Hoping for return of moderate Republicans

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Moderate Republicans are, were, good things. I use the past tense "were" because as they became rarities, the centrists' chief function was preserving majorities in Congress for their radicalized party.

New England once sent lots of moderate Republicans to Washington. No more, and not because there aren't good candidates. It is because those representing liberal-to-moderate regions became scapegoats at which party extremists directed primal screams.

There arose the stupid "RINO (Republican in name only) Hunters Club," courtesy of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies. In 2005, Rush Limbaugh pounded away at Republican "traitors" in the Senate, adding that "they all happen to be from the Northeast, and they all happen to be moderates. They all happen to be liberals."

Now they all happen to be gone, but for a few exceptions. Thus, the Senate has a Democratic majority.

Defenders of the older, more marketable Republican brand hope to curb the party's more feverish elements. In 2012, the enraged ones purged Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, a revered statesman virtually assured of winning the general election. Instead, their nominee expounded bizarrely on rape, and he lost to Democrat Joe Donnelly. In 2010, similarly flawed Republican candidates saved the hides of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada and Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado.

Wily Democrats have fueled the self-destruction by piping money into the campaigns of the most unelectable Republicans, also known as Tea Party favorites. During the primary, American Bridge and other Democratic groups ran ads noting that Lugar had agreed to raise the debt ceiling, the only responsible stance but one right-wingers reviled.

Playing the hard-liners for fools is not a monopoly of the Democratic Party. In the final weeks of the close 2000 presidential election, Republican groups famously funneled money to third-party candidate Ralph Nader, who some prominent and very naive left-wingers backed as preferable to the centrist Al Gore. The result was President George W. Bush.

As interest in the 2016 presidential race ignites, Republican reformers are turning uneasily to the electoral season's kickoff in Iowa: the Ames straw poll and the caucuses. Iowa is a swing state with registered voters divided equally among Democrats, Republicans and independents. But participants in the early Republican contests are heavy with hotheads eager to magnify their power.

The Ames straw poll is grossly undemocratic. Its participants last time judged Michele Bachmann to be best-qualified to become president. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney stayed away from the fringe-dominated poll and became the party's nominee.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is back touring Iowa, as are the right-wing populists Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Some speculate that more viable Republican contenders, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, will choose to skip the pointless straw poll.

As Republican strategist Mike Murphy colorfully put it, the heavyweights may stay away and "let Santorum, Cruz and Bozo the Clown all fight it out."

Crashing respect for the straw poll threatens the caucuses that follow, themselves not a model of democratic procedure. Thus, some Iowa Republicans want to get rid of it.

In a recent conversation, a rich benefactor of the Democratic Party stopped his usual attack on Republicans to express worry about the survival of their party. Moderates of all political stripes want a choice. Without responsible Republicans, the Democrats can get sloppy, and America's challenges go unmet.

A return of the Republican moderate would be good all around.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Her email address is fharrop@projo.com.