of three succeeding governors. One can easily imagine Grasso snarling in that portion of Heaven reserved for moderate Democrat Connecticut governors.

Other Republicans mentioned in the paragraph – Governors Rowland and Rell and U.S. House members Nancy Johnson, Rob Simmons and Chris Shays -- were, as advertised, fiscal conservatives and social moderates. But, as the story notes, a doom hung over them, and they were at last displaced by fiscally progressive, socially progressive Democrats.

So then, here is the lesson that ought to be learned by people in Connecticut, both Democrat and Republican, who do not wish to repeat the mistakes of recent history: 1) “moderate” is a term of art deployed by artful politicians who are, in truth, immoderate, and 2) the division between fiscal and social issues is largely imaginary.

Are the urban poor in Connecticut’s larger cities deprived because of economic or social disruption, and which, in this sad turn of events, is the chicken and which the egg? Isn’t it obvious that there are two economies in the state, one urban and one suburban? And there are two social models in the state as well, one urban and one suburban.

But the poor themselves are indivisible; there is not one part of a poor man that is economic and another part that is social.  The traditional family in cities as we know it – dad, mom, two and a half children – has been entirely uprooted and destroyed, mostly owing to programs that finance the production and spread of poverty and social disruption.  And the consequent pathologies associated with these policies – fatherless families, a high incident of crime, crippling economic dependence on government for the necessities of life, poor educational possibilities – are everywhere apparent for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

The politician who claims to be fiscally conservative but socially liberal is a prisoner of a false dichotomy – a willing prisoner, a man or a woman who simply refuses to confront the truth that lies, as George Orwell says, right in front of his nose.

And that is why the fiscally conservative-socially liberal politician has been vanishing from our politics. He will be replaced by demagogues who can lie in such a way that even the stones will believe them.

Don Pesci is a Vernon, Conn.-based essayist.