Again: Who is calling who a “moderate”?

Supreme Court 02This is one of those days when it is hard to be a Godbeat blogger. Where do you begin with the ghosts in the stories about U.S. Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito Jr.? It is hard to cover the territory, even if you limit yourself to The Washington Post. Let’s try to tiptoe through the minefield. But let me warn you right up front: I remain convinced that the key to this whole story is the old question, “Who gets to control the word ‘moderate?’”

This is a variation on the question I keep asking: If liberals are in favor of the status quo, which used to be called “abortion on demand,” and conservatives support a complete ban on legal abortion, what do the “moderates” want?

Of course, we already know the MSM answer to these questions. Moderates want to maintain the legal status quo and so do liberals. Thus, there are no real liberals. There is no far left on the issue of abortion.

• For example, Michael A. Fletcher was assigned the “fire up the fundraising letters” story, in which activists on the far right and on the far middle gear up to raise money and support. But, behold, right there in the lead is the “L” word. No, not that “L” word, the other one — “liberal.”

Within two hours of President Bush’s nomination of U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. for the Supreme Court yesterday, the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way had e-mailed hundreds of thousands of its members, contacted journalists across the country and released a report on Alito’s jurisprudence — all in an effort to derail the nominee.

The conservative Third Branch Conference, meanwhile, spent the hours after the president’s announcement happily planning ways to back Alito. In a conference call with leaders of about 75 right-leaning groups, the organization extolled Alito’s conservative credentials and urged grass-roots support of his nomination.

The word “liberal” shows up again a few lines later and then again and again. In fact, does the word “moderate” appear at all? I didn’t think so.

• But much more traditional language dominates the Charles Lane report with the headline “Alito Leans Right Where O’Connor Swung Left.” That’s a nice headline, by the way, if the issue is abortion (which it is). This report begins with the case everyone is talking about. Note the return of centrist/moderate langauge:

In 1991, Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. voted to uphold a Pennsylvania statute that would have required at least some married women to notify their husbands before getting an abortion; a year later, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor cast a decisive fifth vote at the Supreme Court to strike it down. …

The record is clear: On some of the most contentious issues that came before the high court, Alito has been to the right of the centrist swing voter he would replace. As a result, legal analysts across the spectrum saw the Alito appointment yesterday as a bid by President Bush to tilt the court, currently evenly divided between left and right, in a conservative direction. O’Connor “has been a moderating voice on critical civil liberties issues ranging from race to religion to reproductive freedom,” said Steven R. Shapiro, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In this case, the centrist position is to defeat a restriction on abortion rights. What would the liberal position be? The story says that the court is, at the moment, perfectly balanced. Is that accurate, if the issue is abortion (which it is)? What would the court look like if it tilted to the left? How could it tilt further to the left on this issue?

By the way, Lane later reports this interesting information:

Alito struck down a New Jersey law that would have banned the procedure known by opponents as “partial-birth” abortion — just as O’Connor did. His ruling, following the one O’Connor voted for, said the statute was unconstitutional because it did not include an exception for cases in which the woman’s health was at risk.

• That important word “center” shows up again in a Dan Balz story on President Bush and the political right. Here we read:

Whether the upcoming battle, which is likely to focus heavily on the divisive issue of abortion, ultimately helps a president whose approval ratings are scraping 40 percent, and whose support among moderates and independents has plummeted even lower, is an open question — and one hotly debated among strategists yesterday. Given the state of his presidency and party, Bush may have had no other choice than to name a Supreme Court candidate who would help to heal the divisions within the GOP coalition, even at the risk of further alienating voters in the center.

Here we go again. In most polls, one small camp of hard-core liberals wants an absolute right to abortion while a similar camp on the right wants to ban abortion altogether. In between is the mushy middle, consisting of people who resist a total ban but want to see abortion limited to one degree or another, depending on how a poll question is worded.

In other words, compromise is in the middle. Restrictions are in the middle.

But, to read Balz literally, the way to reach the center is by defending the legal positions taken by the left. Once again, the key question is this: What would it take to create compromise legislation on abortion, some stance between a complete ban and abortion on demand? If the key to this story is finding and defending the center, what policy is in the center?

• Here is one final example, right there in the headline of a report by Charles Babington: “As Democrats Lead Opposition, GOP Moderates May Control Vote.”

We do not have to read far past the lead to see the dilemma facing reporters and their old-fashioned templates for this story. I am sorry if this is boring, but here goes:

Senate Democrats will lead the opposition to Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s Supreme Court nomination, but a handful of Republican moderates could ultimately decide its outcome, several analysts and lawmakers said yesterday.

The roughly half-dozen GOP senators who support abortion rights are scrutinizing Alito’s dissent in a major 1991 abortion case. If they determine that his judicial record or his answers to questions signal a willingness to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion, they will fall under heavy pressure to oppose him, said congressional scholars and analysts.

Again, we have the obvious question: What is the difference — if abortion is the issue (which it is) — between a liberal and a “moderate” Republican? If Roe is preventing compromise and compromise is the policy option that is located between the far right and the far left, how does one get to a “moderate” policy option without overturning Roe or radically redefining it?

I do think that some journalists, when they are making decisions about these kinds of style questions, need to do some more reading on the left and the right. Notice that both of these pundits support abortion rights. But both are seeking, well, moderation.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Michael

    The problem seems to be you are looking at abortion but not looking at the current state of the law.

    Liberals don’t want the status quo. They want fewer restrictions than currently exist in abortion jurisprudence. The current state of abortion law is fairly restrictive and far from “abortion on demand” or even easy access to abortion services. They are willing to accept the status quo, but it’s not what they want.

    Moderates (or centrists) are probably fairly content with the restrictive law, want to maintain the constituitional right, and are unwililng to overturn precedent.

    Conservatives want to reverse precedent, turn the issue over to the states, or completely limit access to abortions, even in the case of the health of the mother or rape.

  • Todd


    “current state of abortion law is fairly restrictive”

    In which way do you, or liberals in general, see the current abortion laws as being restrictive? And, if liberals in general do indeed see the current laws as being too restrictive, in which way(s) would they like to see them altered?

    “easy access to abortion services”

    To the best of my knowledge, this is primarily due to the fact that it is becoming more difficult to find “doctors” who are willing to engage in such a practice. It is my understanding that there are few, if any, legal impediments for anyone who is qualified to open an abortion practice.

    “case of the health of the mother or rape”

    I believe that this is a red herring meant only to alter the course of the discussion. As is seen in, only a total of 4% of those women who have an abortion claim that it is due to (a) rape and/or incest (1%), or (b) their health (3%).

  • Avram

    Part of what you’re talking about here, Terry, is how political language has drifted over the course of the past century (or two). The right-vs-left language, as I’m sure you know, has its origins in the seating arrangements in the revolutionary French National Assembly; “right” meant supportive of aristocracy and then-traditional religion, “left” meant opposed to the right, or supportive of laissez-faire capitalismor the rights of commoners.

    Traditionally, a “conservative” is supportive of the status quo, or of traditional institutions over individual liberties, while a “liberal” is supportive of individual liberties over tradition. The alert reader will notice that the degree of subjectivity in these defintions — for example, some traditional institutions serve to guarantee individual liberty (at least in theory).

    These two pairs of terms — left/right, liberal/conservative — are not synonymous. The left in both the US and Europe has often been disdainful of liberals. See the Phil Ochs song “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” (or the updated version by Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon) for examples.

    As liberalism has triumphed over the past century, for many issues (like abortion) the supremacy of individual liberties over traditional religious morality is the status quo. I’ve been known to argue that, on many issues, the conservative position is a liberal one.

    And then, over the past few decades, “liberal” and “leftist” have become synonymous terms, both insults, thanks to a long-term smear campaign by the right. This makes “liberal” and “conservative” even less equivalent terms than they were.

    “Moderate” is probably best used as an adjective rather than a noun. In many cases, a so-called moderate is just somebody who doesn’t care much about the issue at hand.

    Anyway, there is still room left for movement in the direction of abortion rights. I’d like to see the Mexico City Policy overturned, for example.

  • Tom Harmon


    Don’t you think that “maintenance of the status quo” is a slightly narrow definition of conservatism? The man who really made the term common parlance and who made it possible to identitfy a genuine conservative intellectual tradition, Russell Kirk, would have disagreed. So would most conservatives. It is famously hard to define what a conservative is, although Kirk defined it as the negation of ideology (in favor of traditional wisdom). the idea being that ‘The species is wise and the individual is fooloish,” and likewise that the long history of judgments and reasoning that make up tradition has more to say than the thin slice of people walking about alive at the moment.

    I suppose it must be equally hard to define a liberal, although Kirk’s definition would identify some who are today considered liberals as conservatives and vice versa.

  • Stephen A.

    Once again, a liberal howling about labels. I’m not going there, but I am going to the core of Alito, and it’s *not* abortion.

    This man is a “liberal” in what I thought were the best ways, and I’m shocked at the outbursts against him by some elected libs. A prosecutor who vigorously went after violators or environmental laws and civil rights laws is NOT some kind of luddite, “status quo,” head-in-the sand caricature of a conservative.

    But on abortion, he may not be a knee-jerk pro-abort ideologue who will rule ALL the time to upold ANY pro-abortion law, however unconstitutional or badly written, so (they say) let’s trash him.

    Great move.

  • Michael

    In which way do you, or liberals in general, see the current abortion laws as being restrictive? And, if liberals in general do indeed see the current laws as being too restrictive, in which way(s) would they like to see them altered?

    States have implemented many restrictions that reject the Roe v. Wage approach and those restrictions have been backed by the Supreme Court. They include restrictions on public hospitals, public money, Medicaid. In addition, regulations on abortion providers, including unreasonable building code and safety requirements, have limited the ability of providers to operate. Liberals–as opposed to their moderate friends–would suggest those are unreasonable restrictions. Moderates would likely disagree and back the current regime.

  • Avram

    Tom, yeah, I over-simplified somewhat, but my comment was long enough as it was.

  • Avram

    Stephen, were you referring to me or Terry as the “liberal howling about labels”? I can’t tell, since neither of us was actually howling.

  • Erik Nelson

    Traditionally, political theorists have spoken of the “liberal tradition” or “classical liberalism” of rights and liberty, usually defined in terms of limited government and private property.

    In that sense, both of thsoe who today call themselves “conservatives” and “liberals” in the US system are “liberals”. I’ve never known the definition to be made in terms of “tradition” versus “individual liberties” since modern conservatives do not believe the two are in conflict.

    As for the labels “left” and “right”, they are typically understood in modern usage to mean, respectively, activist government and small government or collectivist and individualist (although if you go to extremes on either end, they become similar once again, in fascist or totalitarian forms).

    Of course, there’s more to it than that. Defining either liberals or conservatives in terms of favoring either individual liberties or tradition over against the other distorts both perspectives.

    Most of us conservatives do not consider “liberal” or “leftist” to be smear terms at all, but usefully descriptive.

    In Europe, the situation is different given the more diverse labels one is allowed to attach to oneself, and given the fact that the word “liberal” has retained its classical definition more so than it has in the US.

    All that to say is that the word “moderate” has ceased to have any real meaning in the US, because we tend to think in terms of conservative or liberal (and because, for a variety of reasons, most Americans consider themselves moderate even when they are not).

    Moderates can be socially conservative but economically liberal (like many evangelicals), or socially liberal and economically conservative (like many libertarians–Glenn Reynolds comes to mind). So what does moderate really mean in the US? Had we labels such as “Christian Democrat” or “Socialist” or whatever, we might make more sense of things. Given our two-party system, we’re at a label disadvantage. We have a name for the second type (libertarian), but not for the others. It makes these kinds of political discussions difficult.

  • David

    Our state’s supreme court upheld the code and safety requirements for abortion facilities on the basis that they were consistent with other medical facilities. Those requirements were considered unreasonable by…guess who…the abortion providers.

    Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? Roe v. Wade saved us from back alley abortions, but the abortion doctors dery the “chilling effect” of having to sterilize the operating theaters or properly dispose of the “waste”.

  • Michael

    I was only asked the difference between the moderate and the liberal positions, not to defend them. There is an argument that the code regulations are really a way of regulating out of business what the law won’t outlaw. If you make it so expensive to operate, it’s a de facto ban. That’s the clarion call among conservatives on issues like environmental regulations, OSHA, even the ADA.

  • Avram

    I’ve never known the definition to be made in terms of “tradition” versus “individual liberties” since modern conservatives do not believe the two are in conflict.

    Erik, have you been following the debates over same-sex marriage? Especially from conservatives who tie it in with no-fault divorce? I’ve been seeing conservatives (Maggie Gallagher and Eve Tushnet come to mind) who basically argue that modern individualism is undermining old and needed traditions.

  • Stephen A.

    Avram, check back in that Nov. 1 6:33 post for all those “quoted” words (like “left” and “conservative” and “liberal”) and that’s you, howling about labels.

    This lecture about their history and their supposed irrelevance has been trotted out numerous times, always by liberals and leftists who hate the labels they’ve earned for their religious or political dogmatism.

    You should embrace it, like conservatives on the Right do.