Well, TNR’s Alec MacGillis has pretty much won the Big Metaphor contest for the year, unless someone really dazzles between now and January 1. In a piece I’m kicking myself for not thinking to write, Alec notes the retirement of Rep. Tom Petri and his succession as GOP congressional nominee in the 6th district of Wisconsin by wild-man conservative Glenn Grothman as richly symbolic. After all, Ripon, the town where the term “Republican” was first proposed as the name for an anti-slavery fusion party, is in the 6th. And Petri was a founding member of the Ripon Society, a once-highly influential group of moderate—or as some described themselves, liberal—Republicans. Before Petri the 6th was represented by the highly respected Bill Steiger, who’s unfairly remembered as Dick Cheney’s first Washington boss; he’s more appropriately thought of as one of the architects of OSHA.
Well, it ain’t your great-great-great grand-daddy’s or even your grand-daddy’s Ripon anymore, it seems.
MacGillis goes on to relate the results in the 6th to a general and very intense cultural and economic polarization in Wisconsin that is most associated with the career of Scott Walker, and has been fed by a powerful right-wing talk radio presence. All of this is pretty alien to the Ripon tradition (though Alec’s account should have probably at least mentioned that Joe McCarthy preceded Scott Walker in Wisconsin statewide office by 56 years).
In any event, any scholar wanting to examine the rightward drift and then stampede of the GOP could do worse than to take a long look at the Ripon Society as the path not taken (I guess Geoffrey Kabaservice may have done that, but I haven’t read his 2012 book). The Society was formed among Harvard students (Petri among them) already engaged in the 1964 Rockefeller for President campaign. Within a couple of years, they were pioneering later Nixon proposals like the negative income tax and an all-volunteer army. Their congressional rating system begun in 1970 gave Charles Goodell (about to lose his Senate seat to James Buckley) and John Sherman Cooper (the anti-Vietnam War crusader) top scores. And from 1965 through 1973 they published three fabulous books of post-presidential-election analysis, the sort of material political junkies unsatisfied by Teddy White devoured hungrily.
The Ripon Society still exists and publishes a magazine; it’s well-known for putting together very nice events and junkets. But an edgy factor in Republican politics it is not. So it’s sort of like “moderate Republicanism” itself: a beast largely hunted to extinction.
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