Conservatives today deride moderate GOPers as “Republicans in Name Only.” But they used to matter—until the politics of passion overwhelmed them.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Newt Gingrich was a moderate Republican. Few remember today that back in 1968 he campaigned in the South for none other than New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. In his first bids for electoral office, Gingrich was twice defeated as the moderate challenger to a segregationist Democrat. Once in Congress, he helped found the Conservative Opportunity Society, but he still portrayed himself as a “Theodore Roosevelt Republican,” never quite renouncing his academic background in favor of a down-and-dirty populism. When he ascended to the leadership of the House in the late 1980s, he did so by courting the support of party moderates. “There’s no question that I would not be House Republican whip if activists in the moderate wing had not supported me,” he reflected after his election. Even in 1989, after shifting to the right, he continued to identify with “the classic moderate wing of the party, where, as a former Rockefeller state chairman, I’ve spent most of my life.”
How times have changed. Today’s Gingrich—not to mention the Gingrich of 1994—would have been unrecognizable to the man who backed Rocky in 1968. His shift is a marker of political polarization and the transformation of the Republican Party into a fiercely ideological hard-right party by almost every measure. In 2010, for example, National Journal found that every Senate Republican had a voting record more conservative than every Democrat. Politicians once seen as moderates have been driven from the Republican Party, either losing elections to conservatives or simply switching parties. And many of those who once deemed themselves moderate—like Newt Skywalker, as he was known back in the day for his space-age techno-geek’s support for “Star Wars” and NASA—have shifted inexorably to the right. Conservatism itself is more extreme than it used to be.
In Rule and Ruin, Geoffrey Kabaservice treats the demise of the Republican moderates as a gripping historical mystery. What happened to the “vital center”? The culprit, he argues, is “the transformation of the Republican Party over the past half-century into a monolithically conservative organization.” That shift has brought us the “vicious and violent” tone of our discourse and the “extreme, antagonistic, uncompromising and ineffectual” nature of our politics.
History is written not only by but about the winners, and recent years have seen no shortage of books about the rise of the conservative movement in postwar America. Historians like Lisa McGirr, Rick Perlstein, and Thomas Frank have analyzed its ideas, organization, financing, strategies, and social base. They have told the stories of grassroots conservatives, Phyllis Schlafly, the John Birch Society, conservative media, Barry Goldwater, and the many ways that Reagan’s election was anticipated long before 1980. Yet for all the thousands of pages that have been written about postwar conservatism, the fierce battles within the Republican Party itself have gotten much less attention, and historians have forgotten the extent to which conservative activists focused their energy on capturing the Republican Party.
For this reason, almost no one has written about the moderate Republicans who challenged conservatives for control of the party. In Rule and Ruin, Kabaservice sets out to overturn the conventional wisdom about the moderates—to argue that they exercised influence far longer than people realized, that they actually should get a good deal of credit for many of the liberal reforms of the 1960s, and that the most far-thinking among them sought for many years to fight back against the conservative onslaught and to reinvent Republicanism. An independent scholar whose previous book, The Guardians, treated Yale University President Kingman Brewster and his circle as exemplars of the peculiar liberalism of the postwar years, Kabaservice is well positioned to look at the decline of the Republican moderates. But his fascinating narrative history is more than a postmortem; indeed, it is a passionate call to revive the creed of moderate Republicanism. Beneath the history is an undercurrent of loss and longing for a political establishment that once was and is no more.
Kabaservice starts his book in 1960, with the Republican Party convention that nominated Richard Nixon as its candidate. By that time, Republicans were already deeply divided about both strategy and ideology. The party had been split in the past, between the “Old Guard” politics of Ohio Senator Robert Taft and the moderate Republicanism of New York Governor Thomas Dewey and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Each in his own way, both Dewey and Eisenhower tried to breathe new life into Republicanism, showing that the creed once associated with Herbert Hoover and the laissez-faire of the 1920s could still be relevant after the Great Depression, that it could “rationalize and reform the New Deal rather than repeal it.” Along with their intellectuals, they developed an approach to social policy that emphasized support for business, individual liberties, economic incentives, and gradual reforms, but not an absolute anti-government stance or paranoid anti-communism.
There were some vehicles for this kind of Republicanism, including a magazine called Confluence that in 1952 counted among its editors a Harvard graduate student named Henry Kissinger. Kissinger was sharply critical of the American right, saying that “most American conservatives are Manchester liberals, in my opinion, or populists. I don’t even consider them conservatives.” But not even Taft, though his moniker was “Mr. Conservative,” was a purist—he supported various New Deal positions, never affected a populist stance, and did not approach policy through the lens of ideology.
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