The Magazine

Moderation Is No Vice

And extremism is no virtue in politics.

Jul 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 42 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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Liberty and Tyranny

A Conservative Manifesto

by Mark R. Levin

Simon and Schuster, 256 pp., $25

Moderation has acquired a bad name in certain prominent conservative precincts, which is unfortunate since it is an essential political virtue and a quintessentially conservative virtue.

In a May interview, talk show host Scott Hennen asked Dick Cheney whether Arlen Specter's defection to the Democrats proved that Colin Powell was correct, that "the Republican party needs to moderate." Cheney opined that "it would be a mistake for us to moderate," tantamount to betraying fundamental conservative commitment to "the Constitution and constitutional principles" and a craven embrace of Democratic positions and ideas. Pressed to clarify his remarks a few days later by Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer, Cheney declared that he preferred Rush Limbaugh to represent the GOP over Powell. After all, he pungently noted, Powell endorsed Barack Obama for president.

On his own program the next day, Limbaugh amplified Cheney's critique of moderation. Arguing that conservatives can "only win when we are conservatives and have a conservative candidate to offer, and principles," Limbaugh went so far as to denounce moderation itself, invoking Cheney's authority for a family of extreme propositions: "people in the middle of the road get run over," "there really is no such thing as a centrist," and "there's really no such thing as a moderate."

In response to such broadsides, Powell went on Face the Nation two weeks later to insist on his conservative convictions and Republican bona fides and the importance, to both, of moderation. The moderation he commended was inclusiveness, or openness to a range of policy positions resting, presumably, on a shared sensibility and core convictions. But he also made a point about electoral politics: Without a determined effort to reach out to independents, conservatives and Republicans are doomed to long-term minority status because the number of those identifying as Republicans has plunged while the number of those identifying as independents has surged.

Given his rejection last year of Republican John McCain, one of the Senate's most moderate members, and his endorsement of Democrat Barack Obama, one of the Senate's most progressive members, Powell may seem an unlikely source of counsel to Republicans on questions of moderation. His points, nonetheless, are well taken. Political moderation, which involves controlling passion so that reason can give proper weight to competing partisan claims, most of which contain some element of truth and some element of falsehood, is always valuable. In Cheney's and Limbaugh's repudiation of moderation one can hear echoes of Barry Goldwater's 1964 rallying cry: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice .  .  . and . .  . moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

It is an inducement to moderation to recall that Goldwater's dramatic repudiation of moderation preceded one of the most lopsided drubbings in American presidential elections. At the same time, it is an inducement to moderation in praise of moderation to recognize that passion and partisanship have their place in democratic politics: Goldwater's 1964 defeat helped lay the groundwork for the Reagan Revolution which, in the 1980s, produced two, perhaps three, historic landslide victories.

All in all, the conservative case for moderation is more compelling than the case against it. And Mark Levin's bestseller, a fierce polemic on behalf of liberty and tradition against what he regards as the implacable menace emanating from the left, provides, if not a case for moderation, then a central argument that bolsters the case for it.