Opinion

What happens when GOP moderates abandon the field?

Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, center, visits with fellow lawmakers on the House floor in Austin, Texas, Tuesday, July 18, 2017.
Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, center, visits with fellow lawmakers on the House floor in Austin, Texas, Tuesday, July 18, 2017. AP

The bottom has fallen out of the Republican Party.

Well, not the bottom exactly. More like the middle.

That’s the feeling after the announcement that Texas House Speaker Joe Straus will not be returning to the Legislature after the conclusion of his term.

For some members of his own party, the response was nothing short of elation. After all, Straus has long been seen as a roadblock to the state GOP’s agenda.

Empower Texans leader Michael Quinn Sullivan quickly shot out a fundraising email claiming victory in part — “his time as speaker was going to end when the legislature next convened in 2019,” he wrote — while reminding conservatives that now is the time to “fight for every single seat in the Texas House.”

Straus, the soft-spoken San Antonio Republican, has served five terms at the helm of the Lone Star State’s sometimes raucous lower chamber, most recently providing a much-needed counterbalance to the bombastic and uncompromising Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick who heads up the Senate. In contrast, Straus, who came and retained power with the support of House Democrats developed a reputation for being boring, practical and moderate.

And in our increasingly polarized cultural moment, moderation is akin to betrayal. It’s also a blueprint for political suicide.

Just ask Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker or Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake.

Both Republicans recently announced their respective decisions to not seek re-election in 2018, when their seats were expected to be hotly contested — not just by Democrats, but by challengers from the far right of their own party.

To be fair, so-called Republican “moderates” have been living on borrowed time. They are vestiges of an era when compromise was a hallmark of good policymaking.

It might be considered a testament to the “Big Tent Party” that it can still claim members who have built reputations on their willingness to reach across the aisle.

That can hardly be said for Democrats who drove out every member of their party who didn’t adopt the agenda of the far left. If you disagree, just count the number of pro-life Democrats left in Congress. If the Democratic Party can claim any virtue, it is loyalty.

It’s a sad state of affairs. We need the middle.

Regarding Corker and Flake’s looming departures, there are many factors in play, but their retirements cannot be wholly understood without noting that both senators had been openly feuding with President Donald Trump.

Announcing his decision on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Flake didn’t mince words.

“Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified,” he said, transparently referencing Trump.

Flake concluded by explaining that he would be “better serve my country and my conscience by freeing myself of the political consideration that consumed far too much bandwidth and would cause me to compromise far too many principles.”

Straus used similar, albeit softer, language in explaining his reason for retiring. “Instead of acting on behalf of the entire House, I will now have a greater opportunity to express my own views and priorities,” he wrote in a press release, adding that he plans to contribute to the state “in new and different ways.”

In the wake of such decisions, our inclination is to feel sympathy and respect. Who could blame any of these men for exiting a toxic environment? For choosing principle over party — at least the current incarnation of the Republican Party?

But there’s a palpable sense of surrender, a capitulation to the political forces these men claim to be rising against, that makes their resignations all the more disheartening.

Can they really be effective at leading when they have abdicated their positions of leadership?

“A speechifying anti-Trumpism” — or anti-Patrickism, as it were — “distant from the fray, will always be self-regarding and self-deceiving,” wrote New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

While the fight may be futile for politicians like Straus, Flake and Corker, the only way they have a chance of improving the odds for their team is by staying in the game. Instead, they are abandoning the field, and everyone loses.

Cynthia M. Allen: 817-390-7166, @cjmallen12

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