Merriam-Webster's dictionary describes the term as "professing or characterized by political or social beliefs that are not extreme." Doesn't sound bad, does it?
But if you're campaigning in Kansas in 2010, apparently extreme is the way to go. Because the word defined above is "moderate," and it's the dirtiest word in Kansas politics today.
Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Goddard, has taken to openly calling Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Hays, a moderate, in a tone that evokes the image of spit being forced out of the mouth. Based on the textbook definition of "moderate," you'd think Tiahrt was endorsing Moran. Meanwhile, Moran touts his 96 percent voting record with the American Conservative Union.
In the 1st Congressional District race, all the candidates have been trying to point out their "conservative" credentials. The campaign website of state Sen. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, mentions the word six times on its welcome page, trying to contrast with fellow hopeful state Sen. Jim Barnett, R-Emporia.
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In the 4th Congressional District, Wink Hartman's Wichita ad blitz mentions "conservative" as many times as his name.
Moderate Republican? Might as well be a Green Party member in 2010.
Apparently, at least according to the campaign rhetoric, if you're a moderate you're not really an authentic conservative. And to be the most conservative in a field of conservatives, the easy way out is to call someone else a moderate.
"Moderate" has become a dirty word, and that's strange. For most of my life, one of the great political insults was to call someone an extremist. So now, why is calling someone a moderate such a put-down?
Part of the push to the right is the sense that Washington has turned hard left over the past four years. Moderates compromise, and compromise is not what the public is in the mood for right now. The tea party alone shows that the national mood has turned and more people are embracing the term "conservative" to show not that they are extreme, but that they are fighters who will not back down on their principles.
The biggest problem with the willingness to fight is that it is incompatible with actual governing. Passing any piece of legislation requires cooperation and compromise among diverse interests and viewpoints. It's one thing to talk about fighting, but when fighters get elected they tend to get less accomplished and cause more havoc.
When it comes to getting into office, being a knee-jerk conservative has its own pitfalls. Republicans seeking to hold the seat of Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., need look no further than 2002, when Tim Shallenburger surrendered Cedar Crest to Democrat Kathleen Sebelius by being not moderate enough. Phill Kline's loss in the attorney general race to Paul Morrison in 2006 is another example.
Yes, the statewide mood is more accepting of conservatives now. But Republicans must be careful to know that the farther they run to the right, the easier it becomes for their Democratic challengers in November to paint them as wacky extremists and maybe even win.
So a word of advice to those trying to be as conservative as they can: You might want to moderate your language.