Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published at Luke Phillips’s blog, ABiasedPerspective.
There’s a centrist Republican consultant named John Weaver who’s almost single-handedly borne the torch of Republican moderation into the 21stCentury. He’s done this, among other means, by advising the presidential campaigns of Senator John McCain (in 2000, not 2008,) Governor Jon Huntsman (2012,) and Governor John Kasich (2016,) all of whom attracted national attention for being “mavericks” or “reformers” who could pull the party out of its conservative past. (Correspondingly, they were all loathed in the popular conservative press.)
Outside of the McCain, Huntsman, and Kasich campaigns, there’s really been no moderate Republican national infrastructure of any significant influence. Other leaders- moderate governors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charlie Baker, moderate senators like Mark Kirk and Olympia Snowe- never seem to capture the imagination of any faction, regardless of how successful or unsuccessful they are in office. Groups like the Republican Leadership Council usually flop or fold within a few years, and intellectuals like David Brooks tend to be more widely-read among liberals. There’s just no infrastructure- and without major infrastructure, including people, money, ideas, and organization, no amount of presidential campaigning by John Weaver and Co. can bring the Party of Lincoln to the center.
But lack of moderate infrastructure is only one of many reasons the GOP has shifted so far to the right culturally and politically. Intellectual shifts to the economic right among our bipartisan political elite, the transition from an industrial economy to a finance/services-based economy, and the shuffling of rural and suburban voters into the GOP and urban voters into the Democratic coalition, have helped to create a reality where Republicans are most electorally successful when they are fiscally and socially conservative, at most levels of government and in many parts of the country. With conservatism dominant, conservatism and Republicanism have become one and the same in the eyes of many Republican operatives and voters. My own opinion is that this was cemented by the successes of the Reagan Presidency, but the long-term factors must not be overlooked.
In any case, merely building new infrastructure for modern moderate Republicans like McCain, Huntsman, and Kasich would not really help resolve the long-term problem of the party’s shift rightward nationally. It might set up a new pole of influence within the GOP, provided it were well-endowed with money, people, good organization, and smart propagandists and operatives. But even then it would be a long, hard slog against the grain before moderate Republicanism would be anything more than an eccentric holdout occasionally featured in articles at The New Republic and The New York Times, or for that matter The Onion.
It wasn’t always this way, though.
As late as the 1970s, moderate and progressive factions within the GOP held national office and maintained significant pull over the Republican coalition. They had been engaged in an epic struggle with the ascendant conservative movement since at least the early 1950s, and even before the Eisenhower-Taft rivalry of 1952 there had been a tension between progressives and traditionalists within the party (note the differences between, say, Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge.)
But from the founding of National Review magazine in 1955 to Governor Ronald Reagan’s securing the GOP nomination for President of the United States in 1980, the battle between moderates and conservatives for the future of the GOP hit levels it hadn’t reached since the turn of the 20thCentury, and the backdrop of the Cold War and New Deal gave it a more intensely ideological flavor than anything that had existed in TR’s time. My friend and mentor, the historian of the moderate Republicans, Geoffrey Kabaservice, chronicled this thirty-year’s war in his 2011 book “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party.”
The basic point of Rule and Ruin is that the GOP didn’t have to become conservative- there was no historical force moving it in that direction, no foundational principle in the 1854 charter that bound it to a Buckleyite fate, no constellation of exterior forces that would turn the party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower into the party of Goldwater, Reagan, and Bush. It was rather a clash of wills between powerful human actors, and the result of decisions and mistakes made throughout that clash, that hollowed out the GOP’s center and pushed it rightward after 1980. George Romney, William Scranton, Nelson Rockefeller, and even Richard Nixon could have stopped it, had their judgment been better and had fate been kinder. But in a broad sense, the Republican moderates of 1950-1980 failed- the conservative ascendancy post-1980 and the transformation of the Republican Party was history’s verdict on their failure.
But it was a tumultuous fight. The moderate Republicans did not give up easily. After Vice-President Nixon’s narrow defeat in 1960 at the hands of John F. Kennedy, his old congressional colleague, the conservatives took to the streets and rallied their troops. By 1964’s Republican National Convention, Senator Barry Goldwater was the leading candidate for President of the United States, despite his well-known penchant for rhetorical overreach. Forgetting Edmund Burke, Goldwater proclaimed in his acceptance speech that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
He won the Republican nomination at San Francisco’s Cow Palace that day, and led the GOP to ignominious defeat at the hands of President Lyndon Johnson a few months later. But despite his defeat, Goldwater had infused the conservative movement with a sense of cause, purpose, and confidence it had not previously known. The 1968 competition for the presidential nomination was a bruising slog more or less between Reagan, Rockefeller, and Nixon, and Nixon edged out Rockefeller primarily because he knew how to win over conservatives where Rockefeller did not.
Nixon went on to become President of the United States, and operated more or less as Eisenhower had- a pragmatic reformer of the New Deal, interested in adjusting its administration but preserving its benefits. Conrad Black, his most adoring biographer, suggests that had Nixon’s presidency been a success, he would have gone down with Franklin Roosevelt as one of the greatest domestic policy presidents of the 20th Century.
But it was not to be- Nixon’s own Shakespearian flaws of character defeated him in the end, and the Watergate Scandal blackened his reputation for the rest of his life. President Ford’s pardoning of Nixon became an albatross around the neck of Ford’s administration, and neither Ford- nor Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller- was really capable or talented enough to rebuild the edifice upon which Nixon once stood. Ford narrowly beat upstart Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination in 1976, and went on to lose to Governor Jimmy Carter, of all people. Ford’s loss in 1976 completed the de-legitimization of the old Eisenhower-Nixon-Rockefeller Republicans, and sealed the party’s fate, delivering it to the conservative movement with Reagan’s ascendancy to the Presidency in 1980. Republicanism would thenceforth be about free markets, social traditionalism, and “small government.”
So what did these old-fashioned moderate Republicans of midcentury look like? What did they think, and what did they do? What was a Republican before Reagan defined the ideological limits of what a Republican could be?
In short, the thing that differentiated them from New Deal Democrats to their left and conservative Republicans to their right was their position on the institutions of the New Deal. Moderate Republicans were truly centrists, in that regard.
The New Deal Democrats saw Franklin Roosevelt’s programs as foundational to the midcentury American economy and, importantly, without flaw. Democratic Presidents and Congresses throughout the decades expanded the New Deal with their own programs- Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, John F. Kennedy’s failed New Frontier, and Lyndon Johnson’s legendarily expansive Great Society. What all these programs held in common was that they did not fundamentally change anything FDR had put in place, they only expanded it- even as FDR’s programs had begun to grow dysfunctional under their own weight.
The conservatives of the Republican Party, meanwhile, vociferously reacted against these expansions and against the New Deal itself. Foreshadowing the contemporary conservative movement, conservative Republicans of the day opposed “big government” for reasons of a strict interpretation of constitutionalism, for fear of social decay and the decay of the family, and most importantly, out of a newly libertarian economic sensibility imported by thinkers like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, and eventually Milton Friedman. William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review magazine, organized these different sensibilities- often held by very different groups of Americans- into “fusionist” conservatism, a creed practiced in varying forms by influential conservative Republicans in the era. These titans included Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater, and the rising star Ronald Reagan.
Where conservative Republicans had no use for the New Deal and pledged, among other things, to repeal Social Security, eliminate large sections of the federal bureaucracy, and institute a flat income tax, the moderate Republicans of the time saw the New Deal’s institutions as extensions of a great American tradition that had extended through Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln himself. But unlike the New Deal Democrats, they accurately recognized the shortcomings of the New Deal and its successors- its overcentralizing tendencies, the stagnant bloat of the bureaucracy, the toxic effect urban policies could have on families, and the iron wall of regulations.
Moderate Republicans pledged to reform, but not to repeal or roll back, the administration of the federal government- they saw its role as giving a hand up to people rather than a hand out, and paving the way to national prosperity rather than getting in the way or out of the way. Like Dwight Eisenhower and his famous dictum to “be conservative when it comes to money, liberal when it comes to human beings,” they were fiscally conservative but made no efforts to repeal New Deal legislation, sometimes even expanding the New Deal where necessary. They uniformly backed the Civil Rights Act and the broader Civil Rights Movement, unlike many Goldwaterite conservatives concerned with federal overreach. And, most tellingly depicted in President Nixon’s unfinished plans to decentralize governance, reform welfare, and reorganize the bureaucracies of the Executive Branch, they wanted to preserve and expand the blessings and protections provided by the New Deal’s institutions, while correcting their mistakes and establishing more efficient administration.
Justin Sherin has written that had Nixon not humiliated himself through the disgrace of Watergate, (and, I would add, had the Ford Administration been more inspiring and politically savvy,) this sort of centrist, pragmatic pro-New Deal Republicanism might well have survived and strangled Reagan/Goldwater-style conservatism in its infancy. The New Deal Democrats had imploded and their party had turned to the social left by the time of the McGovern revolution of 1972, and the centrist path was open to Republicans throughout the 1970s. But for reasons of human agency and human drama, this path was not taken- though many advised it.
Among those advising it were Republican activists and thinkers with a very different vision of what Republicanism should be than Republicans of the conservative movement.
Senator Jacob Javits of New York was not a particularly influential politician, but he did have the unique talent of writing prolifically and well. One of his books, “Order of Battle: A Republican’s Call to Reason,” was published in 1964 and intended as a moderate’s response to his Senate colleague Barry Goldwater’s legendary conservative manifesto, “The Conscience of a Conservative.” To put it mildly, Senator Javits’s book did not have anywhere near the influence Goldwater’s treatise enjoyed, but Order of Battle still makes for interesting reading as a historical document and a call to moderation.
One of Javits’s ideas, in particular, is relevant to these dark days upon us, as it was upon him as he wrote in 1964. It is the question of ideological purity in parties.
The conservative movement was dedicated to making the Republican Party a purely conservative party, and expunging the GOP’s liberals and moderates and driving them into the Democratic Party. This strategy also assumed that conservative Democrats would flow into the GOP (and by the way, this strategy became a reality after the otherwise moderate President Nixon’s Southern Strategy was implemented.) It was premised on the notion that voters should have “a clear choice” in presidential elections, between liberal and conservative ideas, and not be forced to compromise their beliefs.
Javits picked this idea apart and noted, among other things, that politics is basically a matter of compromise between different groups rather than the imposition of an ideologically pure system from on high. He destroyed the conservative movement’s pretensions to being more truly in line with the American spirit: “Nothing… could be more remote from the central reality and the genius of American politics. In all its experiences to date save one, our political system has shunned the doctrinaire and ideological approach to public affairs. It has accepted the fact that life is larger than logic, and that the main function of politics is to serve the practical needs of life as those needs present themselves in different forms and in different settings.”
Javits continued, “At all other times [than the American Civil War] to date, American politics, by a kind of bipartisan secret wisdom, has taken care to avoid a proliferation of the one-interest, extremist, dogma-haunted fractionalized parties like those which paralyzed and later led to the death of Germany’s Weimar Republic and France’s Third Republic. American politics has cast up two major political parties which do in fact differ from each other in general temperament, outlook, and in their order of priorities. But they have also allowed for a variety of internal opinions, often sharply conflicting opinions, within each party.”
The Senator clearly wanted to maintain a moderate faction in the Republican Party so he could maintain his job. But more important than that was the truth he held dear from the experiences of Germany, France, and antebellum America- that monolithically ideological parties, taken over by monolithically ideological factions, can tear nations apart. It is the polar balance of ideas within parties, and not just between them, that keeps stability- hence the value of there being a progressive, moderate, and conservative wing all in the same GOP.
But Javits wasn’t alone in arguing for moderation. Younger folks did, too.
Around the time Senator Javits was writing his underappreciated little gem of a book, a group of college kids and graduate students- all Republicans- in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was coming together to talk about politics frequently. They were dismayed with the ideological hostile takeover underway in the GOP, and eventually decided to set up a group that would promote moderate candidates, publish moderate commentary and policy work, and generally work to save the moderate and progressive tradition of Republicanism in American politics. They called themselves the Ripon Society, named after Ripon, Wisconsin- the town in which the GOP was formed in 1854.
In an interview, one of Ripon’s early members- Tom Petri, who would go on to serve in the Nixon White House and then as a U.S. Congressman from Wisconsin from 1979 to 2015- told me that in the early 1960s, the newly-founded Ripon Society met with former Vice-President Richard Nixon to discuss their ideas and plans. Nixon apparently told them they should write their ideas into a manifesto, a public statement of sorts, and they began drafting it.
Then, on November 22nd, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
After the shock subsided, the Ripon Society edited their manifesto, “A Call to Excellence in Leadership: An Open Letter to the New Generation of Republicans,” to honor the late President and exhort the Republican Party “to seek in its future leadership those qualities of vision, intellectual force, humaneness, and courage that Americans saw and admired in John F. Kennedy, not in a specious effort to fall heir to his mantle, but because our times demand no lesser greatness.” They explained that Kennedy had been attempting to build a coalition of the political center, that his successor Johnson would do no such thing, and that the Republican Party should reject the extremism of Barry Goldwater and move to build the center again. And, of course, to do honor to the humane but inspired moderation of politics President Kennedy so embodied.
But beyond that, the Ripon Society members outlined in their manifesto an ambitious statement of pragmatism, moderation, and, paradoxically, “a passion to get on with the tasks at hand.” They argued, in some of the most beautiful passages on the nature of moderate politics I’ve found, that problem-solving in the modern age would be necessarily complex and anti-ideological, and that complex and anti-ideological thinking would be required of anybody in politics hoping to make a real difference in the world.
“The moderate recognizes that there are a variety of means available to him, but that there are no simple unambiguous ends. He recognizes hundreds of desirable social goals where the extremist may see only a few. The moderate realizes that ends not only compete with one another, but that they are inextricably related to the means adopted for their pursuit. Thus he will most likely set a proximate goal. While working for limited realizable objectives he will be especially concerned with the means, the environment in which the goals are achieved. The moderate chooses the center- the middle road- not because it is halfway between left and right. He is more than a non-extremist. He takes this course since it offers him the greatest possibility for constructive achievement….
Moderation is not a full-blown philosophy proclaiming the answers to all our problems. It is, rather, a point of view, a plea for political sophistication, for a certain skepticism to total solutions. The moderate has the audacity to be adaptable, to seek the limited solution most appropriate to the needs of his nation, its institutions, and its people.”
In words that ring as true today as they did then, they concluded:
“Without this vision and sense of purpose, the Republican Party will most certainly fail in the broadest sense of providing America the responsible leadership it needs.
“The moderates of the Republican Party have too long been silent. None of us can shirk the responsibility for our past lethargy. All of us must now respond to the need for forceful leadership. The moderate progressive elements of the Republican Party must strive to change the tone and the content of American political debate. The continued silence of those who should now seek to lead disserves our party and nation alike. The question has often been asked, “Where does one find ‘fiery moderates’?” Recent events show only too clearly how much we need such men. If we cannot find them, let us become them.”
The Ripon Society’s members went on to become just such men, though it is unfortunate that none of them ever became quite prominent enough to run for President of the United States and campaign on a Ripon-esque message of moderation. The Ripon Society still exists in Washington today, though in much-changed form- since the 70s, it has generally been absorbed into the conservative mainstream, opposing the far right but working to inform standard Paul Ryan-type conservatives. It remains moderate in temperament and demeanor; it is no longer truly moderate in policy or politics.
The Ripon Society slid rightward with the rest of the GOP following the election of Ronald Reagan and especially after the success of the Reagan years. As Kabaservice recounts in Rule and Ruin and as E.J. Dionne notes in his history of and commentary on the modern Republican Party, “Why the Right Went Wrong,”1989 through 2015 was basically a duel between the newly-established conservative “establishment” and even more conservative populists coming up from the right. No one now questioned the efficacy of fiscal conservatism, free markets, small government, social traditionalism, and a strict interpretation of the Constitution- the question, now, was whether a politician held these beliefs sufficiently strongly, or whether they might secretly be a traitor- or worse, a Republican-In-Name-Only (RINO.) The “No Enemies to the Right” philosophy of Republican strategists and officials of the 1990s and 2000s led, of course, to presidential debates becoming contests of “I’m more conservative than you!” on every conceivable issue. It didn’t matter if Republicans were in or out of power- the dynamic held true all the way.
Then in June of 2015, Donald Trump announced that he would run for President of the United States, breaking most of the norms of political conduct and breaking even more of the sacred maxims and truths of post-Reaganite conservative orthodoxy. The rest is history; he is now President of the United States.
President Trump’s election has been a sign, for some, that the GOP’s tradition of moderation is dead and gone, now, forever. My friend Chris Ladd, formerly a staunch liberal Republican holdout and now the author of a blog called “Political Orphans,” has come to this conclusion.
In some senses this is true. While the GOP is not yet a “white nationalist party” as Ladd sometimes says it is, it looks a lot more like a white nationalist party than it did before Trump came on the scene. Blatant appeals to white identity politics have now been normalized at the national level, and simple Trumpian bravado- the least moderate of all temperaments- has made it into the most powerful position in the world, the Oval Office.
But I see room for hope.
First, though Trump is by no means a moderate in temperament or, given his Cabinet picks, in policy, he has done moderate Republicans one big favor that some have been trying unsuccessfully to see accomplished for decades- he dislodged the conservative establishment, dreamt up by Goldwater and founded by Reagan, from its preeminence. “Moderates” John Kasich, Jon Huntsman, and John McCain, not to mention “establishment” types Jeb and George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and most others, were all part of that Reaganite establishment, to varying degrees. They were once unstoppable. Trump beat all of them.
With the Reaganite Republican establishment proved beatable, the hegemony of conservatism in the Republican Party is no longer a given. Yes, it was a thoroughly immoderate opportunist who did the beating, but the vacuum is now there and nothing appears to be filling it. Even the conservative Ryan congress, paired with Trump’s standard conservative Cabinet looks like a house of cards ready to overreach and collapse. There may well be an opportunity for a conservative reformation in the near future, especially if the Trump Administration is embroiled in scandal and delegitimizes the present mix of conservative wonks and Trump himself, just as Watergate delegitimized the old Nixonian moderate Republicanism.
Second, Trump has brought old, formerly heretical ideas back into the realm of utterance, if not quite acceptability, in Republican circles: industrial policy and economic nationalism, fiscal liberalism, and more. With the taboo removed, the next generation of Republican reformers and moderates might do well to assimilate these economically activist ideas under a more socially benign President. Writers like Michael Lind, Reihan Salam, and Sam Tanenhaus have been recommending more or less that.
Because of the massive changes in American politics today, it simply appears that there will soon be more opportunities for Republican moderates to reassert themselves, rebuild a new wing of the party, and take up the work the Ripon Society tried to do a half-century ago. The opportunity to redefine Republicanism- hopefully back to the political center- is an opportunity that should not be ignored.
May those of us moderate Republicans do well in that quest. It’ll be a long, hard slog.