The death of the moderate in WA politics
The big reason that pro-choice Republican Reagan Dunn did an “about-face” and voted against abortion rights this past week?
It’s because there’s no such thing as a moderate in politics anymore.
And nobody knows this from painful experience more than Dunn himself.
A King County Council member now running for Congress, Dunn made news this past week when he voted “no” on a county measure that expressed support for Roe v. Wade and abortion rights.
This was seen as a reversal for him, because he has described himself as favoring abortion rights. Previously he was regarded as a sort of maverick in both local and national politics — the only Republican running for higher office in this state who might still be willing to cross his own party on such a bedrock, flashpoint issue.
Dunn’s existence in the GOP was analogous to if the Democrats had a pro-lifer running. Which shows you how rare it is, because, around here, they don’t, and won’t.
His actual views on abortion are a little inscrutable, which I’ll get to in a minute. But politically, the wisdom was that by going over to the anti-Roe v. Wade side, Dunn had made a mistake in a purple district in a blue state.
“I believe Reagan Dunn has just given a gift to the Democratic incumbent Kim Schrier,” said Ursula Reutin, a local radio talk show host at KIRO. “Just a reminder: a majority of voters in Washington are pro-choice. A majority of the country wants Roe v. Wade to be protected in some form.”
All true, and yet: There’s no position more hazardous in our polarized politics than to be caught reaching across the aisle.
I covered Dunn’s race for attorney general 10 years ago. Back then — what seems like a century ago because it was pre-Trump politics — the Republican Party locally was trying a strategy of nominating moderate candidates who rejected the GOP’s national brand of right-wing stridency.
Dunn stood out. In January 2012, he became one of the early Republicans anywhere to back same-sex marriage rights. That might not seem like a big deal now. But Dunn put himself out there four months before the Democratic president, Barack Obama, announced his backing of same-sex marriage. And more than a year before Hillary Clinton did.
What happened next was a preview of how clannish politics would become.
Dunn got shunned by his own party. He was disinvited to some GOP dinners and booed at some party events. At the same time, he got zero credit from Democrats or their voters. In the election he got wiped out in the bluest counties in the state, particularly his own, King, where he got only 34% of the vote.
His was a case study in how politics increasingly is “not about the facts or any sort of reality, it’s about group identity,” as Washington State University political science professor Cornell Clayton put it to me recently. Social or cultural sorting is what drives elections; policy stands, not so much. The issues are ways to signal which faction you belong to.
You can see this happening already with the U.S. Supreme Court and the leaked draft opinion overthrowing Roe v. Wade. Polls are showing a dramatic and widening partisan gap about the news. Republicans — even more pro-choice-leaning Republicans — are rallying to the court’s side, while Democrats go en masse the other way.
“The partisan gap in Supreme Court approval now stands at more than 50 points — 65% approval among Republicans compared with just 12% among Democrats,” found a national Monmouth University poll, released this week. This partisan gap was 32 percentage points smaller only two months ago — a polarization sea change in a blink. So people are processing the news by dividing into camps that are more widely split than are opinions about the underlying issue.
It’s not an environment where free thinking is likely to be rewarded.
Dunn’s stance on abortion, which he learned from his late mom, former Bellevue Rep. Jennifer Dunn, has not been easy to parse. He takes a libertarian view that government shouldn’t be involved in reproductive decisions. That’s what seemed to make him pro-choice.
But now he’s voted against Roe v. Wade — which is what granted all American women the liberty rights to make these decisions for themselves. He says he now wants authority returned to the states. That would put 50 different governments, not individual women, in charge.
Dunn’s mom was able to navigate the middle channel on this, but that was a gentler era.
“This is not something we can squish on,” one of Dunn’s pro-life GOP challengers, Matt Larkin, urged about abortion at a recent debate. “People are tired of squishes right now. We need steel-spined conservatives standing for something.”
Do we? The district’s voters lean pro-choice. Plus people say they want politicians who grasp complexity and aren’t scorched-earth crusaders.
But Larkin may be depressingly right about the true state of politics today. The issues or their details are bulldozed by strong tribal signaling.
I think Dunn learned his lesson from the last time. It didn’t matter a whit that he turned out to be 100% politically right about same-sex marriage. Stick your neck out, your head gets chopped off. And so another one ducks into line.