On Political Books

January/February 2012 The GOP’s Reality-Based Community

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

By Jacob Heilbrunn

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.

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.

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.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.


  • Rich on February 01, 2012 11:17 AM:

    You lost me at the end. Bloomberg used to be a Dem and I suspect he'd run on a Communist Party ticket if it would win him an election. The last Moderate Republicn to run as a third party was John Anderson who helped deliver the election to Reagan in 1980 and basically offered a pretty uninspiring platform. Perhaps with a background like that, moderates need to figure out where they belong and what they really believe.

    The GOP, btw, benefited from Blue Dog disillusion with the Dems during the McGovernite years which may have unintentionally helped embolden the hard Right. OTOH, the moderates essentially have a candidate that endorses most of their agenda except the Union bashing, in Obama. They may not be pragmatic enough to press the Dem lever, but that's not a problem that anyone else can fix for them. the Right may have neo-feudal, sometimes fascist ideas, but they have a clear agenda and part of the moderates' problem is that they haven't articulated it. their traditionally well-off standard bearers may feel a bit too entitled to bother doing the difficult work of organizing that, which may be part of their problem, as well.

  • Sean Scallon on February 01, 2012 10:40 PM:

    "but itís possible that the 2012 election will go some distance toward settling political disputes that have hampered President Obamaís first term."

    Sorry to disappoint you but it's not going to happen, any more than it happened when Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996. Some Republicans (like Gingrich for example) came to terms with Clinton's victory but Conservative INC. did not thus we had impeachment and thus Gingrich's overthrow because he was no longer willing to be a "revolutionary." Or look at Obama's first term, did Conservative INC. acquiese itself to Obama's overwhelming election? Hardly. Pretty soon we Tea Parties and "Birtherism". They were hardly ready to settle any political disputes and they were in the minority.

    The Goldwater campaign not only was part of a broader movement which eventually took power 16 years later and then revived itself with Gingrich. It was a movement which eventually became a part of the governing establishment. This movement, like all movements has basically become a racket for fundraising, lobbying, campaigns and dumping ground for all sorts of hacks. They live, breath, work, rise and sleep Right wing politics 24/7. It's their job. It's what they do. They have no interest in governing, only in opposing and resenting and campaigning. They need Obama if only to keep themselves activated and motivated (GOP Administrations are very bad for Right wing politics because they have to subordinate themselves to big man in the White House, who, if unpopular, basically becomes like a two-ton anchor. How liberated they must have felt when Obama was inaugurated and Bush II was gone and how they must be rooting for him again, for Romney would be death sentence. They need Obama to keep the "pure flame" of ideology going even that ideology is meaningless.

    Only in opposition or quasi-power (control of Congress) can they exist. They will not go away if Obama is re-elected. In fact, they are very much looking forward to it.

  • Burr Deming on February 03, 2012 1:15 PM:

    Good analysis, but flawed in one respect. The fall of moderates has been inevitable pretty much since the development of the home computer. It was not a bad strategic decision, or even a series of bad decisions. It has been a distinctly modern phenomenon fueled by technology.

    Almost a year ago, this incredible prediction has become quite believable.

  • JW on February 08, 2012 5:19 PM:

    "..[W]here will moderate Republican voters go? They might support Obama, as some did in 2008".

    Hell, yes, they'll support Obama in November. And for the best of reasons: Obama is one of them.

  • Big River Bandido on February 09, 2012 1:26 PM:

    Haven't read the book, though upon reading this review I'm intrigued. But on this question:

    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.

    I'd say Kabaservice isn't really speculating here; the situation described is already reality. We've seen clearly in the last few years how toxic politics have paralyzed governance and worsened the economic crisis. It's no surprise that even Gallup shows 90% of voters despising the Congress as a result.

    As for the potential of 2012 putting an end to this, I wouldn't hold my breath. "Settling political disputes" requires confrontation. Right-wing "voodoo economics" have failed, and so-called "centrist solutions" are nothing but warmed-over repackagings put forth by the same folks who coincidentally brought the economy to such epic fail. But until there's a political coalition on the left that's willing to point that out -- willing to pick fights, willing to call out media liars, willing to make political hay when the sun shines (and not just before elections), and willing to inflict punishment on its opponents when necessary -- until that happens, we're not going to see any real economic or structural change in this country. And the social changes that result will be ones of dire necessity and forced evolution rather than calm planning. A single election cycle isn't going to change a thing in this country when it's the same people buying elections year after year after year, whether they go by "Koch" or "Americans Elect" or some other name.

  • Brian on February 14, 2012 9:37 PM:

    Very condescending to say that conservatives aren't "reality based". Moderation is not, contrary to popular opinion, an end in itself.

    Besides, the GOP has moved to the right in rhetoric, but it hasn't actually acted on it. Witness GWB, who expanded the gov't far more than Clinton. Reagan allowing the deficit to explode, GHWB raising taxes but not following through on promises to cut spending.

    The GOP is still, in practice, a moderate party on economics, the most important issues

  • superdestroyer on February 21, 2012 8:31 AM:

    If there really any difference between the Democrats of today and the Democrats o 1972 when McGovern was the face of the party. Have policy positions really changed at all for the Democrats.

    The only thing that has happened to the Republicans is that the number of peopel who are open to any form of conservative message has decreased and the party cannot decide to survive in the future.

    Look at how Bush pushed for growing government and increasing entitlements.

    The real difference is not that Obama is a moderate Republican but that the Republican Party establishment are really big government Democrats who believe politics should be about getting goodies from the government.

  • Janice Ulferton on February 29, 2012 1:03 PM:

    There are not a whole lot of instances where you may need to identify the owner of an unknown cell phone number; but, I'll tell you what, when the occasion arises, a trusted and reliable reverse cell phone lookup directory is good to have at your disposal.

  • Saving Grace on March 10, 2012 8:46 PM:

    Fantastic article. Makes me want to read the book for sure. And I certainley want to read his previous book on the history of the Democrats. I wish the book much success.Our country would benefit greatly if the extremists would read a little history. Maybe they would tone down the vile name calling that is making everyone hate each other. Sadly it has come down to the uninformed on the far left and the far right at war with each other about religion and who does or doesn't have a say in the process.

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