Is the GOP Moving to the Center? Or Just Getting Sane?

It is no secret that President Obama plans to move the country to the left, demanding "collective action" in his Inaugural Address to curb global warming, buttress the middle class, regulate guns and ammunition, defend Medicare and Social Security, and extend gay rights.

The question is whether, behind the scenes, Republican leaders have recognized an opportunity to counter Obama's liberalism with ever-so-slight jogs toward the center "“ if not ideologically, at least pragmatically, to a position the GOP all but abandoned in recent months: political sanity.

I ask because of three important developments:

  • The GOP-controlled House passed a bill Wednesday that effectively extends the debt ceiling limit until May 19. It was a major capitulation to Obama, who publicly declared he would not negotiate with the nation's credit held hostage. Rep. Paul Ryan, the party's vice presidential nominee in 2012, cited the "realities of divided government" when he urged his rank and file to effectively eat crow.
  • Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, another likely 2016 GOP presidential candidate, is quietly and (so far) effectively lobbying conservative lawmakers and commentators to consider immigration reforms. In the not-to-distant past, Rubio's proposals would have been fatally labeled as stalking horses for amnesty. 
  • Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is expected to tell the Republican National Committee tonight that it's time for the GOP to focus less on political battles in Washington. "A debate about which party can better manage the federal government is a very small and shortsighted debate," he is expected to say, according to the The Washington Post. "If our vision is not bigger than that, we do not deserve to win."

If these developments don't represent a tentative step to the center, they are at least deep bows to reality. Polls showed that the public was braced to blame Republicans for any economic fallout over a debt-ceiling fight. Election results from November underscored the GOP's existential image problem in the fast-growing Hispanic community.

There could be something else going on here: If Obama overestimates the amount of political capital he collected upon reelection (a common mistake for second-term presidents), he might go to far with his liberal agenda, alienate moderate and independent voters, and leave a vacuum for Republicans in the middle.

Yes, Republicans in the middle. It could happen.

In making the rounds on Capitol Hill, I've been struck by the recognition among GOP lawmakers that their party must adapt or perish. Some paint a broader picture, pointing out that both political parties need to be better attuned to the public will.

"The American people are not fearful of solutions to the big problems facing our country," said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa. "They are fearful that American leaders don't have the capacity to act."

Failure to respond to issues such as the national debt, Dent said, could force voters to seek alternatives, even an independent presidential bid. Citing the organic creation of the tea-party revolt, Dent ominously added, "The next movement to come along might not align itself with one of the two existing parties."