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July 30, 2013 3:53 PM Before Polarization

By Ed Kilgore

There are two political obituaries this week that bring back memories of the years before the two major political parties had fully undergone the ideological realignment that is so much a part of the contemporary landscape: William Scranton III, and Harry F. Byrd, Jr.

Scranton, who died Sunday at the age of 96, is remembered mainly for his unsuccessful late challenge to Barry Goldwater’s nomination in 1964, after Goldwater had crushed Nelson Rockefeller in the California primary. A moderate governor of Pennsylvania who was a bit of an Eisenhower protege, Scranton spoke out pretty loudly against the ideological transformation—particularly on civil rights—Goldwater represented. Check out this video from that campaign (audio begins after twenty seconds), and particularly Scranton’s comments about a Republican Party in danger of standing “with one foot in the twentieth century and the other in the nineteenth century,” and of “selling out to a modern philosophy of negation.” If that sounds familiar, it’s no accident.

As an obsessive little political junkie in 1964, I wrote Scranton’s office to secure an autographed photo of the governor. Wonder what ever happened to that relic?

Scranton was one of the last “liberal Republicans” to make a serious bid for the presidency, succeeded only by Rockefeller’s too-little-too-late ‘68 campaign, and John Anderson’s 1980 campaign (which took Anderson right out of the GOP into an independent candidacy). He quit electoral politics after his single gubernatorial term ended, but served in diplomatic missions for Presidents Ford (he succeeded Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then something of a neoconservative icon, as UN ambassador), Carter and Reagan.

Byrd, who died today at 98, is often remembered as the less distinguished scion of his father, Harry F. Byrd, Sr., and as the last bearer of the slowly dying torch of the powerful and reactionary Byrd Organization in Virginia. Byrd was appointed to his father’s seat in 1965, won the remainder of his term as a Democrat in 1966 (barely defeating an anti-Byrd moderate in the primary), and then left the Democratic Party (electorally; he still caucused with Democrats in the Senate) to run as an independent in 1970, when he won the first of his two full terms before retiring in 1982. In every significant respect, he was a Republican ideologically, and it was generally understood throughout the 1970s that if the GOP got within a seat of controlling the chamber, he’d switch.

In reading about Byrd today, I was astonished to discover that in 1950, as a state legislator, he sponsored legislation “that called for an automatic refund to taxpayers if the state’s revenues surpassed budget estimates by a certain percentage.” So it seems Byrd may have been the father of the “Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights” (a.k.a. TABOR), that obnoxious ALEC concept that still bedevils state politics today.

In any event, when you hear people talk today about the good old days when parties were ideologically diverse, keep in mind that those good old days accommodated both moderates like Scranton and reactionaries like Byrd, who belonged in the other party from the moment Scranton’s challenge was crushed by Barry Goldwater and the GOP moved towards becoming the White Man’s Party in the South.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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