Saturday, October 13, 2012

How the GOP Destroyed its Moderates

MITT ROMNEY HAS BEEN running for president as the Republican nominee, de facto or de jure, for eight months now, and the grand historical joke of it has not yet worn off. A party that has set itself to frantically, fanatically expunge its moderates, quasi-moderates, suspected moderates, and fellow travelers of moderates chose as its standard bearer the lineal heir, biographically and genealogically, to its moderate tradition. It entrusted its holy crusade to repeal Barack Obama’s hated health-care law to the man who had inspired it and run, four years before, promising to do the same for the rest of America. The man and his historical moment could not be more incongruous. It was as if the Mongol tribes of the thirteenth century, setting out to pillage their way across the Asian steppe, had somehow chosen Mahatma Gandhi as their supreme khan.

Romney’s capture of the nomination required an incredible confluence of good fortune. Any one of several Republicans—Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan—could have outflanked Romney in both grassroots enthusiasm and establishment support but chose not to run. The one candidate with the standing and financial reach to challenge him who did grasp for the prize, Rick Perry, performed his duties with such comic, stammering ineptitude that his final oops-de-grace by that point was not even startling. What remained to challenge Romney was a gaggle of third-raters lacking the money or the rudimentary organization even to get their name on the ballot everywhere. Still, running even against the likes of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum (which is to say, running essentially unopposed), Romney still trudged laboriously to victory after endless weeks.

But there is another way to make at least some sense of the Romney nomination.

IT HAS TO DO WITH the strange and sad fate of Republican moderation. After all, moderates, or at least relative moderates, do continue to exist in the Republican Party. They merely do not exercise power in any meaningful, open way. They provide off-the-record quotations to reporters, expressing unease over whichever radical turn the party has taken at any given moment. They can be found in Washington and elsewhere rolling their eyes at their colleagues. The odd figure with nothing left to lose—say, a senator who has lost a primary challenge—may even deliver a forceful assault on the party’s uncompromising direction.

For the most part, though, Republican moderation is a kind of secret creed, a freemasonry of the right. It lacks institutions that might legitimize it, or even a language to express itself. And since conservatism is the only acceptable ideology, the party has no open arguments with itself. Thus the “debate” in the Republican Party is entirely between genuine ideological warriors and unwilling conscripts, with intraparty skirmishes generally taking the form of hunts for secret heresies.

In this sense, Romney’s capture of the nomination is perfectly emblematic of the state of the party. Conservative activists spent months resisting Romney, sometimes furiously, despite the fact that he was defending no positions that they disagreed with. Across the entire ideological spectrum—in social, economic, and foreign policy—Romney stood shoulder to shoulder with his party’s reactionary wing. When Romney took on his hapless opponents, he assailed them from the right, as soft on immigration or anti-capitalist. The sole point of hesitation centered on conservatives’ suspicion that Romney did not actually believe what he was saying.

FIFTY YEARS AGO, the conservative movement, far from holding a monopoly on acceptable thought within the GOP, was merely one tribe vying for power within it, and not even the largest one. Geoffrey Kabaservice’s fine book tells the story of the slow extinction of the party’s moderate and liberal wings. The conservative movement, he shows in often gruesome detail, took control of the party in large part due to an imbalance of passion. The rightists had strong and clearly defined principles and a willingness to fight for them, while the moderates lacked both. Meeting by meeting, caucus by caucus, the conservative minority wrested control of the party apparatus. Sometimes this happened through physical force or the threat thereof. (Anybody who recalls the “Brooks Brothers riot” during the 2000 election imbroglio in Florida, when a Republican mob shut down a vote recount in Dade County, will find many of Kabaservice’s scenes familiar.) More often, the conservatives won out by packing meetings, staying until everybody else was exhausted, and other classic methods of organized fanatics. The moderates lacked the ideological self-confidence to wage these fights with equal gusto, and battle by battle they lost ground until finally there was nowhere left to stand within the party.

Republican moderates in the early 1960s held a place of influence and comfort within their party that is hard to imagine today. The worldview of the party’s Rockefeller faction was formed and propagated with the help of organizations such as the Ripon Society, Republican Advance, and the Committee on Economic Development, and publications such as the New York Herald Tribune, Confluence, and Advance. And when the great wave of the Goldwater movement arrived in the early 1960s, with the explicit goal of cleansing the party of moderates and re-making it in the image of monolithic conservatism, the moderates fought back, albeit using more gentlemanly methods than those often employed against them.

Moderates at the GOP convention in 1964 proposed a resolution condemning extremism of all varieties. Goldwater supporters voted it down, their position echoed by the candidate’s famous declaration that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Many moderates stalked out of the convention, including Michigan Governor George Romney and his teenage son, Mitt. Romney subsequently penned a twelve-page letter to Goldwater explaining why he had not endorsed him. When conservatives defeated moderate California Senator Thomas Kuchel, he lashed out at what he called a “fanatical neo-fascist political cult” in the grips of a “strange mixture of corrosive hatred and sickening fear.”

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