Conservatives today deride moderate GOPers as “Republicans in Name Only.” But they used to matter—until the politics of passion overwhelmed them.
By the end of the 1950s, though, a new mobilization of the right was starting to make itself felt within the Republican Party. These conservatives—who had been awakened initially by Joseph McCarthy, and who in 1960 lined up to draft Barry Goldwater for the nomination, impressed by his hostility to organized labor and his denunciation of Eisenhower’s “dime store New Deal”—believed that their side lost elections because they did not offer a sufficiently clear ideological alternative to liberalism. Success would only come—and would only matter—if the Republican Party stood for clear principles and could be purified of its heretics.
They were countered by another new force: that of “progressive” Republicans, who wanted to claim the Republican Party as the party of the civil-rights movement (untainted by the Democratic Party’s reliance on segregationists in the South) and of national reform in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt. The earlier moderate Republicans, following Eisenhower, had relied on appeals to traditional authority; the progressives, by contrast, recognized the need to counter the right by actively organizing within the party. In 1960, Kabaservice argues, the progressive and moderate Republicans, with standard-bearers like Jacob Javits, Gerald Ford, and Rockefeller, looked at least as strong as the conservatives. They had intellectual organizations, they had financial support, they had deep citizens’ groups to elect Republican candidates in 1948 and 1952, and they had a political strategy.
The moderate Republicans, Kabaservice notes, “have to be counted among history’s losers, but this is not a history without heroes.” The central protagonists of Rule and Ruin are those Republicans who sought actively to find ways to build an intellectual and political movement around their moderate cause. In the spring of 1961, Tom Hayden—then a junior at the University of Michigan—wrote an article for the annual college issue of Mademoiselle called “Who Are the Student Boat-Rockers?” Alongside the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society and the right-wing Young Americans for Freedom, Hayden described Advance, a magazine founded by two Harvard undergraduates, Bruce Chapman and George Gilder, who wanted to promote progressive Republicanism. The journal sought to develop a new political philosophy for modern America: one that “borrows freely from the best of ‘conservatism’ and ‘liberalism’ and whose essence is not mere moderation.”
Both Gilder and Chapman would subsequently move to the right, with Gilder, in particular, becoming an ardent anti-feminist and a prominent conservative writer, publishing his best-selling defense of supply-side economics, Wealth and Poverty, in 1981. Throughout the 1960s, though, he and Chapman were at the head of the efforts to promote the progressive cause within the Republican Party. Advance got a good deal of attention for its attacks on Republican negativism and its claim that the best way forward would be for the Republican Party to draw on its abolitionist tradition and become the party of civil rights, the “nation’s most important domestic issue,” rather than adopt what would become known as the Southern strategy. For all its positive press, the journal folded in 1963 for lack of funds, but it did help to spawn the Ripon Society—named for the Ripon, Wisconsin, birthplace of the Republican Party—an intellectual and political club for moderate Republicans that sought to define a vision for the party that could challenge its popular image “as a party of obstruction and negativism.”
Rule and Ruin also tells the stories of dozens of moderate Republicans in Congress who provided vital support for key pieces of liberal legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Among them were Senator Thomas Kuchel of California, whose political career was undone by Bircher allegations of homosexuality; Senator Charles Percy of Illinois, whose office wound up working with the Blackstone Rangers, one of the largest African-American street gangs in Chicago, in an effort to find solutions to urban poverty; Wisconsin Representative William Steiger, who was one of the authors of the act that created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; and Ohio Representative Frank Bow, who proposed an alternative to Medicare that involved using tax incentives and government funds to subsidize the purchase of private health insurance.
Well-known moderates such as New York Mayor John Lindsay, Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, and, of course, George Romney, Michigan governor and father of Mitt, all make appearances—as, more surprisingly, does one young representative from Chicago’s northern suburbs, Donald Rumsfeld, who was a disciple of Missouri moderate Thomas Curtis, and who wrote in the wake of Goldwater’s defeat in 1964 that the House Republicans needed to make the GOP a “reasonable, constructive, and effective force.” Throughout, Kabaservice makes the case that these Republicans were not simply imitating Democrats, but advancing their own distinctive political philosophy. They were sympathetic to private enterprise and hostile to centralized authority, embracing the use of incentives to achieve social ends. But in contrast to today’s ideologues, they believed there was a role for social policy and for government; they were not reflexively opposed to taxes and the state; and they were not overly concerned about social issues related to sexuality, marriage, and the family.
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