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Can He Save the GOP from Itself?

Joe Scarborough; drawing by James Ferguson

The current Thing to Say about Republicans is that they are caught in a civil war—the Tea Party against the Establishment, “wacko birds” against “the adults,” fringe against mainstream. One of the most clamorous bearers of this message, on his TV show and in various other media, is Joe Scarborough. He has denounced Republicans for putting up outré candidates (like Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Christine O’Donnell, and Sharron Angle) to indulge their resentments, not to win elections. He has, in turn, been called a RINO (Republican in Name Only) by the objects of his criticism. He protests that he is the true Republican, principled and pragmatic like the heroes of his new book.

There have, by his estimate, been two miracles of Republican moderation—Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. They set the standard nationally, though Scarborough, forced to look for some model on a more modest scale, can find one in “the one brief shining moment” that was Camelot-on-Pensacola-Bay, his own three and a half terms as representative from Florida’s First District:

By carrying a 95 percent conservative rating while making strategic alliances with Democratic allies, I boxed out the competition. I also assured myself a place in Congress for the rest of my life if that had been my goal. Because I focused around the clock on building broad coalitions that would also do the nation good…. I constantly studied the political realities around me and asked what I could do to reach out to those who would not naturally support me. If there were something I could do that would help my constituents, be good for the district, and be consistent with my conservative beliefs, I focused like a laser on getting the job done. And I always tried to remain pragmatic, able to adapt to changing conditions.

This book, then, tells the Republicans how to cure their troubles. Simply go and be Ike and Ron—and Joe.

To drive home this recommendation, the author gives us his theory of everything that has happened in American politics since 1945. (He dates all recent history, for reasons to be gone into, from “the sellout at Yalta.”) For Scarborough, the systole and diastole that give our political life its pulse are alternating extremism and pragmatism. This beat is the same for both parties. When Democrats become extreme—as when George McGovern (by Scarborough’s telling) championed “acid, amnesty, and abortion”—Republicans win. When Republicans put up an extremist like Barry Goldwater, Democrats win. Through it all, the good sense of the public is vindicated—it prefers the middle to either extreme. Scarborough puts the law in an interesting way:

Whether it was Hillarycare or Obamacare, the government shutdown or the Iraq War, politicians in both parties have fed the worst instincts of their most extreme party factions and then paid for it at the voting booth.

This seems evenhanded until one notes the specifics. Clinton launched Hillarycare in his first term and still won a second term. Obama passed Obamacare in his first term and still won a second. Bush launched the Iraq War in his first term and won a second. Is that paying at the voting booth? Scarborough is not looking to history, but to his own current itches—his opposition to Obamacare and to Ted Cruz’s shutdown of the government (not Gingrich’s) as part of his current agenda for Republicans.

Over and over, a closer look shows how skewed is this reading of political history. The moderate is supposed to be pragmatic, to adopt what works; but over and over we see that Republican moderates would fail without their extremists. George H.W. Bush needed Lee Atwater’s dirty tactics to get him into office, and he lost when he reverted to moderation by raising taxes (which Reagan also did). Bush defeated at first the forces raised against him by Pat Buchanan’s “pitchforkers” in 1992—but in what worked over time, Buchanan was the pragmatic victor:

[Buchanan] revolutionized the modern Republican Party by providing the blueprint to a GOP congressional majority. Buchanan’s conservative populism was especially persuasive in districts like my own where Republicans rarely won congressional races. It was persuasive because so many of his policy positions were outside a Washington Republican mainstream that all too often capitulated to big business and big government even when it was not the conservative thing to do.

That sounds like the Tea Party our author has come to rein in. And no wonder. Scarborough admits that he won his congressional seat as an enthusiastic member of the Gingrich Revolution in 1994. He was in favor of the first government shutdown before he was against the second one:

The coming Republican Revolution of 1994 mixed Buchanan populism with mainstream GOP orthodoxy. Newt Gingrich put together a winning political strategy that kept Republicans in the speaker’s chair in the US House of Representatives for sixteen of the past twenty years.

But Scarborough became a moderate in time for his brief period in office, and thus could be a shining Camelot figure of the Ike-Ron sort. He deserted “Gingrich, the long-term visionary,” for a more pragmatic colleague in the House, Steve Largent of Oklahoma. That kind of conversion does not disqualify Scarborough as a model, since even his favorite conservative philosopher, Bill Buckley, was against Scarborough’s first great ideal, Eisenhower, before he was for his second one, Reagan (and even Reagan had been a New Deal Democrat).

Scarborough’s pretense that he believes in an evenhanded oscillation of fringe and center in both parties continually breaks down. We are given two great icons of moderation on the Republican side, but not a single one on the Democratic side. When Lyndon Johnson wins, it is not because of his own moderation but because the Republicans went extreme with Goldwater. Bill Clinton won because the first President Bush wobbled between his own heartfelt goals and those of Atwater, and Clinton was reelected because Dick Morris helped him play against Gingrich’s grandiosity.

There cannot be a Democratic equivalent of the Republican “icons” Ike and Ron in Scarborough’s scheme. Some might want to put Franklin Roosevelt in that position, but Scarborough knows that he was just the man who set Democrats on a radical course at Yalta, and gave Republicans an enduring anti-extremism position:

For conservatives [not extremists, you notice, but Scarborough’s own true conservatives], Yalta now brought together two irresistible forces: contempt for Roosevelt and the growing fear of Communism’s spread. Both were potent in and of themselves. Mixed together in the story of the sellout at Yalta they fed on one another.
After five years of standing shoulder to shoulder with a Democratic president leading the fight against Adolf Hitler, Republicans suddenly had a case to make against FDR on foreign policy that was equal in weight to the domestic case….
Roosevelt was now not only the embodiment of socialism at home. He was, because of Yalta, an abettor of Communism abroad. It may have been an oversimplification of actual events, but most powerful political arguments usually are. The linkage of an expansive government at home with a weak foreign policy abroad gave the right an internally coherent political philosophy that would grow steadily in the postwar years and eventually lead to landslide victories for both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Liberalism’s failures at Yalta, in China, and in the nuclear arms race’s infancy gave Buckley and his apostles the kick-start that “movement conservatism” needed. America’s political system would never be the same.

Scarborough revives the old canard that Roosevelt (and Churchill) “sold out” Eastern Europe to Stalin at the meeting of Allied leaders while World War II was still being fiercely waged. But as historian James MacGregor Burns demonstrated, “Roosevelt didn’t give Stalin Eastern Europe; Stalin had taken Eastern Europe.” At that point, we had nothing we could give away.

By resurrecting the Yalta myth, Scarborough concludes that there cannot be moderate Democrats, since radicalism is built into the party’s DNA. No matter what its candidates do, they are the party of New Deal socialism and Yalta. When he says that Democrats have suffered from extremism, going “hard left,” he means that they have been even more outrageous than their party’s normal extremism—whether in the “acid, amnesty, and abortion” purportedly championed by McGovern, or in becoming even more socialist than the New Deal with Hillarycare and Obamacare.

His simplistic radical–pragmatic tick-tock of power ignores a great variety of different factors—the World War II halo around Eisenhower, the impact of JFK’s assassination on the 1964 election, the effect of September 11 on Bush’s second-term victory, to name only a few. And longer-term structural factors are filtered out entirely. Consider just three—race, religion, and money.

Race. Scarborough was born in the South one year before the explosive summer of 1964, which saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act, after the longest filibuster in Senate history against it by three defenders of the segregated South (Senators Robert Byrd, Richard Russell, and Strom Thurmond); the murder of the civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi; Barry Goldwater’s successful plea to Senator Thurmond to become an outspoken Republican; the Goldwater nominating convention, at which southern delegates renamed their convention hotel “Fort Sumter”; Goldwater’s loss of all states outside his home Arizona and five that had been part of the Democrats’ “Solid South.”

Helped by the analysis of Kevin Phillips, Nixon four years later built his Southern Strategy on those five states, after his own wooing of Strom Thurmond. It made him president, and left a template Ronald Reagan adhered to, launching his 1980 campaign at the fairgrounds outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, the murder site of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, criticizing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and opposing a memorial day for Dr. King. As president, he tried to protect tax exemption for segregated colleges and vetoed a civil rights bill.

According to Scarborough’s book, none of these things happened. He says the Southern Strategy is a “laughable” liberal myth. Nixon was elected not because he built on Goldwater’s southern success but because he was a noble moderate until his private demons led him into the Watergate cover-up. Up till then, Scarborough says, in the combined votes of the Nixon and Wallace tickets “conservatism in the classic sense carried the day in 1968.”

Really? The support for Nixon-Agnew and Wallace-Lemay was a triumph of moderation? Scarborough, born into a Thurmondized South, literally cannot see race in any part of his home region’s history. Certainly not in its current efforts to exclude black and Latino voters by registration laws, identity tests, and narrowed windows for voting. These are purportedly aimed at “voter fraud,” which does not exist to any significant extent. Every other explanation is admissible, but not race in the historically innocent Land of Thurmond.

Racism is not confined to the South, of course—and neither are Republican efforts to limit black and Latino voting. But the reflexive political use of race is usually found among Republicans—as in the newsletters of Ron Paul, where Holocaust deniers and Confederacy restorers found a welcome. When Rand Paul was not plagiarizing others, his books and speeches were being ghostwritten by a self-styled “Southern Avenger.” Republicans do not see racism in their ranks because it has for so long been denied as to become invisible to its practitioners.

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