The Republican establishment courts the left and repudiates the right.
By Paul Gottfried | June 1, 2011
Republican columnists are already urging their fellow party members to nominate a centrist for the 2012 presidential race. Kim Strassel (April 5, 2011) and Peggy Noonan (April 29, 2011) in the Wall Street Journal and Michael Barone and Jonah Goldberg in their syndicated columns have all warned against reaching too far right for a presidential candidate. Noonan identified this temptation with a “mood of antic cultural pique” and a tendency “to annoy the mainstream media” that came out of the Tea Party insurgency last year. She pointed to McCain, Dole, the two Bush presidents, and Romney as suitable candidates for a party that needs “the center where most of the voters are.”
On May 18, Goldberg announced, “already the conversation on the right is moving toward the all-important question of electability—which candidate can peel off the handful of independents needed to win an election that will be a referendum on Obama and his record.” He knows his fellow “conservative voters,” “barring a truly fringe nominee,” can be counted on to “vote against Obama, no matter what.”
Goldberg, Noonan, and other Republican journalists are shoving their party toward the center before the primaries take place next year. Fortunately for them, the targets of their advice may already be where they want. Republican voters have usually favored presidential candidates who hug the “center.” Unlike the Democrats, who in 2008 happily reached leftward to nominate and win with “the candidate of hope,” Republicans try hard to avoid controversy.
They are happy with lackluster moderates like Jerry Ford, Robert Dole, and George H.W. Bush, and perhaps they will soon be nominating that ultimate waffler and current GOP frontrunner, Mitt Romney. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney occupied the social and economic left; he moved to the center-right when he decided to seek the presidency in 2007. Once Romney sews up his party’s nomination, he’ll be expected to move to the left again, to pick up independents and perhaps a few stray black, Jewish, and Hispanic voters from the Democrats.
Stephen Baldwin, who is gathering information for a book, The Manufactured Candidate, has argued that Romney holds no “coherent worldview” except for shamelessly flipping on issues in order to advance his career. Columnist Deroy Murdock complained already in February 2007 that Romney is so “fine a thespian” that “no one knows where the performer ends and the character begins.”
This may in fact be an exaggeration. In foreign policy, Romney is a paradigmatic neoconservative who has stated that “democracy is not defined by a vote. There has to be the underpinnings of education, health care…” According to the former governor’s website, his foreign policy will not only expand NATO and build closer alliances with Israel and Russia’s neighbors (thereby ringing Russia with enemies), but also “promote and defend democracy throughout the world.” Here we have the makings of another George W. Bush in a different physical incarnation.
Note that a major complaint against Obama from Republican strategists Dick Morris and Karl Rove is that he won’t play by their rules. Obama won from the left and continues to rule from there. This president won’t be a “centrist,” that is to say, a Republican president.
Republicans Don’t Want to Be Democrats
Even a Republican leader now widely identified as a world-historical leader, Ronald Reagan, played by the Morris-Rove rules. On the positive side, Reagan avoided tax increases and reduced marginal tax rates, and he helped topple the “evil empire” by placing military and financial pressures on the Soviets. But he failed, or perhaps didn’t even try, to abolish major departments of government; and while Reagan didn’t support quotas and set-asides, his attorney general’s office prosecuted more cases of discrimination in the private sector than any other administration had done until then. In 1987 Reagan supported an amnesty bill for illegal immigrants that opened the door to many of the problems that Congress is now (more or less) addressing.
In 1994, Republicans focused on critical reductions in government and won both houses of Congress, but in 1996 they ran for president a centrist looking leftward, Bob Dole. Two achievements that candidate Dole boasted of having brought about, with encouragement from centrist Republican president George H.W. Bush, were the American with Disabilities Act and a 1991 Civil Rights Act, which reopened the door to racial quotas. Dole’s endorsement of the latter bill was appropriate, seeing that another centrist Republican, Richard Nixon, had introduced racial set-asides with his Philadelphia Plan in 1969. (There may be a rule in American politics: Each time a Republican presidential candidate goes begging for minority votes, he loses a higher percentage of them than the centrist Republican presidential candidate who preceded him.)
But why do Republicans expect their standard-bearers to display this center-mindedness? The answer most often given stresses strategic necessity. Although Republicans (allegedly, since there is no evidence of this) would like to run principled “conservatives” in presidential elections, the votes simply aren’t there. Elections are decided where Dick Morris, Karl Rove, and Peggy Noonan indicate they are, somewhere in the center and among independent voters.
Yet Republicans aren’t likely to win by running as low-octane Democrats. Moreover, the more they imitate the opposition even while attacking it, the more likely they will drive the vital center of political debate toward the left. GOP candidates have been pursuing what is generally a no-win strategy for decades, by trying to sound like Democrats while throwing mud at the opposition. Equally silly has been their tendency to blame the other party for doing what Republican administrations have been doing almost as frenetically: engaging in massive deficit spending, monetizing wars, and giving away lots of patronage. Listening to Fox News and Republican politicians, one gets the impression that all runaway federal spending began the day Obama took office. Parties that market such moonshine, while offering little in the way of significant change, are not likely to look believable. That may be why even in the face of declining numbers for the Democrats, the Republicans have not been gaining in popularity.
The Self-Hating Party
There are two compelling reasons that the Republicans keep trotting out faceless moderates who turn leftward once the primaries are over. First, being Republican is a sociological more than ideological choice. The party is predominantly white Protestant; and according to the Pew survey, 81 percent of the Republican votes cast in the 2010 election came from churched white Protestants. On a good day a GOP candidate may be able to peel off 40 to 45 percent of the Catholic vote, 15 to 20 percent of the Jewish vote, 30 to 40 percent of the Hispanic vote and about 3 to 5 percent of the black vote. But this doesn’t change the recruiting problem. Only 5 percent of Hispanics and only 2 percent of blacks identify as Republicans, and despite their often over-the-top Zionist rhetoric and neoconservative advisors, Republicans rarely pick up as much as 20 percent of the Jewish vote.
Party strategy has aimed at expanding this base, and the logical next step would be to work for increased Republican support among white Catholics. (Republicans obtained a majority of their votes in 2010.) While some effort has gone toward this end by appealing to antiabortion Catholics, more energy seems to be directed toward roping in black and Hispanic voters. This has taken the forms of waffling on illegal immigration and minority quotas and making public apologies for past expressions of white Protestant prejudice.
Republican voters can generally live with these maneuverings. They are mostly people who hope to keep things as they are. They rarely undo (or expect their elected officials to undo) what the Democrats have done, and their politicians pride themselves on managing the federal welfare state in a fiscally responsible way. Unlike the protesting minorities in the Democratic Party, Republicans were not inclined to manifest outrage before the Tea Party surfaced. They were delighted with the Bush status quo before Obama and Obamacare, and they still wish to celebrate our government even in its present disarray as a shining and exportable example of “exceptionalism.”
Republicans who think their party has been about cutting back government are grossly mistaken. The GOP has only rarely been a friend to decentralized government or to limited, cautious intervention abroad. In the 1860s, the party was for consolidated government and defeating the rebellious South; then Republicans gave us Reconstruction together with cozy deals between industrialists and the state. They were later the party of imperial expansion, and under TR the Republicans became the promoters of a federal managerial state, even before the Democrats turned in this direction under Wilson. There was never a war until the 1930s that most Republican congressmen didn’t welcome, and the Spanish-American War and the War to End All Wars were more popular among Republicans than they were among Democrats. The liberal interventionist Council on Foreign Relations, created in 1919, boasted such Republican founders as Elihu Root, Herbert Hoover, and Henry Cabot Lodge.
If some Republicans later protested the New Deal and were reluctant to get involved in the Second World War, such attitudes have not been the rule. Republicans have usually embraced both big government and foreign adventures and were ahead of the curve on women’s rights when Democrats were still arguing for a single-family wage for the male breadwinner. Indeed, down to the time of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, the Democrats were generally perceived as the more conservative party, that is, the one that supported states’ rights and commanded the loyalties of fervently Catholic ethnics and the defeated South. What opposition there was to an interventionist foreign policy came typically from the Democratic side, represented by such heroic figures as William Jennings Bryan.
It is no surprise therefore that the Republicans today are crusading for democracy abroad. Discounting such constitutionally-minded leaders as Calvin Coolidge, the Republicans are being faithful to their history. Bush II, McCain, and now Romney are in the Republican interventionist mold. Those who talk about the GOP’s going back to small-government are blinded by the notable exceptions to the party’s real past.
War Comes First
The second factor in understanding why the GOP shuns right-wing presidential candidates is its present priorities. While the last Republican president did little to cut government expenses and offered only scattered concessions to the Religious Right’s moral positions (mostly in Supreme Court appointments, not always freely made), he was hyperactive about launching wars to bring American-style democracy to other countries. The moral core of Bush’s administration could be found in the memorable speeches he made about a global democratic crusade, orations that we owe to David Frum and Michael Gerson. Such tropes reflect the vision of the heavily neoconservative GOP media, although for the advocates first things must come first. They have to attack Obama’s wasteful spending in order to get one of their wards into power. Then they’ll be able to stop Obama’s timid approach to foreign relations and to address the continuing threat of an undemocratic “Axis of Evil.” Can anyone think of a leading Republican presidential candidate, except for Ron Paul, who doesn’t march in step on foreign policy with Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page?
In a penetrating commentary for The American Conservative, “Who’s a Republican?”, Jack Hunter quotes CPAC director Christopher N. Malagasi on the conservative “tripod” that Republican presidential candidates are believed to represent. Supposedly presidential candidate John McCain embraced all three legs of this tripod because he was a fiscally responsible social traditionalist who favored “national defense.” This three-pronged conservative worldview, according to Malagasi, was putatively the legacy of Ronald Reagan, and it is one that GOP presidents and presidential candidates have continued to uphold. Therefore an isolationist like Ron Paul is not truly “conservative” but a “liberal Democrat” because he rejects the third, and perhaps most vital, of the three legs.
Hunter has no trouble shredding these assertions, first by showing that most Republican presidential candidates, and certainly the last Republican occupant of the White House, have not been conservatives at all, with due respect to misleading media labels. Republicans have allowed the “conservative” brand to be identified with a neoconservative foreign policy–not national defense, which Paul does not oppose. Adopting neoconservative rhetoric and policies and complaining about high federal budgets when the Dems are in power is what currently defines a “conservative” presidential candidate.
Those who meet the foreign policy standard often get a pass on other things. Thus we saw Religious Right hero Bill Bennett support the pro-abortion and gay-rights advocate Joe Lieberman for president, because Lieberman was good on Middle Eastern affairs. Republican Evangelist Pat Robertson not only had kind words for Lieberman but in 2008 also backed for president another socially liberal war hawk, Rudy Giuliani. Obviously not all legs in the tripod are of equal importance, particularly with the neocons supplying the funding for “conservative” enterprises.
The Libertarian Moment?
This brings up the question about what if any opposition will confront the Republican establishment as it tries to put one of its friends into the presidency in 2012. One group this establishment will not in any way have to fear is the Old Right. What there was of this opposition has been either co-opted or professionally destroyed. And there is no chance that those who were removed from public view will be achieving belated prominence, seeing that most of its leaders are already senior citizens.
But the libertarians are another story. They are better funded and more of a media presence than the hapless paleos; and their presidential standard-bearer Ron Paul has already recruited multitudes to work in his campaigns and vote for him. Surprisingly, Paul and others of like mind now occasionally present their views on neocon-central, the Fox networks. But that is certainly not because Fox’s regular stars like Paul any better than they did another maverick isolationist, Pat Buchanan. Yet no matter how vehemently Bill O’Reilly and other Fox contributors denounce Ron Paul, he and those who think like him continue to resonate with a large following. The appearance of such libertarians as Judge Napolitano and John Stossel on a generally neoconservative network is a concession to political reality.
The libertarians are quite simply against America’s centralized public administration. They view an aggressive missionary foreign policy as an extension of a constitutionally questionable government that has seized power at home. They therefore wish to avoid military commitments abroad while reducing the scope of government to a few constitutionally allowable tasks. Usually these tasks are negatively stated, for example, staying out of the affairs of other countries, not monetizing our debts, abolishing the Federal Reserve, and not allowing the federal government to go on infringing on the constitutionally delegated power of the states.
It is not at all the case, pace their “value conservative” critics, that libertarians avoid taking stands on social issues. Such leaders of theirs as Ron Paul and Chuck Baldwin are devout Protestants, who strongly oppose abortion. But they typically stress that moral questions should be settled by state legislatures, not legislated by federal bureaucrats and least of all by the Supreme Court. While libertarians of the Right, like Paul, hold no brief for homosexuality and the taking of mind-altering drugs, they also believe that the federal government has exceeded its constitutional powers by interfering in such matters. Further, the state’s attempts to ban drug use, libertarians argue, has allowed police power to be used against property and other rights without solving the problem it was meant to remove.
Not surprisingly, Paul’s candidacy has picked up support from lifestyle liberals as well as from small-government conservatives. Although neoconservatives launched attacks on Paul during the 2008 campaign, accusing him of being a disguised racist and fanatical anti-Zionist (Paul opposes giving foreign aid to Israel or to any other country), the accusations didn’t stick. Unlike the smears against the Old Right, which worked all too well, these attacks seem to go nowhere. Paul enjoys credibility even on the left, as someone who opposes military adventures and wants to legalize drugs. The libertarian problem is not about to go away for establishment Republicans or for their neoconservative PR-flacks. Although libertarians in the short run may not be able to keep Republicans from nominating another leftward-drifting presidential candidate, they will continue to put pressure on the party from without as well as from within. And let us remember that they are not entirely dependent on Republican votes: libertarians can reach out effectively without promising government programs and without abjectly apologizing to Democratic minority voters.
Paul Gottfried is the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and the author of Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right.