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Where Did the Moderates Go?

Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party [1], Geoffrey Kabaservice, Oxford University Press, 467 pages

[2]There was once a time when giants roamed the land. They battled for something more than personal ambition and the spoils of electoral war. Their political philosophies were not monochromatic. These Republican warriors weren’t ciphers like George W. Bush. They weren’t hacks like Bob Dole and John McCain who gained the nomination long after they peaked and long before they deserved.

Three of these titans battled at the 1968 Republican convention in Miami Beach: Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, and Ronald Reagan. Each represented a force within the party. The pragmatic moderate for those who just wanted to win, the colorful liberal for those who cared about civil rights and imagined he might do something different about war, and the smooth conservative for those asking for a little more law and order in the streets and a lot less regulation from Washington. The party chose Nixon. The nation thereby gained a smart but crooked, visionary yet troubled chief executive.

Rule and Ruin is the story of these giants and their smaller associates during the 1960s, mostly in D.C. and on the presidential campaign trail. It is an exciting story, building on conflicts, grudges, and smoke-filled rooms that stretched back to the era of Thomas Dewey, Robert A. Taft, and Dwight Eisenhower. Kabaservice’s writing is excellent—graceful but punchy. His book joins Nicol Rae’s Decline and Fall of the Liberal Republicans as an indispensable volume for students of GOP ideology. Conservatives will be especially interested in the description of Ronald Reagan’s activities from the Goldwater campaign to his election as governor and first attempt at the presidency.

The writing is lively, the story compelling, and the attention to detail impressive. But the political activist in me is irritated by the author’s bias—his book both explains and exemplifies the progressive Republican perspective—and concerned that the resulting lopsidedness may mislead those less informed. From a scholarly point of view, I’m both excited and disappointed by Rule and Ruin.

Kabaservice gives us dismissive, personally unflattering portrayals of conservative activists F. Clifton White and Phyllis Schlafly. His attempt to eviscerate White is breathtaking. Kabaservice highlights White’s clandestine machinations and red-baits him by accusing White of patterning his actions after the Communists. The author uses words like “paranoia” and “repulsive” in connection with Schlafly’s thought. He even links her book A Choice Not an Echo to the notorious antisemitic fraud The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, though there’s nothing negative about Jews in Schlafly’s text—which was written in support of the half-Jewish Barry Goldwater.

In Ruin and Run, the Ripon Society embodies the good guys and the John Birch Society embodies the bad guys. The Riponers, in this telling, were young idealists. The Birchers are a boogeyman, a bunch of racist kooks. The nonviolent, non-race-baiting, educational approach of JBS founder Robert Welch does not earn any praise. At times, the reader can see that Kabaservice tries to restrain himself as he concedes a point to the opposition—the evil right wing—or attempts to understand those he typically demonizes. But these are exceptions. Far more often, he simply knocks down straw men or libels with a flourish of his stylish prose.

Kabaservice criticizes Goldwater’s 1964 primary campaign for relying on “a sort of class warfare strategy” against Rockefeller and other liberal, country-club Republicans. Yet he acknowledges that moderates and progressives were funded by “considerably deeper pockets than most of their conservative counterparts” and had “greater access to the media and influence within the academy and the establishment.” He calls the moderate Republican effort “an elite movement.”

The support progressive Republicans gave to the struggle for racial equality and civil rights during the 1960s is clearly one of the things that attracts Kabaservice to this group. This is commendable; it is to the discredit and shame of most the era’s conservatives that they were indifferent at best and hostile at worst to the ideals of ethnic inclusiveness and justice for all. Yet things are not as clear-cut as the book indicates. The role played by the liberal Eastern establishment in building and maintaining a social, political, and economic foundation that included institutionalized racism should not be overlooked. The Rockefellers, Senator Jacob Javits, the Ford Foundation, the New York Times, and the Washington Post all turned against Martin Luther King when he shifted focus from Southern bigotry to national economic fairness and international peace.

Civil rights is a major theme of the book, but the author seems little interested in war. He denounces Goldwater conservatives for being weak on civil rights but does not do the same for Rockefeller liberals when it comes to their support for bloodletting in foreign lands. There is a gentle finger wag here and there, but no excoriation for the Vietnam War or for propping up the military-industrial complex and the American empire in all its unjust glory. War is just not a big moral issue for Kabaservice in the way that civil rights is.

One theoretical defect of the book is its division of the non-conservatives within the ’60s GOP into two categories: “moderates” and “progressives.” The problem with creating two groups is that members of both held the same policy positions and supported the same standard-bearers. This muddied approach shows itself in the personification of non-conservatism, Nelson Rockefeller, who is sometimes labeled “moderate” and other times “progressive.” Kabaservice avoids the word “liberal.” But the artificial and inaccurate splitting of his Republican favorites into two categories is belied by evidence from the popular press of the time: Newsweek in the late 1950s routinely referred to these politicians and activists as “the liberal wing of the party.”

Another significant theoretical shortcoming of the book is the attempt to put to rest the “me-too” reputation of progressive Republicans. Conservatives charged that they were pale imitations of liberal Democrats. Kabaservice disagrees and proceeds to overstate the difference between liberal Democrats and liberal Republicans. He claims that moderate Republicans opposed bigness and bureaucracy in government and supported decentralization of power. Swelling government and rising deficits were major concerns of moderates, he contends. These assertions are not true. President Eisenhower did not cut spending or try to uproot the New Deal and Fair Deal programs. The end of the Korean War notwithstanding, Eisenhower continued the big-government approach abroad.

Who was voting to create federal program after federal program and supporting constant spending increases throughout the 1960s and 1970s? It was liberals of both parties that eventually gave liberalism such a bad name. As late as 1964, the word “liberal” was still riding high in popularity. By the 1980s, it signified bloated, intrusive, tax-borrow-and-spend government, and liberals were forced to adopt new, less unpopular names—“progressive” for Democrats, “conservative” for Republicans.

This leads us to the final and most serious flaw of the book. The thesis of Rule and Ruin is that conservative Republicans have both ruled and ruined the party since the 1970s. Neither of these assertions is correct. Kabaservice identifies 1967 as the zenith for moderates in the national party, says that the moderate movement was finished by 1970, and claims that its tradition is extinct today. Yet he recognizes that many of today’s Republican leaders were moderates or progressives in the 1960s and early 1970s. They were affiliated with Rockefeller’s campaigns and the Ripon Society—hence the book’s cameo appearances by Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney, Newt Gingrich and Mitch McConnell.

How has the supposed rule of conservatives ruined the party? Kabaservice can point to a tone of incivility and partisanship that may be different from that of 1960s moderates. He can be offended by pandering to conservative Christians concerned about moral issues that were not big topics in the 1960s. Beyond that, however, little has changed.

Kabaservice hints at the truth in his preface, when he writes, “It is only in the last decade that movement conservatism finally succeeded in silencing, co-opting, repelling, or expelling nearly every competing strain of Republicanism from the party, to the extent that the terms ‘liberal Republican’ or ‘moderate Republican’ have practically become oxymorons.” Yes, the terms, but not the ideology, not the reality. Which is more important? That people proudly call themselves liberals or that people conduct themselves as liberals? We have seen a triumph of liberalism within the Republican Party under the name of conservatism. It is bona fide conservatives—sincere, traditional, small-government, Jeffersonian conservatives—who ought to weep, not liberals.

[3]Counterintuitive though it may be, the past three decades have actually brought about the triumph of liberalism in the United States, liberalism of the big-government, policing-of-the-world, secular-values variety. The vision of Nelson Rockefeller, not Ronald Reagan, has attained supremacy within the GOP. Rockefeller and his Democratic counterpart, Hubert Humphrey, symbolized a bipartisan consensus in the 1960s and 1970s for monopoly capitalism tempered by a welfare state at home and a well-armed empire abroad. In the 2000s, the George W. Bush administration solidified a coalition between pragmatic heirs of Rockefeller such as Dick Cheney and neoconservative successors of Humphrey such as Paul Wolfowitz. Rhetorical crumbs notwithstanding, traditional conservatives and libertarians lack a seat at the table. Their support is desired—and needed—by party leaders, but they are excluded from power.

The standard of ideological measurement within the GOP has changed dramatically during the past half-century. By the criteria of the 1960s, the national leaders of the Republican Party today are all liberals. A generation of wolves (liberals) did not give birth to a generation of sheep (conservatives). Instead, partly out of personal convenience and partly for historical reasons, the Republican establishment donned fleece in the 1980s. Liberals in conservative clothing. Kabaservice doesn’t recognize a friend when he sees one. He continues to mourn the loss of moderates and progressives in the party, though they continue to thrive under a different guise.

Jeff Taylor is associate professor of political studies at Dordt College and author of Where Did the Party Go?: William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey, and the Jeffersonian Legacy [4].

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Where Did the Moderates Go?"

#1 Comment By St. Michael On February 22, 2012 @ 9:53 am

I’m looking forward to the discussion of Satan at tonight’s GOP debate.

#2 Comment By Gordon On February 22, 2012 @ 6:18 pm

Rockefeller was a much bigger Vietnam hawk than Nixon ever was.

#3 Comment By Clay On February 22, 2012 @ 8:29 pm

Respectfully, “Jeffersonian conservative” is a contradiction in terms. Jefferson was a liberal in the truest sense. If America had a conservative tradition from its founding, it was a Hamiltonian tradition.

#4 Comment By A. Michael On February 23, 2012 @ 8:40 am

A lot of conservatives think that there’s still a Rockefeller Republican Establishment controlling the party. Jeff Taylor thinks there are still “sincere, traditional, small-government, Jeffersonian conservatives.”

Actually those Rockefeller Republican have died or moved over to the Democrats. Today’s GOP Establishment is composed of people who came up through the conservative movement who’ve had to come to realize what’s possible in understanding.

The differences between Goldwater and Reagan on the one hand and Rockefeller, Romney, and Scranton on the other were great, but both sides accepted the Cold War and the treaties and bases and interventions it encouraged. Neither side was involved in a culture war of secularists versus the religious.

Yes, they passionately disagreed about civil rights and the size of government, but once it was recognized that the Great Society was over and that there was no return to 1932 or 1912 or 1860 or 1800 or 1789, intraparty differences were less glaring.

When people get involved in politics they often exaggerate and overdramatize the differences they have with other politically active people. The differences exist, but why encourage the exaggeration?

#5 Comment By cp On February 23, 2012 @ 9:37 am

Counterintuitive though it may be, the past three decades have actually brought about the triumph of liberalism in the United States, liberalism of the big-government, policing-of-the-world, secular-values variety.

Both Reagan and W. Bush increased the size, scope and power of the government by factors of 2x to 3x. That’s the real story, and the one that the GOP and conservatives today seem to ignore and outright deny.

What we call “conservative” today is actually right-wing liberalism, and what we call “progressive” today is simply left-wing liberalism. There is no conservative party in America today.

#6 Comment By Scott McConnell On February 23, 2012 @ 11:38 am

It’s very interesting that the moderates and their heirs split into opposite camps as the Cold War ended. Some became neocons, others like Jim Leach (one of the seven GOP no votes on Iraq) and Paul McClosky became sharp critics, in Paul’s McC’s case of the Israel lobby too. Also of course Chuck Percy, a major Israel lobby target and victi (before the end of the Cold War) . The non-liberal Republicans mostly heeled to the establishment consensus–Buchanan and Ron Paul being outliers. But the moderates split right down the middle. For this reason I’m not entirely happy with labeling Rockefeller a neocon–he died before having to make the choice.

#7 Comment By Gordon On February 23, 2012 @ 1:13 pm

Rockefeller was a huge advocate of every military adventure. He came out against Ike’s foreign and defense policies(as well as his domestic policy). Like all neocons,government could never be big enough and our military never big enough either,
As for Percy,he lost in 1984 to Paul Simon. Remember though that he almost lost to a neocon Democrat in 1978.

#8 Comment By Wesley Mcgranor On February 23, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

The Rockefeller Republicans are the moderates.

#9 Comment By Ben, Okla. City On February 24, 2012 @ 12:02 pm

Sounds like an interesting read.

I grew up in Alabama in the 1970s. I decided I was a Republican because George Wallace was a Democrat. The GOP, even in Alabama, was simply the pro-business party, and a little suspect in their willingness to keep the black man down, which made them very unpopular with the Kluxers.

As the Southern states flirted with the Republicans, and then fully embraced the GOP in the 1980s, we have seen the two major parties lose the ideological overlap they once had (e.g, a conservative Democrat to the right of a moderate Republican).

I think that tells the story. The Southernization of the GOP, predicted by Kevin Phillips, enacted beginning with Nixon, and perfected in the post-Reagan Era.

When you include the South in the GOP column, you are going to get a more reactionary/populist/”anti-elitist” party. I’m not picking on Southerners, I’m just pointing out the politics of the region is basically Jacksonian Democrat, for good and for ill.

#10 Comment By Gordon On February 24, 2012 @ 6:36 pm

The GOP and conservatism in general were better when it was more of a midwestern variety,ie Bob Taft. It was anti-war,anti-big.govt,but not reactionary.

#11 Comment By Sean Scallon On February 25, 2012 @ 4:28 pm

“Yet he recognizes that many of today’s Republican leaders were moderates or progressives in the 1960s and early 1970s. They were affiliated with Rockefeller’s campaigns and the Ripon Society—hence the book’s cameo appearances by Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney, Newt Gingrich and Mitch McConnell

This is a very good point and the best part of Jeff Taylor’s review. Once upon a time there were actual liberal Republicans (Javits, Goodell, Saltonstall, Mathias, Hatfield, Brooke, Frank Sargeant, Lowell Weicker, William Weld, Thomas Kutchel) who actually made up a significant faction of the party although not as majority one. These persons are long since gone ever since the the GOP tilted towards the Sun Belt and the Democrats to the North.

The “moderates” like Rockefeller were in reality political opportunists. They are partisan Republicans but not ideological ones. They blew with the wind. Rockefeller, as some might recall, supported some very strict drug laws and order the crack down on the Attica State Prison riot, hardly “liberal” things to do. Even Rockefeller tried to take a more conservative line as Rick Pearlstine wrote in his book “Before The Storm” in hopes of heading off a Goldwater candidacy in 1964 (and might have worked because Goldwater did not want to run but Rockefeller’s divorce and remarriage destroyed any chance of him winning the nomination.)

Such aforementioned persons have travelled with the direction of the party and that direction has gone to the ideological Right. To survive, the Bushes, and Gingriches and others have gone with it. They use rhetoric and language to style themselves as “conservatives” (as many northeastern Republicans do like Guliani and Christie). But it also shows how empty-headed such ideology currently is to allow such persons the opportunity (hence opportunists) to take leadership positions in the party and control its Presidential nomination.

In other words, this book is basically describes Mitt Romney.

#12 Comment By Beleck On February 26, 2012 @ 8:58 pm

fascinating take on what is a conservative. growing up in the South in the 60’s, my take is oh so different. watching George Wallace and Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan in the South has given me such a different take on Southern Conservatism than what i read here.

hard to believe, though i know there was, a different type of conservatism, the Northern kind. they died earlier with Nixon.

shows what a world of difference where you live makes in what is a “conservative.”

a completely different take from a Southern boy.