Like many 1970s-era college students who took part in anti-Vietnam War protests and wore George McGovern buttons, I watched with fascination as Richard Nixon's presidency unraveled during Watergate.

Today, I can still recite parts played in the scandal by Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt. As a graduate student in Washington in those days, I even attended the Watergate trial.

But now, I'm here to admit, I miss Richard Nixon.

Not the paranoid and crooked part, but I do miss Nixon's intelligence and, by 2011's standards, his squishy centrism.

Nixon opened relations with China and effectively negotiated arms limits with the Soviet Union. And Nixon's record on the economy, as well as on the environmental and regulatory front, would look intrusive and soft to the tea partiers of today. In fact, long after his defeat in the 1972 election, McGovern said Nixon, other than on Vietnam, would ultimately get high marks from historians.

Politicians like Rick Perry make me miss Nixon.

The governor of Texas has vaulted ahead in polls for the Republican presidential nomination in recent days by taking positions like these:

• Evolution is "just a theory that's out there."

• Scientific consensus on climate change is "all one contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight."

• All top jobs in his administration would be filled by abortion foes.

• It's time to "turn America over to God" for Him to fix.

• Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme" and it and Medicare are unconstitutional.

• Gay Americans are "part of Satan."

• Actions by the Bush-appointed chairman of the Federal Reserve are "treasonous."

• President Obama is not sufficiently American or does not necessarily love his country.

Who knows whether Perry actually believes this stuff. He was, after all, once a Democrat who worked for Al Gore.

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, warns that Perry could actually become president. Brooks notes Perry does especially well with what he calls the "alternative-reality right," those who do not believe in evolution, global warning or that Obama was born in the United States.

But here's my question: Where is the "reality right?"

Where are the Republicans who subscribe to traditional GOP values of self-reliance and limited government but concede that Democrats are also loyal Americans and that scientists know what they are talking about on global warming and stem-cell research? I am thinking of Republican voters who preferred the first President Bush to his swaggering son.

Or, closer to home, where are Republicans who think Tommy Thompson was an accomplished Wisconsin governor who needn't apologize to GOP extremists who condemn him now for having represented all of us instead of just the far right?

So where are Republicans who are part of the "reality right?" Political operatives I talk to on background say GOP moderates are "keeping their heads down" or "running for the hills."

Barry Burden, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor who specializes in U.S. politics, says there is little apparent incentive for the hard right in Wisconsin to embrace moderates.

"Despite setbacks in the state Senate recalls," he says, "at the moment Republicans feel triumphant, having taken control of Wisconsin state government just last year and enacted most of their legislative agenda this year."

"There has been some pullback from the party's positions on social issues, but on fiscal issues there are few signs of moderation on the horizon," Burden says.

But some Republicans I talked with on the record reject my premise that GOP moderates are outside looking in and contend Democrats have also moved further to the left.

Says Mark Graul, who managed Republican Mark Green's 2006 gubernatorial campaign and runs a political consulting firm: "I think there are a wide range of views within the Republican Party. In terms of party activity, you still have plenty of moderates who are involved."

He says too much is made of Club for Growth criticism of Thompson. "There are lots of moderate Republicans who don't share (that) view. It is not fair to pigeonhole the entire party."

George Lightbourn, who was secretary of the Department of Administration under two GOP governors, Thompson and Scott McCallum, says extremism exists on both sides.

"You'll find the same thing on the other side of the spectrum," says Lightbourn, president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a Republican-leaning think tank. He says even moderate policy concepts get swept into the partisan frenzy: "There is no room for interpretation or nuance. That's the playing field that a guy like Tommy Thompson is going to wander into."

When I suggested that some Madison Republicans I know are drawn to Thompson but feel estranged from the party, GOP operatives contend there has always been a geographic divide, that local Republicans have long been more moderate on social issues and less anti-union than the GOP statewide.

Counters Professor Burden: "I disagree. Madison Republicans are probably different, but Thompson is not technically from Madison, just from a different era. The party has clearly shifted to the right at both the state and national levels. The tea party movement has only helped to solidify the party's conservative positions."

Thompson may be Wisconsin's version of Mitt Romney or John Huntsman, GOP presidential candidates who would have had broad appeal in other eras but struggle today.

"This is a funny turn of events," observes Burden. "It used to be said that ‘bleeding heart liberals' were out of touch with reality and Republicans were the hard-headed data miners. There are certainly smart policy wonks in the GOP," he adds, pointing to U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Janesville, "but there is a growing breed of Republican ... who is inspired beyond the data, to put it kindly."

For me, there are two political pendulums, one of liberal and conservative, the other of reality-based versus, well, not. (If you disagree, curl up with in-depth profiles probing the anti-intellectual core values of Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann.)

Burden says 2010 did perhaps signal some change, when tea party candidates in U.S. Senate races in Delaware and Nevada lost general elections to Democrats after beating more mainstream GOP foes in primaries.

He adds that "there could be a swing back if Republicans start losing elections."

To me, that means back to another time, before "alternative reality" took hold in American politics.

 

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