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How the Republicans Got That Way

Mitt Romney; drawing by Pancho

The abrupt departure of Rick Santorum from the Republican presidential contest on April 10, and reports on April 25 that Newt Gingrich had decided to withdraw, gave Mitt Romney a direct path to the nomination, though he was headed there anyway following narrow victories in Ohio (less than 1 percent) and Michigan (about 3 percent) and a wider one in Wisconsin (7 percent). Gingrich had been reduced some weeks ago to the status of heckling irritant rather than serious challenger. Santorum posed a stronger threat, but his wins, when they came, did little to alter Romney’s insurmountable lead in delegates, many of them won in caucuses. Even as Santorum swept to victory in Kansas in March, Romney quietly collected more delegates in Guam, the result of his superior funding and organization.

Nonetheless, a heavy toll has been exacted, not only on Romney but also on the GOP. After more than three years of fierce opposition to President Obama, Republicans have winnowed their choices down to a presumptive nominee who has failed to excite the party’s base, though not for want of trying. No less than his rivals, Romney diligently espouses current GOP orthodoxy, which holds that Obama incarnates a “radical” vision, like FDR and LBJ before him. After winning in Wisconsin—the primary that effectively ended Santorum’s run—Romney said Obama “has pledged to transform America, and he spent the last four years laying the groundwork for a government-centered society.”

Meanwhile, GOP chieftains, including House Speaker John Boehner and the arch-conservative Senator Jim DeMint, a Tea Party favorite, have said the time has come for the party to rally around the front-runner. Yet these endorsements have sounded more dutiful than enthusiastic. DeMint’s came on the same day, March 22, that Santorum, barnstorming in Texas, suggested that if the options in November came down to Romney vs. Obama, the incumbent would be preferable since “we might as well stay with what we have.”

This violated the GOP’s single unifying theme of “anyone but Obama.” But even after he was rebuked (by Gingrich, among others), Santorum returned to the theme. “Pick any other Republican in the country, but [Romney] is the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama,” he said while campaigning in Wisconsin. “We need someone who can go out and rally the Republican base,” which remains suspicious of “the moderate Establishment,” as Santorum has termed it—an establishment that today consists of such partisan redoubts as the Wall Street Journal editorial page, publications like National Review and The Weekly Standard, and Fox News, each of which, contrary to Santorum’s complaints, is firmly devoted to the dogma of movement conservatism.

Strategists at the top of the party’s pyramid may prefer a candidate they think will be palatable to independent voters in November. But true believers at the party’s base think differently. They don’t see a competition between two parties, with the prize to be won in the handful of battleground and swing states. They see instead an eschatological crisis, and the forces of darkness include not only Obama and the Democrats, but also “Republicans in Name Only,” ideologically suspect enemies within the gate. The GOP’s previous nominee, John McCain, another suspected moderate, compensated by running even harder to the right after he got the nomination, defying conventional campaign wisdom and alienating independents. If Romney fails to rouse the GOP base, he may be forced to do the same.

There is nothing new in this. Since the inception of “movement conservatism” in the 1950s, Geoffrey Kabaservice writes in Rule and Ruin, his comprehensive account of internecine Republican warfare, the long-range objective for such conservatives has been

to transform the Republican Party into an organ of conservative ideology and purge it of all who resisted the true faith. Moderate Republicans were the primary enemies and targets of movement conservatism. The need to do battle with Democratic liberals often was only a secondary consideration…. [Barry] Goldwater’s warning to moderates at the ’64 GOP national convention that they had to support “extremism in the defense of liberty” or leave the party was a classic expression of rule-or-ruin politics. So too were the conservative efforts to purge moderate Republican officeholders, even at the cost of replacing them with liberal Democrats.

This history underlies Santorum’s assertion that there is no meaningful difference between Romney and Obama and explains his promise, or threat, to continue “the fight” even after he left the race. And it may also explain why he quit when he did. His change of heart was the result, he said, of a shortage of funds, his inability to muster “a penny” to hold off what were sure to be Romney’s lavishly financed attacks in Pennsylvania, Santorum’s home state. A loss there would have been both an embarrassment, repeating Santorum’s humiliating defeat there for a third Senate term in 2006, and a handicap should he try to mount a future run. Better to depart with his armful of trophies and his position, at least for now, as the movement tribune whom the front-runner must appease.

Among the many lessons of the GOP primary in its first, bitterly contested phase is that the conservative movement, still the ideological engine of the GOP, looks very much as it has for many years now, even as new organizations and leaders arise. What initially looked like a fresh burst of populist-libertarian energies on the right, heralded by the emergence of the Tea Party, with its fervent antitax, anti-government “Constitutional conservatism,” has since subsided into familiar arguments about threatened “family values.”

This accounts for the unexpected rise of Santorum, who tapped the energies of evangelicals, including evangelical women who thrill to the story of his seven home-schooled children and his wife’s decision not to abort the last, who was born with a severe birth defect. These voters respond to his revival of issues—birth control and contraception, the corrupting dangers of liberal college professors, the separation of church and state—that many assumed had been settled for most of the public and that are remote from the practical economic matters that many also assume will decide the outcome in November. Yet social and cultural protest has been the touchstone of the American right for more than half a century and at this point is inseparable from GOP politics.

It was fitting that Ralph Reed, a top official with the Christian Coalition in the 1990s and a prime champion of Santorum and the head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition (founded in 2009), recently chose to remind Romney that he would be well advised to adopt Santorum’s program, in which economic issues are recast in the terms of “marriage and family” that resonate with religious voters:

Over the course of a low-budget campaign that relied almost entirely on volunteers and was met with disdain by the GOP establishment, Santorum won more than 3 million votes and 11 state primaries—the most by a conservative insurgent candidate since Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford in 1976.

Reed pointed this out in The Washington Post shortly after Santorum withdrew, echoing Santorum’s own claim, after his victory in Louisiana, that his was the most successful conservative insurgency since Reagan’s. Reed added: “Santorum outperformed Romney among two key demographic groups, one religious and cultural, the other socioeconomic—and Romney needs both to win in November.” He might have added that those constituencies are most powerfully present in the border states and in Dixie, states that the moderate Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976, but that the movement idol Reagan recaptured in 1980. In recent primaries Romney’s showing among evangelicals has improved (particularly in the Midwest), and he has won the provisional support of longtime social conservatives like Gary Bauer and Tony Perkins, but both have questioned Romney’s “passion” and the intensity of his commitment.

Ralph Reed calculates that in 2008 evangelicals

“made up 23 percent of all voters in the general election. Romney will need them to turn out in even larger numbers to defeat Obama. (He already has a running start; Romney won almost a third of the evangelical vote during the primaries, and a majority of Tea Party voters in Florida and other critical states.)”

But if recent elections are any indication Romney will have to court those voters ardently all the way through the general election. This was the lesson George W. Bush and his strategists drew in 2000, when they took the Christian right for granted, rather than making a concentrated effort to attract it. Sifting through the returns, Karl Rove and his colleagues estimated that as many as four million evangelicals had failed to vote, because their main organization, the Christian Coalition, had “fallen apart,” Dan Gilgoff wrote in The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War (2007).

The mistake would not be repeated in 2004. Extraordinary effort went into organizing evangelicals; the strategy included luring them to the polls by putting on state ballots referendums on same-sex marriage and also “solicit[ing] church directories from Catholic supporters in Pennsylvania” to identify potential voters, Gilgoff noted. The results in November were very different:

Exit polls showed that 3.5 million white evangelicals who stayed home in 2000 cast ballots in 2004. Bush also captured a larger share of the evangelical vote in 2004—78 percent—than in 2000, when 68 percent backed him. Between new evangelical voters and those who had voted for Gore in 2000, Bush picked up nearly 6 million new evangelical votes, about twice his margin of victory.

And their numbers seem to be growing. According to one recent survey, slightly more than half of all primary voters up through March were evangelicals, accounting for “4.29 million votes out of 8.49 million cast,” significantly more than in 2008. In South Carolina the percentage of evangelical voters rose from 55 percent in 2008 to 64 percent in 2012. In Alabama and Mississippi, states Santorum won handily, as many as eight in ten voters identified themselves as evangelical Christians.

It may seem curious that Santorum, a militant Catholic, should connect so well with evangelical voters. But in fact it was Catholics like Senator Joseph McCarthy and William F. Buckley Jr. who first gave conservatism its modern tone of protest against a liberal elite. In his notorious speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1950, McCarthy said that the nation’s “enemies from within” could be found among “those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest Nation on earth has had to offer…the finest homes, the finest college education and the finest jobs in government we can give.” A few years later, Buckley, whose book God and Man at Yale accused his alma mater of trying to turn students into “atheistic socialists,” argued that the federal government should increase funding for private schools since they were “the last, best bulwark against the monolith of the new, secular, statist social order.”

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Mark Peterson/Redux
James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, speaking at the Great Exodus Church, Philadelphia, 2006

In the 1960s Catholic conservatives were in the forefront of the campaign against birth control and later against abortion. In 1970 Buckley’s brother- in-law L. Brent Bozell, a Catholic convert and also a founding editor of National Review, organized a violent demonstration at a hospital clinic at George Washington University, beginning a new phase of radical protest on the right that, Kabaservice writes, “would give the conservative movement the passionate, all-involving cause that civil rights had been for moderates and opposition to the [Vietnam] war for the New Left.”

The bond with Protestant evangelicals came in the 1970s. Opposition to Roe v. Wade was one reason for it. Another was race. The civil rights movement, once it migrated north, antagonized white ethnics, many of them Catholics, who objected to “forced busing” and to affirmative action in hiring and admissions policies. In these last instances, social grievances sometimes spilled over into economic conflict. A third reason for growing discontent was the generalized anxieties of a middle class that had been lifted into prosperity by the New Deal but now feared those gains would be taken from them by a “new class” of liberal policymakers intent on “redistributing” wealth (and spoils) to a population of undeserving minorities.

These attitudes bred a new form of protest that anticipates the culture wars of today. An early instance came in 1974, when a battle over school curriculum and the use of textbooks thought too liberal by some social conservatives—for instance, one textbook was attacked for comparing the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den with that of Androcles and the Lion—in Kanawha County, West Virginia, became enmeshed with a coal miner’s strike. “One reason the textbook controversy became so bitter was that it was class warfare,” Calvin Trillin wrote at the time:

The protesters often said that they and their religious beliefs were being mocked by those who were educated or rich or powerful. They were right, of course. Their opponents called them “borned-again Christians,” and “the Armies of Ignorance.” Office workers at the Board of Education talked about people who phoned in to object to the way the books were “wrote up.”1

These are the sentiments Santorum drew on when he called Obama “a snob” who wants “everybody in America to go to college.” And while they don’t necessarily conflict with the sentiments of the Tea Party movement, they exist somewhat apart from them—they exclude, for instance, any serious component of libertarianism. On the contrary, the emerging conservatism of the moment is rooted in the right’s traditional authoritarianism, with its promise to cleanse the nation’s morals and rescue it from cultural depravity. This was the message imparted by Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, who mobilized support for Reagan in the 1980 election, and by Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. Robertson, of course, came in second in the Iowa caucus in 1988, preparing the way for Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012.

Another evangelical organization of the period, the American Coalition for Traditional Values, was led by the Baptist Tim LaHaye (better known today for his apocalyptic Left Behind series of novels). LaHaye described Reagan’s presidency as a divine intervention and said a second Carter administration “might have plunged us into another French Revolution, only this time on American soil.” More recently, the movement’s dominant figure has been James Dobson, the radio host who founded Focus on the Family, the powerful political-evangelical organization.

Santorum is the authentic heir of this strain of conservatism. As expected he secured Dobson’s endorsement, two days before the South Carolina primary, won by Gingrich, though the result helped propel Santorum in the following weeks. Santorum’s partnership with Dobson dates back to the George W. Bush years, when they were leading proponents of the Federal Marriage Amendment, an attempt to insert a ban on same-sex marriage into the Constitution, an important episode in the decade’s social conservatism. At the time, many congressional Republicans found the marriage amendment “drastic and far-fetched,” Gilgoff wrote in The Jesus Machine. Santorum was one of a “handful of Republican true believers in the Senate” who “actively worked to convince Christian Right groups that passing a constitutional amendment was feasible and worth fighting for.”

Thus today’s GOP is less a party attached to specific policy ideas than a cluster of attitudes and sentiments. But this ideology ignores the practical necessities of governance, and few doubt that the broad electorate is looking for a candidate who will deal with them. It is here that Romney has made his strongest appeal. His mantle of electability rests on the feeling among more moderate Republicans that his successful business career and his single term as governor of Massachusetts give him the credibility to grapple with and perhaps solve what are, after all, the most urgent issues of the day—a still-sluggish economy that doesn’t provide enough jobs, the still-diminishing expectations of the middle class, not to mention the effects of globalization and energy dependence.

How persuasive this will prove to the general public is another matter. In 2008, when Obama and Hillary Clinton battled through the primary season, their debates offered a primer on Democratic policy in areas ranging from health care to nuclear proliferation. The Republicans debates in 2012 instead had the atmosphere of antigovernment revival meetings. When Romney recently said, in one of his many gaffes, “I’m not concerned about the very poor—we have a safety net there,” he betrayed not callousness so much, perhaps, as indifference to broad questions of economic disparity and social injustice that still concern much of the public.

For those voters the metronomic promise to “repeal Obamacare” (without specifying which popular features will be repealed) and to lighten the tax burden (without saying which popular subsidies will no longer be funded) may seem thin and weak—and overshadowed, in any case, by the zeal of Tea Party–aligned legislators in Congress, who seem allergic to the very notion that the federal government has a useful function to perform even as many of those same legislators siphon millions in “earmarks” for their home districts.

The absence of policy rigor in the GOP is the result, Kabaservice argues, of the party’s campaign, lasting more than half a century now, to purge itself of moderates. Aspects of this story have been told before. As long ago as 1989 the political scientist Nicol Rae described “the decline and fall of the liberal Republicans,” and blamed it in part on changes in American politics and the election system. “The proliferation of presidential primary elections ended the influence of state and local party leaders over national politics and gave a more influential role to the media, candidates’ organizations, and the ideological activists of the right.” At the same time, Rae noted,

ideological coherence had been a consistent problem for Republican liberals since the New Deal…. In their eagerness to adapt themselves to the New Deal, Dewey, Willkie, and Eisenhower exposed themselves to allegations of opportunism, or “me-tooism.” This failure to define a cogent liberal Republican philosophy seemed to legitimize the claim of the conservatives that they stood as the guardians of the Republican faith, representing a politics of principle as opposed to the “shameless expediency” practiced by the eastern moderates.2

This formulation holds true today. Indeed it is the argument Romney’s critics on the right have made time and time again. But ideological purity comes at a cost—especially in a two-party democracy. And moderates had a part to play, as mediators and once also as lawmakers. “Historically, moderates had provided much of the brains of the GOP and made it an effective governing party,” Kabaservice writes. “In some cases, their ideas and influence even helped to reshape conservatism, and made it a more realistic and powerful creed. The marginalization of the moderates actually hamstrung conservatives’ ability to pass conservative policies.” Even now there appears to be at least some appetite for new approaches to policy on the right. Witness the ascendancy of Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, whose latest blueprint for reforming the tax code and reining in entitlements—whatever its defects, and they are many—has aroused more interest than any concrete idea put forward by Romney.

Kabaservice’s book is a painstaking and well-argued attempt to resurrect the losers in the GOP’s fratricidal war, the liberal and moderate Republicans, including many from the northeastern states where today their influence still lingers, though the Maine Senator Olympia Snowe’s announced retirement may further reduce their number. For these legislators and policy thinkers, the goal was not to purify the GOP or punish Democrats, but to draw on longstanding Republican ideals, some dating from the Progressive Era, as a means of solving the crises created not by “liberals” or “the Democrats” but by the realities of post-industrialism—urban blight, racial strife, economic insecurity.

Kabaservice has researched his subject prodigiously, examining more than a hundred archive collections and exploring the careers and contributions of political and intellectual figures seldom discussed today. These include the editors of Advance, a magazine founded in 1960 by two Harvard undergraduates who offered sharp critical analyses of both parties—the Democrats, tied to corrupt urban political machines and captive to a powerful bloc of segregationist legislators; the GOP, with its indifference to minorities and its “superpatriots…who were hostile to the United Nations and foreign aid and seemed too willing to risk nuclear war.”

The 1960s were, in some respects, the peak period of the moderate GOP. Kabaservice accurately notes that the 1966 elections, commonly described as an eruption of white “backlash” against the Great Society, capped by Reagan’s election to his first term as governor of California on a platform that capitalized on a tide of opposition to the Fair Housing Act,3 also swept in a fresh wave of moderate Republicans. The victors included Edward Brooke, the first African-American elected to the Senate since Reconstruction—no token figure but a “Massachusetts moderate” who opposed Great Society programs but also “called for the construction of affordable housing, an increase in the minimum wage, the extension of Medicare to children, and massive investment in subpar urban schools.” There was also Charles Percy, the Illinois Republican who countered LBJ’s proposal for federally supervised urban renewal, which would include “bulldozing entire neighborhoods,” with a plan that would promote “home ownership by the urban poor.”

Kabaservice is right to emphasize the 1960s, the most tumultuous modern decade, but also one in which politicians in both parties, for all their differences, could at least agree on the problems that needed solving. Moderate Republicans like Pete McCloskey and Charles Goodell were among the most articulate opponents of the Vietnam War. Kabaservice also reviews the career of George Romney, who quarreled with Goldwater over civil rights in 1964, developed a strong critique of the Vietnam War, and in 1967–1968, Kabaservice pointedly writes, briefly seemed the GOP moderates’ “last and best chance to elect one of their own to the presidency.”

The period’s most interesting figure was perhaps Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a lifelong Democrat who was nonetheless sympathetic to GOP ideas of governance and joined the cabinet of Richard Nixon, devising an ambitious plan for a national guaranteed income based on Milton Friedman’s idea of a “negative income tax,” an alternative to existing welfare policy “that was both activist and Republican,” Moynihan later wrote. “It was relatively easy for conservatives to accept, because Friedman was very much a conservative Republican”—in fact, an adviser to Goldwater’s 1964 campaign. In addition, the program reflected public sentiment. A 1968 Gallup Poll

reported that “big government,” more than “big business” or “big labor, was seen by the public as posing the greatest threat to the future. Yet this same public had, if anything, a more lively sense of social ills than ever before. It wanted something done, but something that would work…. Ideologically, the American public is conservative; in practice it is liberal. This is one of the most notable, if least noted, findings of American social science. The French maxim “Think left, live right” is reversed in the New World. The best politicians know this. The three Presidents of the nineteen-sixties understood and accepted it. This is to say that, apart from personal preferences, they understood that the American public was willing to accept liberal programs when these were cast in non-liberal terms.4

“No other president implemented as much of the moderate agenda” as Nixon, Kabaservice writes, much of it drawn from the innovative proposals of the Ripon Society, the moderate GOP organization and think tank:

Nixon’s speechwriter Lee Huebner recalled that when he went from the Ripon Society to the White House, he brought with him a list of major policy proposals…. Virtually all became part of the Nixon program, including revenue sharing, welfare reform, government reorganization, an end to the military draft, and normalization of relations with China.

Nixon was “simultaneously the moderates’ greatest ally and enemy,” Kabaservice observes. He tried to appease Strom Thurmond and other Dixiecrats by nominating segregationist jurists to the Supreme Court while at the same time he enacted a program that wielded the incentive of federal funding to desegregate labor unions in the North. But Nixon was also obsessed with political “enemies,” real and imagined, and fixated on the sins of his cultural adversaries—“intellectuals, cosmopolitans, free-thinkers, activists, media elites, business leaders (‘those farts’), and university presidents (‘those assholes’).” It was the politics of grievance we are hearing today, most recently in Santorum’s outburst at a New York Times reporter: “Quit distorting my words. It’s bullshit.”

Unable to reconcile his enlightened policy instincts with the politics of “absolute rule,” Nixon personified the GOP’s internal divide, climaxed by the crimes of Watergate, that sent the party on its current course, in which the imperatives of responsible governance are overwhelmed by the excitements of culture warfare. Moderate Republicanism was doomed to fail, Kabaservice acknowledges, precisely because it lacked an ideology. It was a useful instrument of governance, but not of politics.

This was the lesson conservatives took from Watergate. Soon after Nixon’s resignation, Patrick Buchanan and Kevin Phillips, writers and strategists who had worked in his administration, translated Nixon’s embattlement with the “elite” into the basis of sustained political protest. “The last best hope of the Republican Party,” Buchanan wrote in 1975, was to “place itself at the head of the middle-class revolution boiling in the countryside.” The sources of that rage were the “5.6 million Americans getting unemployment benefits, 11 million on welfare, almost 17 million employed by the federal, state and local governments, and the armed services, another 20 million on food stamps, and almost 31 million living off Social Security.”5 Phillips, in his book Mediacracy, glimpsed “the outline of traditionalist resurgence” in the “religious reaction to the upheaval of the nineteen sixties,” and in the high “ratio” of church members and churchgoers in the US.6

This is politics as culture war and it remains very much with us. Ralph Reed notes a “remarkable overlap” between the Tea Party and evangelicals. This may well be the case. But if so, its basis isn’t a coherent set of ideas and principles. The Tea Party has been exposed, increasingly, as a diffuse, localized phenomenon, its adherents confused ideologically and divided in their loyalties.7 Meanwhile, evangelicals remain the GOP’s most identifiable and impassioned constituency. Romney and the “establishment” are right to be worried. A candidate such as Santorum who attracts only angry insurgents can’t possibly be elected president. But the Republican nominee who fails to lure evangelicals to the polls may very well be defeated in November.

—This is the second of two articles on conservatism and current politics. The first appeared in the March 8 issue.

  1. 1

    Calvin Trillin, “Kanawha County, West Virginia: Some Elements in a Dispute that Resulted in the Closing of Schools, the Shutting Down of Industry, the Wounding of Men, and the Cancellation of Football Games,” The New Yorker, September 30, 1974. 

  2. 2

    Nicol C. Rae, The Decline and Fall of the Liberal Republicans from 1952 to the Present (Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 156, 60. 

  3. 3

    See Richard N. Goodwin, “The Shape of American Politics,” Commentary, June 1967; and George Packer, “The Fall of Conservatism,” The New Yorker, May 26, 2008. 

  4. 4

    Daniel P. Moynihan, “Income by Right,” The New Yorker, January 13 and 20, 1973. 

  5. 5

    Patrick J. Buchanan, Conservative Votes, Liberal Victories: Why the Right Has Failed (Quandrangle/New York Times Books, 1975), pp. 99–100. 

  6. 6

    Kevin P. Phillips, Mediacracy: American Parties and Politics in the Communications Age (Doubleday, 1975), pp. 51, 54. 

  7. 7

    See my previous article, “Will the Tea Get Cold?,” The New York Review, March 8, 2012. 

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