Sunday, February 26, 2012

How Moderate Republicans Became Extinct

It's really amazing listening to this interview with Reihan Salam at the clip below. Salam is the co-author of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. Written with Ross Douthat, the book came out around the time of the 2008 campaign. The first half of the book is a tour de force on the changes in the Republican Party and general party realignment since the 1960s. The thesis is that the GOP can't hold onto the "Sam's Club" constituency --- which is basically the old working class Reagan Democrat types who have frequently shifted over to the GOP column since the cultural tumult of the 1960s. It's a fickle demographic, and the problem diagnosed in Grand New Party returns in Salam's new piece at Foreign Affairs, "The Missing Middle in American Politics." It's all fascinating from an academic perspective, and realistic in terms of our two-party system, but the notion of the "moderate Republican" is quaint. In seven minutes Salam mentions the tea party not once. So while all the talk of the old-style GOP moderates makes for some good establishment-style nostalgia, I think in the age of Obama it's not too risky to widen the perspective a bit. The economy will continue to be a huge issue through November, so those "swing voters" allegedly repulsed by the "fanatical" GOP candidates are hardly cemented into the Democrat column as if it were October 2008. More on that later. Meanwhile, here's this from Salam's essay:

The dominant ideology and style of today’s Republican Party would have been utterly alien to [Mitt] Romney’s father. In Rule and Ruin, the historian Geoffrey Kabaservice’s vivid account of the pitched ideological battles that shaped the postwar Republican Party, George Romney is cast as the last hope of a moderate Republicanism that has all but vanished. Born into poverty in a Mormon colony in northern Mexico, Romney rose to become the chief executive of the American Motors Corporation. There, he succeeded in taking on the Big Three car companies, scoffing at their “gas-guzzling dinosaurs” and offering sleek, fuel-efficient compacts that anticipated the later triumphs of the Japanese automobile industry. Like many self-made business executives of the time, Romney felt a deep sense of moral obligation, which flowed in part from his devout religious faith. As poor African Americans from the Deep South settled in and around Detroit, Romney made it his mission to better their condition. Shortly after his election as governor in 1962, Romney pressed for a massive increase in spending on public education and on generous social welfare benefits for the poor and unemployed. During Romney’s first term alone, Michigan’s state government nearly doubled its spending, from $684 million in 1964 to $1.3 billion in 1968. To finance the increase, Romney fought for and won a new state income tax, which would become a thorn in the side of future Michigan Republicans.

What separated Romney from liberal Democrats who were similarly eager to expand government was his conviction that he was doing God’s work on earth. Today, it is entirely common for Republican presidential candidates to describe the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as divinely inspired documents, as Romney did. But in the mid-1960s, as Kabaservice observes, such religiosity was unusual, at least for a moderate Republican. Kabaservice briefly speculates that Romney’s brand of moralistic progressivism might have resonated with many Christian voters who instead embraced a harder-edged form of conservatism infused with evangelical fervor. But Romney’s political program was badly undermined by the 1967 Detroit riots, which discredited the notion, fairly or not, that large-scale social spending was the most effective route to social uplift, at least among conservatives.

Disagreements on race and the Vietnam War fueled the split in the late 1960s between the radical New Left and the liberal Democratic establishment. But the upheaval of the late 1960s also divided the Republicans. Conservatives of that era saw themselves as defending the United States’ founding ideals against communism abroad and radicalism at home. Moderates, in contrast, sought to modernize the GOP: to keep up with the baby boomers’ shifting sensibilities on social issues and to share in their embrace of a more diverse and dynamic society. Some even praised what they saw, perhaps naively, as the freedom-loving spirit of the antiwar movement.

Yet as Kabaservice relates, the moderates never coalesced into a movement with a coherent program and ideology, despite Dwight Eisenhower’s earlier attempts to build a modern party that embraced the New Deal and a vision of responsible American global leadership. This failure left moderate Republicans in an awkward position. Those who shared the Democratic faith in activist government, tempered by a desire for decentralization and fiscal rigor, found themselves gravitating to the left. Those who shared conservative skepticism of big government, tempered by a recognition that Social Security and Medicare were here to stay, found themselves gravitating to the right. There was no glue to hold the two sides together.

Ultimately, Kabaservice argues, it was this lack of coherence that doomed the centrists within the Republican Party. The absence of a rigid ideology freed them to embrace creative solutions to emerging social problems, which proved useful when they were in power. But precisely because they were so allergic to ideology, the moderates were disinclined to rally the troops or to wage scorched-earth campaigns against their political enemies. Even when they had the advantage of numbers, as they did after Goldwater’s 1964 defeat, they routinely failed to coordinate their efforts, never managing to build the kind of grass-roots fundraising network that fueled the rise of the political right.
Continue reading.