Today, one of the avatars of late-20th-century moderate Republicanism, longtime Michigan governor William Milliken, died at the age of 97. As the Detroit Free Press noted, he was identified with causes you really don’t associate with the GOP these days:
During his years in office, Milliken “shunned the extremes and sought to govern from the center,” wrote Michigan environmentalist Dave Dempsey in his 2006 biography, “William Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate.”
He was known as a champion of Detroit and the state’s environment, working closely with the late former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, and pushing for Michigan’s bottle deposit law, among other initiatives.
As it happens, the year Milliken left office after 14 years as governor, another midwestern pol began his national career with an election to Congress: Ohio’s John Kasich. Famed right off the bat as a hardcore conservative who only split with the right wing of his party if there was taxpayer money to be saved, Kasich spent a long time reflecting the growing conservative ascendancy in his party, as Lisa Miller observed in a 2017 profile of the once-and-perhaps-future presidential candidate:
He rose to prominence in Congress as a swaggering combatant during Newt Gingrich’s revolution and, even having served as governor of Ohio since 2011 — an established Republican if ever there was one — he still thinks of himself as an upstart outsider. “I was in the Tea Party before there was a Tea Party,” he boasted when he was running for governor.
After his unsuccessful effort to stop Donald Trump’s nomination in 2016, Kasich was one of the few Republican Trump critics who never came around to an endorsement of the mogul, and even wrote in John McCain’s name on his November ballot. So perhaps it’s not surprising that he has become the most prominent Republican pol, so far, to call for Trump’s impeachment, as CNN reported:
Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich said President Donald Trump should be impeached, a major switch for a former Republican presidential candidate who had previously said there was not enough evidence to impeach the President.
Kasich, who’s a CNN senior political commentator, told CNN’s Ana Cabrera Friday the “final straw” for him was White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s Thursday admission that military aid was withheld from Ukraine in order to pressure that country for investigations into Democrats.
Perhaps Kasich’s position is a harbinger of things to come — if not from other Republican pols then for previously Republican voters — or perhaps he will remain isolated. But it’s clear he’s a symbol of how rapidly his party, and particularly its conservative wing, has moved into Trump’s orbit, leaving him in principled opposition. Another such symbol is Mitt Romney, of course, who is stubbornly independent of the jealous would-be God in the White House, as the Associated Press reported:
Mitt Romney hasn’t yet decided whether President Donald Trump should be impeached, but the Republican senator from Utah on Thursday stuck by criticism that has earned him a stream of insults from Trump on Twitter.
Romney said that while he thinks some things the president has done are wrong, it doesn’t necessarily mean Trump should be removed from office.
“I will keep an open mind until and unless there is some kind of decision reached by the House, and then I will evaluate that information at that point,” he said, referring to the House impeachment inquiry. “It’s a purposeful effort on my part to stay unbiased and see the evidence as it’s brought forward.”
That’s some distance from the standard GOP “This is all a witch hunt!” line. And that’s another symbol of how far and fast Republicans have moved. Mitt was the “movement conservative” candidate for president in 2008, and only won the nomination in 2012 by making himself totally acceptable to the right wing of his party. Like John Kasich, he’s only a “moderate” in the very relative terms of the Trump Era.
But there are some historical echoes here. Mitt’s father, George, was by any reasonable assessment a genuinely moderate — perhaps even liberal —Republican. He was especially a champion of civil rights. And you know who his running mate and successor as governor was, when Romney joined Richard Nixon’s cabinet? That’s right: William Milliken. Republicans have taken a long, dark road down since then.