Phony War, Phony History

Underlying some of the phony war going on “for the soul of the Republican Party” is some phony history, too. One voice in the attacks on Karl Rove for allegedly disrespecting party conservatives, Ben Shapiro, has this interesting take:

The question is whether this will be the party of Ronald Reagan or the party of George W. Bush. The establishment opposed Ronald Reagan in 1980; they backed George H.W. Bush, convinced that Reagan was too extreme, not quick enough on his feet, no match for the more intellectual Jimmy Carter. Thank God they lost.

Well, the “party of Reagan versus the party of the Bushes” narrative is certainly neat and convenient, but not necessarily all that accurate. Sure, Ronald Reagan ran a highly ideological nomination campaign against Gerald Ford in 1976. But by 1980, he had plenty of “Establishment” support; one of the reasons he lost Iowa to George H.W. Bush that year was that he acted as though he was already the nominee, with “Hail to the Chief” being played regularly to introduce his campaign appearances. if there was any “Establishment” heartburn over Reagan, it was as much about his age (at 69, he was at that time the oldest major-party presidential nominee in U.S. history) as about his ideology. Bush, meanwhile, despite his New England moderate legacy, campaigned as a serious conservative; the “moderates” in the race were John Anderson and Howard Baker. Reagan insiders, moreover, have long confirmed that Bush was chosen over Gerald Ford as the 1980 running-mate in no small part because Poppy was willing and able to wipe out all their policy differences and loyally serve the Reagan cause, which he did by all accounts.

In the wake of the older Bush’s famous tax heresy in 1990, it is often forgotten that he was the “movement conservative” favorite for the GOP nomination in 1988, beating Bob Dole in no small part because he, as opposed to Dole, was willing to take Grover Norquist’s no-new-taxes pledge.

As for the younger Bush, it’s amazing to me how quickly conservatives have forgotten that W. was the universal choice of movement types for the nomination in 2000 (reflected in Robert Novak’s famous judgment back in 1998 that W. was “the biological heir of his father but the ideological heir of Ronald Reagan”), and was being treated as a world-historical collossus by the same people during his re-election campaign in 2004.

Yes, Tea Party types have repudiated parts of Karl Rove’s “permanent Republican majority” strategy of the Bush years–the parts that involved targeted outreach to swing voters to supplement the most thoroughgoing “base-in” electoral strategy since Reagan or perhaps even Truman. But that’s mostly been hindsight, as a way to absolve conservatives of complicity in the disaster of W.’s second term, and to avoid the historic lesson that losing parties ought to move to the political center.

The bigger story, however, is that Rove and his current intra-party enemies–and more generally the “Bush people” and the “Reagan people”–have never differed on much other that strategy and tactics. They have virtually identical policy goals, and express virtually identical contempt for compromise with Democrats on anything other than their own terms. So their “battles,” past and present, need to be taken with a shaker of salt.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.