Conservatives today deride moderate GOPers as “Republicans in Name Only.” But they used to matter—until the politics of passion overwhelmed them.
The story comes to its climax in the presidency of Richard Nixon. Nixon embodied the contradictions of the Republican Party. He drew on the Ripon Society network, appointing more than a dozen of its members to positions in the Administration, even as he also relied on the “Syndicate,” as the conservative organization within the Young Republicans was known. This reliance on the moderates, in Kabaservice’s view, is why Nixon was able to pass so much legislation that is often viewed as liberal, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Environmental Protection Act. Nixon’s “New Federalism”—which introduced revenue sharing between federal and state governments, giving states more power in the implementation of federal programs—was celebrated by the moderates. But at the end of the day, Nixon’s hostility toward “the Establishment” extended to the intellectuals of the Ripon Society and the moderate movement. He ultimately embraced the Southern strategy, sought to form alliances with working-class conservatives, and gave up on the “elitists” in the Republican Party. They would never again exercise such power in a presidential administration.
This did not mean the end of the moderate tradition in the GOP. There were some attempts to press the moderate cause in the early 1970s. In what seems a bit of a stretch, Kabaservice identifies supply-side economics as a program that received support from moderates and that shares some aspects of their worldview. In its original formulation by political leaders such as New York Representative Jack Kemp, he argues, supply-side was not necessarily anti-government; instead, its advocates argued that through lowering taxes the state could actually generate more revenues, thus avoiding austerity measures that would create social conflicts. The last chapter of the book moves quickly through the Reagan years, showing how the ranks of the moderates thinned over time, as they left the party to become independents or Democrats, or were defeated by the more organized right wing of the party.
The rise of the Christian right and the Moral Majority brought a new religiosity and ever-more-fervent anti-intellectualism to the conservative cause. (There’s a great story about L. Brent Bozell, the National Review editor and ghostwriter of Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative, leading the charge against abortion in 1970 under the banner of a pro-Franco group by bashing the windows of a health clinic at George Washington University with a five-foot-tall wooden cross.) Even Goldwater would ultimately be denounced as a “Republican in Name Only.” Kabaservice concludes with the 2010 defeat of Republican moderate Mike Castle in Delaware’s Senate primary by Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell, whose populist campaign included her infamous television ad in which she said, “I’m not a witch. I’m you”—a sign for Kabaservice of how much the conservative movement has lowered the standards of political debate.
Rule and Ruin builds a powerful case for the historical importance of the moderate Republicans and the contests within the postwar Republican Party. Yet at the same time, this illuminating book leaves the reader crying out for some deeper explanation of what happened to the moderate tradition. Why has it disappeared?
Kabaservice describes how the moderates failed to think politically. They would not stoop to grassroots organizing. Their money men pulled out when they stood to lose too much. Nelson Rockefeller, who could have funded a flotilla of think tanks, instead poured his ample resources into his own political cause. Most of all, the moderates simply did not care enough. Moderation, Kabaservice suggests, was necessarily hampered because a political creed that defines itself as pragmatic and intellectual will always be weaker than a politics of passion. In some ways, he views moderation as an attitude more than a particular set of positions—a skeptical, thoughtful, non-ideological politics, committed to governance and to using the state to deal with social problems. The titles of the book’s chapters are drawn from W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,” with its description of the “rough beast” slouching toward Bethlehem: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The book has something of the tragic in it, telling the story of the undoing of gentle and intelligent men (and they were almost all men) whose very failure was that they clung to their moderation.
The moderate Republicans did accomplish much of which to be proud. Their support was—as Kabaservice argues—critical for the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Senators like Javits and John Sherman Cooper helped to end the Vietnam War by defunding it. The moderate force within the party did not decline easily or quickly, continuing for a long while to offer a real alternative to hard-line conservatism. Historians of the late twentieth century have at times treated the triumphs of conservatism as though these were foregone conclusions; Kabaservice shows how it was a fight all along the way, through the 1980s and beyond.
For all there is to admire about the moderates, though, it is not so easy to mourn their demise. The politics of passion that Kabaservice critiques was not driven by the romantic impulses of irresponsible youth; in reality, the consensus collapsed because it hid and protected much—segregation, poverty, the repression of the Cold War years—that was in fact not moderate at all.
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