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