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

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.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

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:

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  • 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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