IN JULY OF last year, Paul Krugman finally figured out Barack Obama, a man who had vexed and infuriated him since the beginning of Obama’s campaign for the presidency. He is a “moderate Republican,” Krugman declared. His ideology resembled that of GOP centrists of the early 1990s, and seemed left-of-center only by comparison to the intransigent far right of the current Republican Party.
It was a brilliantly double-edged dig. On one level, it defined Obama out of the Democratic Party, implying that liberals would be better off with someone from what Howard Dean used to call “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” On another, it was the equivalent of giving Obama the L sign with thumb and forefinger. (That L is not for “liberal.”) Moderate Republicans are the notorious losers of modern politics. While conservative Democrats have exercised the balance of power over most of the last decade (witness the crucial votes over the stimulus and Obamacare), non-rightwing Republicans have been reduced to a remnant often referred to as “the ladies from Maine”—Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe—who characteristically agonize over whether to follow their consciences or adhere to the party line before deciding, usually, in favor of the latter.
But if you read Geoffrey Kabaservice’s new book, a history of the moderate and liberal wings of the Republican Party since the 1950s (and, yes, there were once even two categories of non-conservative Republicans), you might react to Krugman’s revelation by adding, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” That was my reaction, even before reading the book. I spent many hours in the early 1990s sitting dutifully behind the dais of the Senate Finance Committee, where four moderate Republicans—John Chafee, David Durenberger, John Danforth, and Bob Packwood—were often far better allies for my liberal Democratic boss than the committee’s Democrats, especially the oil-state senators David Boren, Lloyd Bentsen and John Breaux. They could not be called liberals (Danforth was Clarence Thomas’s strongest backer), but they were serious and well-intentioned, and they had a fundamental concern about economic fairness that many conservative Democrats, then and now, not only lacked by instinct but aggressively eschewed. (The seats of all four of those Republicans are now held by Democrats, and all three of the conservative Democrats mentioned above have been replaced by Republicans.)
Kabaservice, whose earlier book about former Yale President Kingman Brewster and his establishment counterparts in the 1960s was vastly more interesting than it might sound, has restored a recent bit of history that has gone almost totally unnoticed in most analyses of current politics and the emergence of ideologically polarized parties. The reason for this neglect is that there are no living veterans of the moderate army and its struggle for control of the party. As Kabaservice’s protagonists scroll across the page, the reader intuitively sorts them into three categories. There are the long-forgotten, such as Missouri Rep. Thomas Curtis or Kentucky Senator Thruston Morton. There are those who switched sides: some became conservative Republicans, like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (Rumsfeld began his career as a congressional ally of Curtis, in a moderate group known as the “Young Turks,” and Cheney was an aide to the respected Wisconsin Rep. William Steiger). And there are those who became Democrats, usually fairly liberal ones.
Some switched early, some late. Kabaservice reports that moderates were buoyed by two victories in 1965: John V. Lindsay’s election as mayor of New York, and Arlen Specter’s victory in the race for Philadelphia district attorney. Lindsay was defeated in his own party’s primary in 1969 (winning re-election as the candidate of the Liberal Party) and formally became a Democrat in 1971, while Specter held on for almost four decades longer, finally switching parties and becoming a reliable Obama ally in 2009. The only figure from Kabaservice’s story who remains active in politics and remains a moderate Republican is Rep. Thomas E. Petri of Wisconsin (Steiger’s successor), whose obscurity after seventeen terms is no accident, as conservatives have shut him out of committee chairmanships.
The moderates had two great presidential hopes. Nelson Rockefeller emerges in the book as an unreliable, self-absorbed tycoon whose political operation—which provided financial support to elements of the moderate infrastructure—had eroded by the time he ran a serious campaign in 1968, and who was too deeply despised by conservatives to have much chance of bringing the party’s wings together. Michigan governor George Romney, who was considered the leading Republican candidate for 1968 before his candidacy collapsed after he said he had been “brainwashed” into supporting the Vietnam War, comes across as an extraordinarily decent individual who ignored his political advisors to meet with black militants and focus on urban problems, but who was also a little dim about politics. Most moderates were comfortable with Richard Nixon, the one figure who seemed to be able to manage all factions of the party. As president, Nixon followed many of the moderate’s preferred policies, such as federal revenue-sharing with the states, but his political choice to follow the “Southern Strategy” and a law-and-order approach to domestic unrest cast his lot ultimately with the right.
The issues on which the moderates staked their fight are also mostly forgotten: in the domestic realm they were revenue-sharing, open-housing laws, and some form of income support, such as the negative income tax that came within inches of passage under Nixon. Moderates viewed these as means to deliver benefits effectively and alleviate hardship without building a large or intrusive federal bureaucracy. Liberal Democrats would be gleeful to see such ideas even on the agenda today. Moderate Republicans were also early skeptics and then outright opponents of American involvement in Vietnam. In later decades, moderate Republicans were notable for their support of environmental protections and reproductive rights, anchoring bipartisan coalitions that offset the many Democrats opposed to both. But the big story in the era that Kabaservice concentrates was the cause from which everything else stemmed: civil rights.
In recent years, the apostate Republican Bruce Bartlett published a book arguing that Republicans had a better record on civil rights than Democrats, and the Republican National Committee revamped its web site to portray itself as the party of African-Americans. And there is no point in denying it: Republicans were among the most deeply committed civil rights supporters, and voted for the Civil Rights Act in greater numbers than Democrats. Still, that historic legacy was broken in 1964, when nominee Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act. The RNC may want to extol Jackie Robinson as one of their own, but they probably don’t want to recall him saying that he felt like “a Jew in Hitler’s Germany” at the convention of 1964, from which many black delegates walked out. The party cannot plausibly claim credit for a heritage that it so decisively rejected.
Reading between the lines of this book (and Kabaservice is a wonderfully straightforward historian who does not layer on a lot of interpretive gloss), one can glimpse an alternative path. Senator Morton, while he was chair of the RNC in 1965, hoped that in the South there would be “a sound foundation for Republicanism not based on racism,” that could capture at least 20 percent of the black vote. (While we think of moderate Republicanism as a Northeastern tradition, the first Republican inroads in the South and border states were made by moderates such as Morton and his fellow Kentuckian, Vietnam War opponent John Sherman Cooper.) Had the party pursued a path “not based on racism,” one can vaguely envision a coalition of African-Americans and “New South” whites, together with urban reformers such as Lindsay and Specter, and the traditional Republican base among upscale voters in the suburbs and towns of the Northeast and Midwest, along with California, Oregon, and Washington. If the Democrats were left with the unreconstructed Southern whites and the urban ethnic machines, then in the great ideological sorting that inevitably took place the Republican Party might have become the more socially liberal one—a coalition of upscale whites and minorities. That is, it would look something like the eventual Obama coalition. Perhaps Krugman was on to something.
That it did not turn out this way is not one of those quirky accidents of history. Futility was built into the attitude and the spirit of the moderate Republicans. Their loyalty to the Republican Party took priority over their other commitments. Being a Republican was a mark of class and ethnicity (or the lack thereof), much like Episcopalianism. Moderates adhered to the “Eleventh Commandment” attributed (incorrectly, Kabaservice tells us) to Ronald Reagan—“Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican”—while conservatives did not hesitate to demonize their intra-party rivals. Moderates grumbled quietly about Goldwater and about Nixon’s Southern Strategy, but they went along. And moderates such as Connecticut Rep. Nancy Johnson were strong supporters of Newt Gingrich’s schemes in the 1980s and ’90s to take over the party, not because they agreed with him (he had long ago shed his “Rockefeller Republican” pretenses), but because they wanted a vigorous, fighting party.
Ultimately, the moderate Republicans were losers not because they were moderates, but because they were the truest partisans in recent American politics. They were not ideologues, but the opposite. They put loyalty to party, right or wrong, over their other commitments. Even though many of them eventually switched parties, they almost never leveraged the threat of exit from the party to get their way, whereas conservative Democrats, then and now, always seem to have one foot out the door. Republicans like Specter switched parties only when they realized they had no chance of beating a primary challenge.
Rule and Ruin is a wonderful reminder of what was once—not very long ago—a vital tradition in American politics. But it also establishes without a doubt that its subjects have no one but themselves to blame for their downfall.
Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and former editor of The American Prospect.