Moderates, the debt ceiling, and the future of the Republican Party: Sara Fitzgerald, author of ‘Elly Peterson,’ weighs in

by University of Michigan Press on July 21, 2011

A couple of months ago, The Washington Post mused, in a front-page story on the presidential campaign of Jon Huntsman Jr., “Can a Republican moderate survive?”

I smiled when I saw the headline because you might think I was crazy to set out to write a book that would be titled Elly Peterson: “Mother” of the Moderates.  It’s not as if the moderates are holding a national convention, with chapters in every state and city these days!

The current Republican establishment is not very interested in “moderates,” and Democrats are not very interested in things that are labeled “Republican.” And for someone like Elly Peterson who abandoned the Republican Party and eventually labeled herself an “independent,” … well, perhaps there’s a support group somewhere on Facebook that fits the bill.

In the case of Huntsman, a former governor of Utah who stepped down as Barack Obama’s ambassador to China to seek the presidency, his aides were concerned early on that he might be labeled a moderate–the “M-word” one called it–because that is apparently viewed as cause for immediate disqualification among the voters likely to turn out in Republican presidential primaries.

They are probably right.


In 1971, after she stepped down as assistant chairman of the Republican National Committee, Peterson was very dispirited about the prospects for moderates like herself within the party.  She believed that Richard M. Nixon had not been interested in building and broadening the party the way that she felt George Romney had in Michigan.

She wrote in the first draft of a memoir she later self-published: “This is what I failed to realize, that time is short and men are eager for power, their own power, not that of a party or a nebulous group of leaders—some effective, some ineffective, some with it, some way out of it. The job of President, itself, makes a politician a statesman and the concerns of the party are left to advisors, who, in too many cases are not political.”

Romney, she concluded “was an ‘accident of fate.’ ” Moderates, she added, “fail in this regard to build strong parties with their philosophy for they are based too often on men of power, interested largely in themselves while conservatives are based on an idea, a philosophy. They therefore are ready to accept a new leader if he offers them what they want in the way of ideas—to heck with his personality or appearance.

“This then is the bitter pill I learned to swallow—that the ideas I have dreamed and thought of for so many years, yes, and worked for, simply will not come to pass.”

As the crisis over raising the debt ceiling deepens, one hopes that someone rediscovers “the middle” pretty soon.

Watch a video of Sara Fitzgerald talking about Elly Peterson’s history.

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