Skip to Content

Mark Kirk and the Politics of Moderation

Real Clear Politics

Thursday, Jun 9, 2011

Kirk's views are reminiscent of an erstwhile Illinois, back in the days when it was better known as the Land of Lincoln and not Obama Country -- a state that voted Republican in all but two presidential elections between 1952 and 1988.

It was a détente of sorts, set in a legendary Chicago dive over burgers and a couple of beers. Mark Kirk and Alexi Giannoulias sat across from each other at the Billy Goat Tavern last November, reconciling their differences after their bruising campaign to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate.

Kirk emerged the victor, dressing the part that afternoon in khakis, a blazer and dress shoes; Giannoulias, seemingly dispirited, wore jeans, a jersey and sneakers. After a close election, one man was on his way to Washington, the other to the purgatory of defeat.

"It was a knife fight in a dark alley," said Kirk, who eked out a win by less than 2 percent of the vote, "and I'm the guy who crawled out."

Nearly seven months into his Senate tenure, Kirk will be the first to tell you that it very well could have been him congratulating Giannoulias at their saloon summit. But his win, however small the margin, largely came to symbolize the 2010 midterms: In an election seen as a rebuke of President Obama, Kirk -- a Republican -- walked away with the president's former Senate seat, handing the White House perhaps its biggest political embarrassment on a night that saw Democrats lose control of the House of Representatives.

Conventional wisdom credited the tea party with this historic Republican takeover, though it seems Kirk's win came despite the right-wing insurgency rather than because of it. It was the tea party, after all, that not only dealt a severe blow to Democrats nationwide but also helped unseat GOP members it found unpalatable -- those like Kirk, who were pejoratively dubbed RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only. A self-described moderate, the 51-year-old Kirk could have easily fallen prey to this purge; instead he handily defeated his tea party-backed opponent in Illinois' Republican primary, ultimately winning in November having never reached out to the influential conservative movement.

Today, the freshman senator has embarked on a high-wire act in which he must satisfy voters in traditionally blue Illinois as the tea party continues to hold considerable clout with Republicans. It's a tricky task in a political system that has grown increasingly polarized, but Kirk is aware of the pitfalls. And as the political firmament begins aligning itself for another presidential campaign, with the GOP scrambling to remedy its ongoing identity crisis, Kirk confidently believes his brand of Rockefeller Republicanism might just become a force to be reckoned with once again.

Simple Slogans, Complicated Politics

Mark Kirk describes himself in a way he hopes will appeal to independent voters -- and even some Democrats -- without unduly alienating the grass roots of his own party.

"I'm a fiscal conservative, a social moderate and a national security hawk," he said in an interview, rattling off what has become a simple slogan to describe the complicated makeup of his politics.

Kirk's views are reminiscent of an erstwhile Illinois, back in the days when it was better known as the Land of Lincoln and not Obama Country -- a state that voted Republican in all but two presidential elections between 1952 and 1988.

The year Kirk was born in the modest college town of Champaign, Everett Dirksen became the most powerful Republican in the U.S. Senate. As minority leader, the Illinois senator was the de facto voice of the GOP, an iron-willed budget cutter who strongly supported the Vietnam War and became best known for championing civil rights throughout the 1960s.

Dirksen was also a philosophical hero of Kirk's, influencing him to pursue a life in public policy. And after receiving degrees from Cornell, the London School of Economics and Georgetown Law, that's exactly what Kirk did, returning home to work for another moderate Republican, Rep. John Porter.

Kirk floated around Washington for several years afterward, holding positions in the World Bank, the State Department and the House International Relations Committee before he ultimately succeeded the retiring Porter as a representative from Illinois's 10th Congressional District.

The area proved a perfect political stomping ground for the moderate Kirk. Made famous in the 1980s as the quintessential American suburbia by filmmaker John Hughes, the affluent North Shore lies just outside of overwhelmingly liberal Chicago but not quite within the boundaries of the state's more conservative corners. It's a swing district that historically votes Democratic for president, Republican for Congress, and usually by razor-thin margins.

But as Kirk vied to expand his constituency beyond his moderate bubble with a Senate bid, he was met with spirited opposition from both sides. Illinois Democrats clamored about his support of the Bush tax cuts; Republicans denounced his vote in favor of cap-and-trade legislation. Amid all of this, Kirk cheerfully told the Chicago Tribune, "If there are flaming arrows hitting both sides of the wagon, you're where the American people are."

Debating the Incredible Shrinking Moderates

Pundits weren't quite as rosy about the prospects for moderates in 2010, persisting with their eulogies for this supposedly dying faction of the GOP. As several high-profile Republicans forfeited their seats to tea partiers across the country, from Delaware to Utah, moderate Republicans and liberal commentators alike proclaimed the end of an era. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne argued that it marked "the collapse of the Republican Party not only of Nelson Rockefeller and Tom Dewey but also of Bob Dole and Howard Baker."

Kirk sounds a different tune, one of clear frustration with what he says is a common misconception in American politics. When prompted about the alleged extinction of his breed, he disputed the claim about as fervently as a wonkish, mild-mannered Midwesterner possibly could: "Oh, jeez," Kirk sighed. "It's an old wives' tale, and no one cares to look at the numbers."

Those numbers, he contends, tell a different story: 49 moderate Republicans compose the House's centrist Tuesday Group, the conference's highest membership since it was formed after the 1994 Gingrich Revolution. Even so, centrists constitute just one-fifth of the 240-member House GOP caucus. And many of them are simply accidental beneficiaries of a strong Republican national tide in 2010, according to experts.

"I see them as an anomaly rather than a sign that moderate Republicans are back," said Gary C. Jacobson, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. Based on objective evidence such as roll-call votes, Jacobson asserts that congressional Republicans have been moving steadily to the right for at least 30 years.

In the Senate, Kirk's new home, there can be little doubt that moderate Republicans have become endangered in recent years. There were the prominent losses of Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee and Ohio's Mike DeWine in 2006, the retirement of Virginia's John Warner in 2009, and of course the defections of Vermont's Jim Jeffords and Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, who borrowed Ronald Reagan's famous quip: I didn't leave my party, my party left me.

But in the Age of Obama -- accidental or not -- GOP moderates seem to be making a comeback. Most recently there were the remarkable wins of Kirk in Illinois, Scott Brown in Massachusetts, and incumbent Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, all of which have made centrists paradoxically more influential in the Senate as Republicans bridged the gap with Democrats after the midterms.

"We're all very dramatic examples, but we're a signal that times may be a-changing," Kirk said.

Certainly this was true during lunchtime in the Senate a few weeks ago.

Bipartisanship and the Balancing Act

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has quickly become one of Kirk's closest friends in the Senate. "My main man Manch" is what Kirk affectionately calls his pal, a Blue Dog best described as the Democratic counterpart to Kirk.

Disillusioned with the Senate's partisan social cleavage, both starry-eyed newcomers set out to fix things. "Follow me," the freewheeling Mountaineer said to Kirk one day in early May, "I'm heading to a budget meeting and we need to shake things up."

Kirk was hesitant, suspecting that his presence might inflame most everyone at the Democratic strategy session. But Manchin insisted.

"Well OK," Kirk said. "You're my buddy."

So off they went, sitting side-by-side in the meeting for what became five increasingly uncomfortable minutes. Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, grew unamused with their shenanigans.

"This caucus is for Democrats only," the visibly miffed North Dakotan told Kirk.

Thanking Manchin for the invite, Kirk stood up, gave a brief but preachy speech about the importance of bipartisanship in these dire times, and bolted from the tension-filled room as he returned smiles with his smirking accomplice.

"Some of the Democrats in there were mad, but the senior members seemed more embarrassed than anything else," Kirk recalled. "They remember older times when we weren't so divided."

Kirk's bipartisan inclinations have largely helped shape his moderate brand. In addition to setting up bipartisan Senate lunches on Thursdays in tandem with Manchin, Kirk has teamed up with a number of other Democrats on issues both foreign and domestic. With Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois he's working on legislation to crack down on corruption among public officials; with New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand he's fighting to promote human rights in Iran; and with one of his most vocal critics from the campaign trail, senatorial colleague Dick Durbin, he's working on a host of issues pertaining to the Prairie State.

Despite a heated campaign, Kirk and Durbin have become a model of bipartisanship as they have collaborated on any number of initiatives, from nuclear safety to environmental protection. Some suggest the duo evoke memories of Dirksen and his Democratic colleague Paul Douglas, who were close allies while representing Illinois together from 1951 to 1966.

"I tried my best to never get personal during the campaign," Durbin said. "There are differences between us and they'll always remain, but I've been pleasantly surprised at how much we've been able to work together."

Most recently, the two helped Illinois secure more than $454 million in federal funding for high-speed passenger rails, which became available after the Republican governors of Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio all rejected it as "wasteful spending."

It was just another example of Kirk's willingness to break with his party when the occasion calls for it, a position he has firmly established since his earliest votes in the Senate. Just a month after taking office in the waning days of the 111th Congress, Kirk joined Democrats and seven other Republicans in backing the successful repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell," the longstanding policy on gays serving in the military.

Democrats like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saw the freshman Republican as a potential ally, courting him to support the new START treaty with Russia. It passed, garnering votes from every Democrat and 13 Republicans. Kirk, however, was not among them, and he even went so far as to oppose the measure with a speech from the Senate floor.

Although firmly grounded in centrism, Kirk can at times be unpredictable. His vote for the failed Paul Ryan budget was just the latest example of this, but it's helped the senator curry favor with conservative critics who have long regarded him as nothing more than the lesser of two evils. He's even been "fairly dependable" in the eyes of the tea party, according to Steve Stevlic, organizer for the Chicago Tea Party Patriots.

"I would say we haven't given much thought to Mark Kirk since he's taken office, which, if you're Mark Kirk, is probably good news," said Stevlic, who admits the movement was concerned with Kirk's candidacy during the campaign. "He's no Jim DeMint, but he's no Olympia Snowe either."

A Man of the World

For all his talk of fiscal conservatism and social moderation, it's the third tenet of Kirk's political identity that is perhaps his most distinguishing trait: the hawkish approach to national security and foreign policy.

This might be expected of someone who has moonlighted as a commander in the Navy Reserve since 1989. He wasn't awarded "Intelligence Officer of the Year," as he falsely claimed during the campaign, and he came under heavy fire for several other military embellishments he made.

But self-puffery aside, the freshman senator has wasted little time driving the debate on foreign policy. In the last month, he has met with Chinese leaders on trade, called on President Obama to repair damaged relations with Poland, and visited Bahrain just weeks after protests rocked the tiny Arab nation.

He even became the first U.S. senator to travel to Somalia since 1991 in an unlikely crusade to combat piracy. Kirk has all but rebuked the long-held Senate tradition of freshmen reticence, forgoing the usual approach of avoiding the spotlight early on. It's prompted some to wonder whether he aspires to higher office, especially since strong foreign policy credentials often propel senators to political preeminence and seniority, á la Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

Not surprisingly, Kirk denies any and all desire to ascend the political totem pole. "I'm going to stick to my knitting," he said coyly, maintaining that he never thought a moderate Republican from the centrist North Shore could ever become a U.S. senator in deep blue Illinois.

And as his former opponent Giannoulias embarks on his new endeavor -- teaching a course called "Campaigning vs. Leading" at Northwestern University -- Kirk strives to take advantage of his new role as he quickly becomes an important voice in the Senate.

"If I'm a little bit more active, it's because I'm grateful to be in this position," he said. "If it weren't for 60,000 votes, it very well could have been me in that classroom next fall."


By: Alex Katz

230 South Dearborn
Suite 3900
Chicago, IL 60604
Phone: 312-886-3506
Fax: 312-886-2117
Map: Get Directions

607 East Adams
Suite 1520
Springfield, IL 62701
Phone: 217-492-5089
Fax: 217-492-5099
Map: Get Directions

Washington, DC
524 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington DC, 20510
Phone: 202-224-2854
Fax: 202-228-4611
Map: Get Directions