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A conservative idea of conservatism

Till recently,moderation was the Republican norm — the Santorums and the Gingriches are harsh exceptions

Written by New York Times | Published: February 3, 2012 3:22:54 am

Till recently,moderation was the Republican norm — the Santorums and the Gingriches are harsh exceptions
Nicholas D. Kristof

Newt Gingrich,Romney’s main rival for the Republican presidential nomination,is denouncing Romney with one of the ugliest slurs in the Republican lexicon: a Massachusetts moderate. Other moderate Republicans are savaged as RINOs — Republicans in name only — as if they emerged from an ugly mutant strain.

Yet,in fact,as a new history book underscores,it is the Gingriches and Santorums who are the mutants. For most of its history,the Republican Party was dominated by those closer to Romney than to social conservatives like Rick Santorum,and it is only in the last generation that the party has lurched to the hard right.

The new book,Rule and Ruin,by Geoffrey Kabaservice,a former assistant history professor at Yale,notes that,to compete in the primaries,Romney has had to flee from his own political record and that of his father,George Romney,a former governor of Michigan who is a symbol of mainstream moderation.

“Much of the current conservative movement is characterised by this sort of historical amnesia and symbolic parricide,which seeks to undo key aspects of the Republican legacy such as Reagan’s elimination of corporate tax loopholes,Nixon’s environmental and labour safety programs,and a variety of GOP achievements in civil rights,civil liberties,and good government reforms,” Kabaservice writes. “In the long view of history,it is really today’s conservatives who are ‘Republicans in name only.’ “

After all,the original Massachusetts moderates were legendary figures in Republican history,like Elihu Root and Henry Cabot Lodge. Theodore Roosevelt embraced progressivism as “the highest and wisest form of conservatism.” Few did more to promote racial integration,civil rights and individual freedoms than a Republican,Earl Warren,in his years as chief justice.

Dwight Eisenhower cautioned against excess military spending as “a theft from those who hunger and are not fed.” Richard Nixon proposed health care reform. Ronald Reagan endorsed the same tax rate for capital gains as for earned income. Each of these titans of Republican Party history would today risk mockery for these views.

Republican history is also populated with harder-line conservatives,like Senator Robert Taft of Ohio,dubbed “Mr Republican.” But he worked closely with Democrats,was willing to raise taxes and disapproved of anti-intellectual populism. Consider the time Taft’s wife was asked at a rally whether her husband was a common man. “Oh,no,” Kabaservice quotes her as responding. “He was first in his class at Yale and first in his class at Harvard Law School.” The crowd gave the couple a standing ovation.

What happened? That’s a long and gradual story beginning with Senator Joe McCarthy’s success in galvanising working-class suspicions of government elites and continues with an angry backlash at changing mores and liberalised abortion laws. Conservative Southern whites moved into the Republican Party. Newer media voices like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck made extremism seem congenial — while making bipartisanship feel treacherous.

I grew up in Oregon at a time when the state was dominated by Republican progressives like Gov. Tom McCall,a passionate environmentalist,and Mark Hatfield,an opponent of the Vietnam War. At that time,political paranoiacs tended to vote Democratic for candidates like George Wallace; over time,they migrated to the state’s Republican Party — and swallowed it up.

My first editor,Jeb Bladine,of The News-Register in McMinnville,Ore.,describes his newspaper as “independent Republican” in the spirit of earlier Republicans. But then social conservatives staged a grass-roots overthrow of the moderate Republican apparatus in the late 1970s and early ’80s,and focused on abortion and gay rights.

“Moderates simply gave up participating after being ostracised,” Bladine remembers. “It became almost impossible to nominate a Republican for state-wide office who had any chance of winning in a state-wide vote.”

Yet political parties are not suicidal. When they overreach,they (often) learn. The Democrats did that when they embraced a Southern centrist named Bill Clinton. The British Labour Party was marginalised when I lived in Britain in the early 1980s,but Tony Blair transformed it and revived it about 15 years later. And in Oregon over the last decade,Bladine notes,social wedge issues have lost their force,and moderate Republicans have re-emerged.

Could the same happen nationally? Sure,it seems impossible at the moment. But if Romney somehow manages to make the Republican Party safe for moderates again,that’ll be a triumph for his party — and for the country.

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