The GOP’s Reality-Based Community

The fall of moderate Republicans wasn’t inevitable. But their resurrection is hard to imagine.

Yale historian Geoffrey Kabaservice first attracted critical attention with his biography of former Yale University president Kingman Brewster, The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment. The book was not only a chronicle of the life and times of Brewster and his circle of hugely influential friends, it was also a history of the world of public servants, both Democrat and Republican—from JFK’s national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, to John Lindsay, Republican mayor from New York; from Episcopal bishop Paul Moore to Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state, Cyrus Vance. These were all men born to great wealth and privilege, and they were all fierce believers in the notion that they had an obligation to be of service to their country.


Rule and Ruin:
The Downfall of Moderation
and the Destruction of the
Republican Party, from
Eisenhower to the Tea Party

by Geoffrey Kabaservice
Oxford University Press, 504 pp.

Kabaservice’s new book, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party, reads like an elegy to that bygone era—to the once-proud Republican moderate political establishment that was defined by men such as Lindsay and Moore. Kabaservice surveys the rise and fall of the patrician class that once dominated the GOP but has been all but banished from the Republican Party hierarchy by the movement conservatives who are now in charge. The conservative revolution that overtook the old moderate establishment is by now a familiar story, but has been mostly written (as most history is) about the victors. Rule and Ruin is the same story, but told mostly about the losers. Kabaservice has combed the archives and conducted hundreds of interviews with politicians and activists, unearthing a wealth of information about postwar moderates—men like George Romney, Elliot Richardson, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., Charles Percy, Edward Brooke, John Chafee, and Nelson Rockefeller—and reminding us that these men were both numerous and influential.

The GOP, as Kabaservice notes, has not always been a bastion of reflexive hostility to elites or to government. Quite the contrary. It was none other than George Romney—governor of Michigan, father of Mitt—who in 1968 campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination by embarking on a 10,000-mile tour of poverty across America, insisting that it was essential to “listen to the voices from the ghetto.” Can anyone imagine his son, who insists that “corporations are people,” uttering a remotely similar statement?

The pedigree of moderate conservatism goes back to the Mugwumps, the anticorruption Republican East Coast gentry who, during the 1884 presidential election, fled the Republican Party en masse, throwing their support to Democrat Grover Cleveland rather than support a Republican nominee with suspect financial connections. Kabaservice begins his story half a century later, with Robert Taft, the man known as Mr. Republican. Taft’s rise ignited a battle between the moderates and the conservatives, and his anti-internationalism cost him the Republican nomination in 1940, 1948, and 1952, but he was no foe of elites. Kabaservice points out that Taft shunned cheap populism and respected intellect. (When Taft’s wife was asked at a rally about whether her husband was a common man, she responded, “Oh, no, he is not that at all. He was first in his class at Yale and first in his class at Harvard Law School. I think it would be wrong to present a common man as a representative of the people of Ohio.”)

The trajectory of the modern Republicans from George Romney to Mitt began with the election of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. Moderates such as Paul Hoffmann, a leading business figure who had saved the Studebaker Corporation from bankruptcy, were elated. Eisenhower admired Hoffmann but was dismayed by his moderate Republican supporters in Congress, who, he said, lacked “guts.” He told his aides, “We really need a few good hatchet men on our side up there.” The conservative faction, by contrast, was dismayed by Eisenhower’s caution. Already, Kabaservice writes, they saw the “[m]oderates and progressives not as misguided brethren but as traitors to be destroyed.”

Eisenhower incurred their wrath because rather than seeking to undo the New Deal, he tried to govern around it. A former military man, Eisenhower had few qualms about standing up to forces inside the Pentagon—particularly their demands for increased spending. Couple that with his unwillingness to do more than allow his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, to fulminate about rolling back communism, and you had a recipe for rumblings on the far right about a fresh round of appeasement. Indeed, Eisenhower managed to largely emasculate both the isolationists and the hard right, and they in turn saw him as the real threat, fearing that he was subverting the Republican Party from within by preaching adaptation to the New Deal rather than trying to overthrow it.

Disaffected conservatives instead clustered around William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review; they were becoming radicalized. Buckley himself stated in a 1957 interview that he was a “revolutionary against the present liberal order. An intellectual revolutionary.” Kabaservice believes that Buckley and company were “the only Republican tribe that had a sense of themselves as an ideologically coherent group joined in a movement, and their sense of heroic embattlement was enhanced by their opponents’ tendency to view them as not merely wrong but insane.” (It isn’t clear just what Buckley would have thought of the current crop of Republican candidates or of the Tea Party. But one can safely assume he would have cringed at the movement’s flaunting of its total lack of pragmatism and sophistication.)

In 1960, when Richard Nixon became the nominee of the Republican Party, he felt compelled to meet with Nelson Rockefeller, the GOP’s standardbearer, in order to discuss the terms of the party’s platform. They met at Rockefeller’s New York apartment, after which they issued a joint fourteen-point statement that reflected progressive views on jobs, civil rights, and housing. The press dubbed their meeting “The Compact of Fifth Avenue”; Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, darling of the right, called it a “Republican Munich.” The right had lionized Nixon for his role in the Alger Hiss case, and Nixon fit into the conservative pantheon as a fearless martyr who had braved the obloquy of the liberal establishment to expose a domestic traitor. But Nixon did not really campaign as a conservative in the election against John F. Kennedy, even pointing in one debate to the areas of common ground that the two shared because he feared losing moderate voters. Only in the last weeks of the campaign did he begin to distinguish himself from his rival for the White House.

With Nixon’s loss, the right went on the offensive. In Maryland, L. Brent Bozell Jr., the brother-in-law of William F. Buckley Jr., challenged the incumbent Republican Senator Charles C. Mathias for the U.S. Senate. The GOP could not, said Mathias, “continue to be a truly national party unless we have the benefit of the views of those who are conservative, those who are moderates, and those who are liberals.” His opponent would have none of this. Bozell—who admired the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and in 1960 had inveighed against Buckley’s move to exclude the John Birch Society from the conservative movement— attacked Mathias’s support for civil rights legislation and accused him of being soft on communism. Still, Mathias won, and he went on to serve in the U.S. Senate for twenty-five years.

Moderates were again set up for a victory in the 1964 GOP primaries with Nelson Rockefeller leading in the polls, until the candidate’s marital troubles torpedoed his appeal, leaving an opening for Barry Goldwater, the conservative movement’s hero. Kabaservice acutely diagnoses that the “thrill of defying moderate elites was central to the appeal of the Goldwater campaign,” and that the “single piece of campaign literature that best captured the anti-establishment, antimoderate mentality of Goldwater con-servatism” was a book by the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, A Choice Not an Echo, which purported to tell the inside story of how American presidents are elected. It was a creepy little pamphlet in which the author claimed that “secret kingmakers” based on Wall Street dominated the media. Their cabal included the participants in the Bilderberg meetings (informal soirees that were supposed to facilitate cooperation between Europe and the U.S. over brandy and cigars), whose “most trusted agents” were Rockefeller and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. This group consistently selected Republican moderates who lost elections rather than conservatives who might prove too difficult to control. Goldwater volunteers, Kabaservice says, disseminated no less than half a million copies of Shlafly’s tract in California.

Even after Goldwater’s crushing loss to Lyndon B. Johnson, conservatives were unrepentant. They blamed moderates for their defeat, and concluded that the solution was to carry out a purge of the GOP. Conservatives, warned Ronald Reagan in a speech to the Los Angeles County Young Republicans in November 1964, must not “turn the Republican Party over to the traitors in the battle just ended.”

They didn’t. The correlation of forces, to use an old Soviet term, was increasingly on their side. Those “tidal pressures”—white flight to the suburbs, anger at Vietnam protesters, and the debacle of the Democratic Convention in Chicago—are familiar enough. But Kabaservice pins the demise of the moderates on the failure of George Romney to win the Republican nomination in 1968. Romney, he observes, was the GOP moderates’ last and best chance to elect one of their own to the presidency, which in turn, he argues, would have preserved the long-term viability of their movement. Romney united northeastern liberals with moderate midwesterners and westerners and had the “potential to attract non-traditional Republican constituencies” with his support for civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War. “The moderates would never again have the opportunity to build a national movement in the way that a successful Romney presidential campaign, let alone a Romney presidency, could have afforded,” writes Kabaservice.

Though initially the front-runner for the nomination, Romney was never very good on the stump, and his campaign tanked after he visited Vietnam and reported that he had been “brainwashed” by the generals. What he meant was that they had tried to brainwash him, but the gaffe was used by his political enemies to suggest that he was susceptible to brainwashing.

Romney ultimately lost the nomination to Richard Nixon, who fatefully took the party, and the nation, in a different direction. Nixon kept the loyalty of many moderate votes with progressive domestic policies, such as the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. But he also shrewdly reached out, via his famous Southern Strategy, to white workingclass voters in the South who were alienated by Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act and shared Nixon’s own grievances against the educated East Coast elite.

Then Watergate happened. A number of moderate Republicans in the House of Representatives who voted for the articles of impeachment against Nixon earned the enmity of rank-and-file Republicans, who punished their disloyalty by throwing them out of office. Gerald Ford’s close call in the 1976 Republican primary, when Ronald Reagan almost stripped him of the nomination, was a potent sign of the right’s growing strength. But by 1980, enough angry conservative southern whites had joined the GOP, and enough working- class northern Democrats had been turned off by the drift of the country, that the moderates were outnumbered; this time Reagan, a more radical-right figure, won the GOP nomination.

Of course, the GOP has moved so far to the right that Reagan himself, as many have observed, might have had trouble running on his record if he were a candidate in the current GOP primaries. Indeed, one need only witness Mitt Romney’s contorted efforts to distance himself from his own past positions and accomplishments as Massachusetts governor to see how hostile the party has become to any hint of deviation from conservative gospel.

Kabaservice gloomily speculates that the “growth of ideologically polarized politics may prove toxic to government effectiveness and perhaps even to America’s social stability.” Maybe, but it’s possible that the 2012 election will go some distance toward settling political disputes that have hampered President Obama’s first term. Indeed, if Newt Gingrich, a more authentic (if heterodox) conservative than Romney, captures the Republican nomination, a Manichean clash between two diametrically opposed ideologies will take place. If Gingrich were to lose the race, the GOP might begin to question the wisdom of its long march toward the right-wing fringe, and moderates might once again find their views welcome within the party.

But that day, if it comes, is a long way off. Until then, where will moderate Republican voters go? They might support Obama, as some did in 2008. Certainly Obama can make a credible case that the centrist policies he’s pursued as president are in line with their preferences. But party identity is a remarkably tribal force, and many would rather stay home than pull the lever for a Democrat. The wild card this year is an effort by the well-funded centrist group Americans Elect to build a grassroots, Web-based constituency for a third-party presidential challenge. If that effort grows and its organizers can recruit someone like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself an enlightened plutocrat, to head the ticket, it’s possible to imagine moderate Republicans jumping on board. Their candidate might not win, but it could give moderate Republicans more respect and power than they’ve enjoyed in many years.


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Jacob Heilbrunn

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.