Does the key to future conservative victories lie in reexamining those past? Joe Scarborough makes the case in his new book, The Right Path: From Ike To Reagan, How Republicans Once Mastered Politics—and Can Again.
The host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and former Republican Congressman might be the most famous “RINO”—to the extent that the term means anything. But laying claim to who is a true conservative is not Scarborough’s concern. Instead he has produced a thoughtful, conversational history of various Republican approaches to governing and winning, from Ike, Nixon, Reagan, Gingrich, to Bush 41 and 43. Starting off with Eisenhower, Scarborough guides us through a “Forrest Gump”-style overview of the different decades and players.
The overriding theme is clear: conservatives should not necessarily look to moderates but pragmatists, those willing to fight the right battles and emphasize the right things, rather than stubbornly grasping at ideology or pandering even if it guarantees failure. Scarborough provides concrete cases, citing the many trade-offs of Ronald Reagan (deficits, avoiding abortion battles) and Margaret Thatcher’s calculation that tackling the National Health Service “was simply beyond her reach,” having refused to die a “noble political death before even getting elected.” Later, referring to Reagan’s 1976 Republican Convention speech, Scarborough adds: “entering a battle to do no more than send a message was out of the question.” Ted Cruz, take heed.
Another overlooked moment: Reagan’s flirtation with a third-party run in 1974. Needless to say, he eventually dismissed the idea though the third-party temptation continues to enthrall the far right. Recalling Richard Nixon, Scarborough writes: “Unflinching conviction is dramatic but less conducive to victory. In the turbulent times in which he ran, victory went to the careful rather than the crusader.” This advice now seems more relevant than ever.
Scarborough rightly lets loose in a critique of the right-wing media, singling out “profit-driven” talk-radio hosts. Telling audiences what they want to hear, rather than meaningfully addressing the difficult challenges the country faces today, is a lucrative business—and a serious problem for conservatism. Later in the book, Scarborough perhaps unwittingly captures this dilemma with a Clinton quote explaining Bush’s re-election: “When people are insecure, they’d rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who is weak and right.”
Scarborough laments that politics has become a “blood sport waged by multimillionaire entertainers who became fabulously wealthy by stoking political resentment,” noting that the result has been “lucrative for those who have mastered the art of the extreme … Talk radio hosts who shamelessly stole from Rush Limbaugh’s playbook in hopes of making his $40 million a year saw their ratings steadily rise … In this vulgarized media landscape, hate is a hot commodity, and many of those peddling it have made themselves very rich.”
What does this mean for a national party? He explains: “this new, bitter political climate has been very bad politically for any Republicans who actually want their party running the White House again … The political value of an army of shrill Limbaugh clones is suspect at best.” Recall talk radio’s resounding defense of Todd Akin last fall.
Missing from the short book is discussion of specific policy issues. What is the ‘right’ position for the ‘Right’ to take? Scarborough mostly shies away from such details. He does manage a few jabs at foreign policy interventionism (not surprising for a man who voted for Ron Paul): “Ike’s foreign policy was underscored in his farewell address to the nation as the world’s greatest general ominously warned of a burgeoning ‘military-industrial complex’.” In the conclusion, he lists “ending foreign adventures” among his core beliefs and praises Colin Powell’s position on foreign policy as “much more in line with the GOP’s long tradition of realism than the stance of those who have seemed to propose military adventurism at every turn over the past decade,” though, he notes that the Republican Party would be best served by incorporating both neoconservatives and realists.
Perhaps therein lies the crux of Scarborough’s book. While he does not outright extoll moderates but merely recognizes their successes and the need to absorb them, affirming the need for “broad coalitions,” the problem remains: How does one build broad coalitions without revising one’s principles and when the party cannot even agree on what those principles are? This remains the core question for conservatives.
One point of contention is Scarborough’s pinning the end of the GOP’s “40-year-reign” on Hurricane Katrina, an event whose political impact he seems to overemphasize (post-Katrina losses had more to do with the waning hold of 9/11, collapsing support for the Iraq war, and the generally cyclical nature of American politics, which Scarborough later describes as “seesaw” politics).
Perhaps the book’s most important contribution is in reclaiming Reagan for pragmatism. After reading Scarborough’s account of the conservative movement’s lodestar, one would be hard-pressed to view Reagan as an uncompromising Tea Partier. Scarborough writes:
Reagan was a conservative who saw his political mission as drawing the center closer to his own views without alienating those he was wooing …. This trait also distinguishes him, fundamentally, from all too many Republicans today, who seem less interested in moving voters to their position than in planting an ideological flag in the ground and declaring those not in lockstep insufficiently conservative, unpatriotic, or worse. This approach allows those political Pharisees to feel self-righteously superior to all others. But it is an approach that also guarantees an endless streak of electoral losses to the Republican Party these shortsighted amateurs claim to be helping with their ideological purges.
The Right Path is not for those interested in easy reassurances or talking points. Conservatives seeking an optimistic but realistic analysis of the Republican Party’s immediate electoral—and governing–challenges would do well to take its insights seriously.
A.J. Delgado is a graduate of Harvard Law School who writes about politics and pop culture.