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