In 1960, Barry Goldwater published The Conscience of a Conservative, a manifesto of limited government that became, in the words of Patrick Buchanan, the “New Testament” of the conservative movement in the United States. Ghost written by The National Review editor and Goldwater speechwriter L. Brent Bozell, The Conscience of a Conservative portrayed the federal government as the enemy of liberty. Goldwater sought to abolish Social Security, defund the United Nations, and eliminate federal welfare programs and federal aid to schools. He asserted that Brown v. Board of Education and similar Supreme Court decisions were "abuses of power" and constitutionally invalid.
Fred Koch, a founding member of the John Birch Society (and father of Charles and David Koch) financed the publication of Goldwater’s treatise, which helped catapult Goldwater into national politics and made him into a hero among true believing conservatives. An avowed anti-communist, in a 1963 television interview, Goldwater suggested that “defoliation of forests by low-yield atomic weapons could well be done” to disrupt the flow of arms from North Vietnam. Many believed Goldwater’s extreme positions disqualified him for the presidency. But in 1964, Goldwater became the Republican nominee for President. Although he lost in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson, Goldwater’s embrace of states’ rights and opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped him win the Deep South and paved the way for Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy and successful presidential run in 1968.
Five years before The Conscience of a Conservative appeared on the scene, William F. Buckley (Bozell's brother-in-law) founded The National Review, a small but influential magazine that gave the conservative movement intellectual cache and sophistication. Buckley opposed the moderate policies of President Dwight Eisenhower, the first Republican President since Herbert Hoover. The National Review’s program statement implicitly attacked Eisenhower’s centrism, declaring: “Middle-of-the-Road, qua Middle-of-the-Road is politically, intellectually, and morally repugnant.” Eisenhower’s greatest sin, according to Buckley, was a willingness to govern through moderation and cooperation. To the dismay of “principled” conservatives, President Eisenhower made no attempt to dismantle the New Deal and accepted the political reality of the consequences of doing so. “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs,” Eisenhower said, “you would not hear of that party again in our political history.” To the ideologically pure conservative, this statement equaled capitulation, a willingness to embrace the collectivist forces of evil liberalism.
As Garry Wills writes in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books (“The Triumph of the Hard Right”), “The sense of betrayal by one’s own is a continuing theme in the Republican Party.” Ideological division and disunity led by the radical right has historically haunted Republican politics. Right-wing forces opposed Gerald Ford in 1976 for his centrist foreign policy, leading to the election of Jimmy Carter. George H. W. Bush was attacked and abandoned by the right after he violated his pledge of “no new taxes” prior to the 1992 election, leading to the election of Bill Clinton. The right disliked even George W. Bush for his support of No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D. And no modern Republican president, including Ronald Reagan, succeeded in shrinking the size and influence of the federal government.
Although the Republican Party has continued to shift rightward, for most of the 20th Century the Republican establishment consisted of insiders who spoke conservatively and governed moderately. But as the rise of the Tea Party and ascendance of conservative talk radio attests, a festering resentment has created a new and unpredictable turn in Republican politics.
“To be on the right is to feel perpetually betrayed,” writes Wills. “At a time when the right has commanding control of radio and television talk shows, it still feels persecuted by the ‘mainstream media.’ With all the power of the one percent in control of the nation’s wealth, the right feels its influence is being undermined by the academy, where liberals lurk to brainwash conservative parents’ children (the lament of Buckley’s very first book, God and Man at Yale).” As we have seen time and again this past decade, the most conservative elements of the Republican Party punish members willing to compromise with President Obama and the Democrats. It is why Republican presidential candidates contort themselves to demonstrate increasingly extreme anti-immigrant, anti-evolution, anti-climate change, anti-everything credentials.
As I proposed in an essay written over five years ago (“Where Have the Moderate Republicans Gone?”), it is increasingly difficult to identify the modern day statesmen in today’s Republican Party. I grew up observing moderate, sensible legislators, such as Howard Baker, Jacob Javitz, Rudy Boschwitz, Mark Hatfield, and John Danforth – Republicans who put the nation’s interests above petty partisanship and willingly worked with Democrats to solve the country’s problems. These leaders understood that governing a country as large and complex as the United States, with many diverse interests, requires political give-and-take.
It is now fatal for Republican presidential candidates to hint of moderation. Jeb Bush and John Kasich, both struggling in the early primary states, are two men who understand the complexities of governing. They harken back to George H. W. Bush’s call for a “kinder and gentler” Republican Party and George W. Bush’s promise of “compassionate conservatism,” concepts never taken seriously in far-right circles, which value ideological purity over compromise, obstruction over cooperation.
Perhaps no one is more responsible for the current uncompromising Republican orthodoxy than William Kristol, the conservative editor of The Weekly Standard. In 1993, Kristol drafted a memo outlining a strategy for Republican congressional leaders to defeat President Clinton’s proposed health care reform. Kristol noted that while the Clinton administration preferred “bargain and compromise” to achieve its goals, total defeat and surrender “must be our goal.” “Any Republican urge to negotiate a ‘least bad’ compromise with the Democrats, and thereby gain momentary public credit for helping the president ‘do something’ about health care,’ should . . . be resisted.” Kristol called for “a newly bold and principled Republican politics” that sought as its goal “the unqualified political defeat” of Clinton’s health care plan.
Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform, who led efforts to make support for any form of tax increase equivalent to political suicide, reinforced Kristol’s approach. In 2003, while attending a Harvard alumni reunion, Norquist discussed his plans for a “permanent Republican majority.” When it was suggested that a Democrat would again someday occupy the White House, Norquist replied, “We will make it so a Democrat cannot govern as a Democrat.”
A Fox News poll found in September 2015 that 62% of Republicans feel “betrayed” by their party’s officeholders. This may help explain why perceived “outsiders” and anti-establishment candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are threatening to upset the political order. Like the creation of Frankenstein, conservative anger and bitterness fueled by years of establishment acrimony has turned the party establishment on its head.
During the Obama presidency, the Kristol-Norquist strategy came full circle. As reported by Michael Grunwald of Time magazine, the Republicans plotted
. . . to obstruct President Obama before he even took office, including secret meetings led by House GOP whip Eric Cantor (in December 2008) and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (in early January 2009) in which they laid out their daring (though cynical and political) no-honeymoon strategy of all-out resistance to a popular President-elect during an economic emergency. “If he was for it,” former Ohio Senator George Voinovich explained, “we had to be against it.”
For the past seven years, the far right and anti-establishment voices in the Republican Party have sought to defeat and obstruct President Obama’s agenda. Every Republican House member (and all but three Republican Senators) opposed the $831 million economic stimulus legislation in 2009, which according to a 2012 University of Chicago survey of economists, is widely credited with helping reverse the Great Recession and reducing unemployment. Similarly, not one Republican Senator or House member voted to expand health care coverage for uninsured Americans. Consistent with the Kristol-Norquist playbook, opposition to the Affordable Care Act was mandatory for every Republican. As David Frum, former speechwriter to George W. Bush, wrote in 2010:
At the beginning of this process we made a strategic decision: unlike, say, Democrats in 2001 when President Bush proposed his first tax cut, we would make no deal with the administration. No negotiations, no compromise, nothing. We were going for all the marbles. This would be Obama’s Waterloo – just as healthcare was Clinton’s in 1994.
Could a deal have been reached? Who knows? But we do know that the gap between this plan and traditional Republican ideas is not very big. The Obama plan has a broad family resemblance to Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan. It builds on ideas developed at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s that formed the basis for Republican counter-proposals to Clintoncare in 1993-1994.
Barack Obama badly wanted Republican votes for his plan. Could we have leveraged his desire to align the plan more closely with conservative views? . . . Too late now. . . . We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.
Since then, House Republicans have voted more than 50 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, with nothing to show for it. Twenty Republican Governors initially refused to expand their states’ Medicaid coverage under the Act, turning down federal dollars to score political points at the expense of millions of low-income working families.
As we enter Obama’s final year, Republican intransigence continues. One week after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino that killed fourteen people, the House and Senate defeated legislation to ban the sale of guns and explosives to anyone on the FBI’s terrorist watch list. As reported by the Government Accountability Office, during the past eleven years, individuals on the list have sought to purchase guns or explosives 2,233 times. Because of existing loopholes in federal law, 2,043 of these sales, or 91%, were approved. Opposition to a bill that would close this loophole and disallow the sales of pistols, rifles, assault weapons, and explosives such as ammonium nitrate and potassium chloride, to suspected terrorists, defies logic or reason. And yet, 53 of 54 Republican senators and all 241 Republican House members who voted on the bill opposed the measure.
A rigid conservative orthodoxy similarly requires disavowing the reality and implications of climate change and the near-scientific consensus in support of reasonable measures to counter the environmental effects of global warming (2014 and 2015 are the hottest years ever recorded). Thus, in two votes on November 17, 2015, only three Senate Republicans (out of 52) voted in favor of a proposed EPA regulation to reduce carbon pollution emissions, and the same margin voted to reject an EPA regulation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. House Republicans voted by margins of 231-to-10 and 231-to-2, respectively, to defeat identical measures a week later. Most Republicans also opposed U.S. participation in the United Nations Climate Accord signed in Paris by representatives of 196 nations in December. These Republicans seem to know better than the U.S. military, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Pope Francis, and nearly every recognized climate scientist in the world.
In recent years, opposition to immigration reform and abortion have become mandatory in Republican circles. An expressed belief in evolution must be avoided like the plague. Any form of tax increase, however fiscally sensible, to pay for essential government services is anathema to conservative principles. Republican opposition to raising taxes resulted in a ten-year delay in long-term Highway Trust Fund legislation. Meanwhile, our nation’s infrastructure continued to decay, with one out of every nine bridges now deemed structurally deficient. It is indeed a credit to Obama’s skills that he has governed effectively despite levels of political obstinacy not seen in my lifetime.
A viable democracy requires that the winning side of a democratic election be allowed to govern. Democracy demands give-and-take after the election is over. Conservative principles should be read and understood by liberals so that common ground can be found. Even Buckley and Goldwater frequently engaged in civil dialogue with their philosophical opponents. But if conservatives wish to be taken seriously as political leaders, they must listen more to voices of reason, like David Brooks and David Frum, and listen less to talk radio. As Frum noted nearly five years ago:
Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say – but what is equally true – is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.
One need not set aside all principles to help government work and society function, but a government of, by, and for the people requires that its elected Presidents receive a semblance of respect, that votes on judicial appointments not be delayed indefinitely, and that the government not be threatened repeatedly with shut downs and politically motivated, factually-disingenuous congressional investigations. Zero-sum strategies designed to defeat the other side at all costs must be recognized as a violation of the public trust and an abdication of responsibility.
It remains to be seen whether Republicans will nominate a candidate who would rather govern everyone seriously than spew angry rhetoric to the delight of one-fifth of the country. While there is entertainment in watching Republicans fall into complete disarray, there is also great sadness in the spectacle. It is up to all of us to correct it. When Ben Franklin left the Constitutional Convention, he was asked by a passer-by what sort of government had been created. Franklin famously replied, “A Republic. If you can keep it.” The brevity of his response should not detract from its essential meaning, that a democratic republic remains healthy and viable only through an informed citizenry willing to work together for the common good.