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How the GOP Destroyed its Moderates

Mitt Romney has been running for president as the Republican nominee, de facto or de jure, for eight months now, and the grand historical joke of it has not yet worn off. A party that has set itself to frantically, fanatically expunge its moderates, quasi-moderates, suspected moderates, and fellow travelers of moderates chose as its standard bearer the lineal heir, biographically and genealogically, to its moderate tradition. It entrusted its holy crusade to repeal Barack Obama’s hated health-care law to the man who had inspired it and run, four years before, promising to do the same for the rest of America. The man and his historical moment could not be more incongruous. It was as if the Mongol tribes of the thirteenth century, setting out to pillage their way across the Asian steppe, had somehow chosen Mahatma Gandhi as their supreme khan.

Romney’s capture of the nomination required an incredible confluence of good fortune. Any one of several Republicans—Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan—could have outflanked Romney in both grassroots enthusiasm and establishment support but chose not to run. The one candidate with the standing and financial reach to challenge him who did grasp for the prize, Rick Perry, performed his duties with such comic, stammering ineptitude that his final oops-de-grace by that point was not even startling. What remained to challenge Romney was a gaggle of third-raters lacking the money or the rudimentary organization even to get their name on the ballot everywhere. Still, running even against the likes of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum (which is to say, running essentially unopposed), Romney still trudged laboriously to victory after endless weeks.

But there is another way to make at least some sense of the Romney nomination.

It has to do with the strange and sad fate of Republican moderation. After all, moderates, or at least relative moderates, do continue to exist in the Republican Party. They merely do not exercise power in any meaningful, open way. They provide off-the-record quotations to reporters, expressing unease over whichever radical turn the party has taken at any given moment. They can be found in Washington and elsewhere rolling their eyes at their colleagues. The odd figure with nothing left to lose—say, a senator who has lost a primary challenge—may even deliver a forceful assault on the party’s uncompromising direction.

For the most part, though, Republican moderation is a kind of secret creed, a freemasonry of the right. It lacks institutions that might legitimize it, or even a language to express itself. And since conservatism is the only acceptable ideology, the party has no open arguments with itself. Thus the “debate” in the Republican Party is entirely between genuine ideological warriors and unwilling conscripts, with intraparty skirmishes generally taking the form of hunts for secret heresies.

In this sense, Romney’s capture of the nomination is perfectly emblematic of the state of the party. Conservative activists spent months resisting Romney, sometimes furiously, despite the fact that he was defending no positions that they disagreed with. Across the entire ideological spectrum—in social, economic, and foreign policy—Romney stood shoulder to shoulder with his party’s reactionary wing. When Romney took on his hapless opponents, he assailed them from the right, as soft on immigration or anti-capitalist. The sole point of hesitation centered on conservatives’ suspicion that Romney did not actually believe what he was saying.

George Romney, way back when

Fifty years ago, the conservative movement, far from holding a monopoly on acceptable thought within the GOP, was merely one tribe vying for power within it, and not even the largest one. Geoffrey Kabaservice’s fine book tells the story of the slow extinction of the party’s moderate and liberal wings. The conservative movement, he shows in often gruesome detail, took control of the party in large part due to an imbalance of passion. The rightists had strong and clearly defined principles and a willingness to fight for them, while the moderates lacked both. Meeting by meeting, caucus by caucus, the conservative minority wrested control of the party apparatus. Sometimes this happened through physical force or the threat thereof. (Anybody who recalls the “Brooks Brothers riot” during the 2000 election imbroglio in Florida, when a Republican mob shut down a vote recount in Dade County, will find many of Kabaservice’s scenes familiar.) More often, the conservatives won out by packing meetings, staying until everybody else was exhausted, and other classic methods of organized fanatics. The moderates lacked the ideological self-confidence to wage these fights with equal gusto, and battle by battle they lost ground until finally there was nowhere left to stand within the party. 

Republican moderates in the early 1960s held a place of influence and comfort within their party that is hard to imagine today. The worldview of the party’s Rockefeller faction was formed and propagated with the help of organizations such as the Ripon Society, Republican Advance, and the Committee on Economic Development, and publications such as the New York Herald Tribune, Confluence, and Advance. And when the great wave of the Goldwater movement arrived in the early 1960s, with the explicit goal of cleansing the party of moderates and re-making it in the image of monolithic conservatism, the moderates fought back, albeit using more gentlemanly methods than those often employed against them.

Moderates at the GOP convention in 1964 proposed a resolution condemning extremism of all varieties. Goldwater supporters voted it down, their position echoed by the candidate’s famous declaration that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Many moderates stalked out of the convention, including Michigan Governor George Romney and his teenage son, Mitt. Romney subsequently penned a twelve-page letter to Goldwater explaining why he had not endorsed him. When conservatives defeated moderate California Senator Thomas Kuchel, he lashed out at what he called a “fanatical neo-fascist political cult” in the grips of a “strange mixture of corrosive hatred and sickening fear.”

Following the climactic showdown in 1964, the demise of the moderates is the story of a very long bout with a terminal disease. The moderates enjoyed a brief renaissance in the wake of Goldwater’s crushing defeat by Lyndon Johnson, and they counted disproportionately among the party’s new faces in its successful comeback in the midterm elections of 1966. Richard Nixon helped to heal the party’s internal breach by straddling its wings. But once in office, Kabaservice argues, Nixon eventually settled upon a populist strategy that set him irrevocably against his own party’s moderates, even plotting to deny funding and support to insufficiently conservative members of the party, including Lenore Romney (of whom Nixon bitterly noted in private that “she’s not one of us”).

The moderate Republican tradition had always leaned heavily on elitism, which abhorred demagoguery and the crude appeals to self-interest that they correctly identified with the machine hacks and Southern racists of the Democratic Party. Nixon’s strategy of counting upon white resentment began to identify the party as a less congenial place for thoughtful, educated people. One momentous episode centered around Nixon’s Supreme Court nomination of Harrold Carswell, who was not only a reactionary segregationist but an obvious lightweight. Moderate Republicans refused to support him, one of Nixon’s aides reported, because “they think he’s a boob, a dummy. And what counter is there to that? He is.” Senator Roman Hruska defended Carswell, in a comment that would grow infamous, by asserting that “there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they?”

Nixon’s re-branding of the party helped set in motion a long-term political swap, in which Republicans slowly lost support among white voters with a college education while gaining traction among the white working class. The transformation is now so complete that Rick Santorum can proudly announce “we will never have the elite, ‘smart’ people on our side”—“smart” referring not to native intelligence, but to those who aspire to a certain level of intellectual respectability. The party’s ideological and sociological evolutions have run in tandem, driving a progressively wider gulf between the Republicans and the technocracy.

Ronald Reagan supplied to conservative activists proof of the hypothesis that they had eagerly put forward through Goldwater: that a natural conservative majority existed among the public. For the last three decades, Reaganism has dominated the party’s self-conception to the degree that it is not possible within the party to dispute an idea identified with him. Intra-GOP arguments often divide over which side can more rightfully claim to be his heir, but like a religious text the merits of Reaganism itself lie beyond dispute. Alumni of the Ripon Society—the most influential of the moderate Republican organizations of the 1960s—took an informal poll of themselves in 2002 (a year when the GOP’s prestige had reached a recent apogee in the wake of the 9/11 attacks), and they discovered that three-quarters identified themselves by this point as independents or Democrats.

What remains of “moderation” within the party has taken on a definition very distinct from the meaning that it held originally. Unlike the moderate and liberal Republicans of yore, today’s “moderates” generally identify themselves as conservative. They are simply less so. The most recent wave of ideological re-making, undertaken since 2002, has seen a series of primary challenges largely replacing conservatives such as Bob Inglis, Richard Lugar, and Robert Bennett with even more implacably conservative Republicans.

What stands out in these contests is the lack of open ideological conflict. In debates within the party, both sides inevitably grasp for the conservative mantle. The virtues of the anti-government creed (except, of course, for the military and some aspects of social regulation) have no recognized limits. An incumbent challenged from the right can survive on other grounds—familiarity, likeability, the persuasive recantation of any past heresies; but the ideological ground on which he can stand has disappeared. Moderation can be successfully denied, but it cannot be defended.

Despite the misery of continuous political defeat, moderate Republicanism—moderate by contemporary standards, at any rate—is not intellectually dead. Quite the opposite, in fact. The movement in recent years has seen a flowering of bright, creative, deeply empirical thinkers, who grapple with liberal arguments rather than retreat into an ideological cocoon, and attempt to re-fashion a program for their party that responds to real-world conditions rather than treat anti-government dogma as an eternal and axiomatic truth. 

This collection of figures might seem like the promising core of a real reform movement, with the policy chops and prestige to slow down, if not reverse, the party’s deepening radicalism. Alas, any evidence of their influence at work is hard to detect. And a closer examination reveals why this is so.

In the waning years of the Bush administration, as the Republicans lost control of the Congress in 2006 and squandered its foreign policy credibility in Iraq, conservatives swiftly turned against the president they had once treated with something close to worship. The vast majority of them settled upon the same indictment that they had leveled against Bush’s father: he had failed because he had abandoned the anti-government faith. What had been tiny caveats in the right’s fulsome embrace of Bush in 2004—his passage of a prescription-drug benefit and education reform, his self-identification as a “compassionate conservative”—blossomed into evidence of a wholesale betrayal.

But the small handful of moderates developed a very different critique. They noticed that a wide chasm had opened up between the party’s increasingly working-class voting coalition and its policy agenda centered around regressive income tax cuts. The Republican economic agenda under Bush had not delivered income gains to its constituents, and it had ignored festering social problems like health care. Both political necessity and the weight of the evidence, they argued, required that the party alter its course.

As the Bush administration came to a close, and the party set out to decide its way forward, the moderates may have been hopelessly outnumbered and outshouted by the Rush Limbaughs and Wall Street Journal editorial pages and other voices of right-wing purity, but they had a relatively coherent analysis and at least a small place at the party table. In the wake of two consecutive election wipeouts, the last developing amidst the humiliating and almost surreal anti-intellectualism of Sarah Palin, it seemed possible to imagine, as the Obama administration dawned, that Republican elites might at least consider the proposition offered by their moderates.

But instead of halting or reversing its long march to the right, the GOP accelerated it, on every item of the Obama domestic agenda. In 2008, John McCain advocated a cap-and-trade bill to control climate change, but McCain and all his GOP allies abandoned it, and even turned against the whole notion of attempting to limit carbon emissions. (Among the public, the percentage of Republicans saying they believed that there was “solid evidence” that the Earth’s temperature was increasing fell from 59 percent in 2006 to 35 percent in 2009.) The party had previously advocated monetary and fiscal stimulus in response to an economic slowdown, but under Obama it dusted off obscure theories previously associated only with Ron Paul and the party’s fringe. The health-care reform approach developed by Romney in Massachusetts, which Romney himself had advocated as a national model during his 2008 presidential campaign to barely any complaint from within his party, now became a socialist horror.

Conservatives exerted enormous pressure on their party to follow its new and more radical line, and the pressure quickly grew unbearable not only for Republicans in elected office but for many moderate intellectuals as well. The most high-profile of these figures was David Frum. In some ways he is also the most surprising. 

In 1994, Frum wrote a book called Dead Right, a treatise urging the GOP to return to a more pure form of limited government conservatism. He joined the Bush administration in 2001 as a speechwriter, and two years later left to assume a fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and write a fawning memoir of Bush titled The Right Man. Like many conservatives in the waning years of the Bush administration, he turned against the administration that he once supported so fervently. But unlike most of them, Frum did not conclude that Bush had failed because he had abandoned the true faith of the conservative creed. In 2008, he wrote Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, which took a distinctly more pragmatic line than he had advocated before, but still placed him within the bounds of conservative-movement thought, albeit clinging to its left edge.

The GOP’s rightward lurch in response to the Obama administration flung Frum right off. AEI fired Frum in 2010, after he castigated the GOP for launching a holy war against health care reform rather than negotiate with Democrats who were desperate for bipartisan concord. (AEI had very much thrown itself into the holy war cause.) Intellectually, the party had left Frum, as he found himself defending its old positions on health care, climate change, and stimulus and monetary policy against its new ones.

Emotionally, though, Frum had left the party. Patriots, his new self-published novel, expresses in fictional form a sharper criticism of conservatism than his policy tract had done. The story centers on Walter Schotzke, a ne’er-do-well heir who stumbles into a fictionalized version of the Republican Party. Walter takes a job working for a Northeastern moderate “Constitutionalist”—the GOP in this universe—who, working alongside a McCain-like president, attempts to see through the sort of middle-ground agenda that Frum would like. But Schotzke is stymied by a network of cynical movement conservatives spreading their own pseudo-facts, and creating irresistible career incentives for its foot soldiers to comply with the dubious cause.

The first line of the novel (“I didn’t get the job through merit”) subverts the entire Randian worship of Job Creators that has dominated contemporary Republican cant. Frum’s portrait of Washington—and, especially, the precincts of official conservative Washington in which he spent most of his career—is savage. (As a novel, Patriots is at about the level one might expect from a non-novelist like Frum, but the unremarkable story is mainly a vehicle for Frum’s well-informed Washington anthropology.) The self-interest of the right-wing donor base, the sensationalism of the right-wing media, and the careerism of the movement’s foot soldiers come together in Frum’s interesting narrative to create a Republican world the internal reality of which barely intersects with that of the real world, an apparatus more like the Comintern than a properly functioning party in a mature democracy. The only sense of Republican loyalty one can find in Patriots is loyalty to a party that no longer exists and cannot exist without blowing up and reconstructing the current version.

Frum is not the only conservative who has found himself irreconcilably opposed to the GOP and the conservative movement. Bruce Bartlett, a fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, lost his post for his fierce criticisms of Republican budgeting in the Bush era. Josh Barro left the Manhattan Institute. Frum has approached his dilemma in more patient (and perhaps more immodest) fashion, conceiving of himself as the curator of a kind of Republican Party in exile, one whose opportunity to exert influence will come only after the party suffers a sufficiently dire and prolonged setback. A colleague of his once compared Frum’s project to “monks preserving knowledge during the Dark Ages.” For the time being, his wing of estranged moderates has sutured themselves off from their former allies, persevering in their ability to re-think moderate Republicanism, but depriving themselves of any immediate chance to exert influence within the party.

If Frum and his fellow exiles have maintained a coherent analysis but forfeited their chance to affect the Republicans, a larger and more influential coterie of moderate conservatives has done the opposite. Columnists such as David Brooks, Michael Gerson, and Ross Douthat have formulated a serious and often stinging critique of the GOP’s radical direction, and, with varying degrees of seriousness and specificity, laid out an alternative path. What they have failed to do is to face up to the cold reality that the alternative they propose diverges wildly from the actually existing Republican Party. They have instead convinced themselves that their reform crusade has succeeded, or will soon succeed. They consign the massive impediments before them to a small corner of their mental space. They invoke the Republican Party that they hypothesize as though it were real, and the real Republican Party as though it were hypothetical. 

Brooks has spent most of the Obama administration harping relentlessly for a bipartisan agreement to reduce the budget deficit, with higher taxes and lower entitlement spending. For years he pined away for the Republican Party to come around to his view, and it all came to a head last summer, when Obama offered House Republicans a budget deal far more favorable than even the various bipartisan agreements wafting around the Capitol. Suddenly Brooks boiled over in frustration in one July column. “If the debt ceiling talks fail, independent voters will see that Democrats were willing to compromise but Republicans were not,” he wrote, “they will conclude that Republicans are not fit to govern. And they will be right.”

Exactly this result transpired. Democrats had been willing to compromise but Republicans had not. But Brooks proved constitutionally incapable of sustaining his own conclusion. That the Republicans were unfit to govern was something that he could contemplate as a conditional development, but when the moment arrived he could not follow through, and he has since fallen back to wistful hopes for compromise on all sides.

Gerson, like Frum, is a former speechwriter for the Bush administration. Unlike Frum, he has undergone no public re-thinking or disillusionment with the previous administration, of which he remains a staunch defender. He played a seminal role in the development of “compassionate conservatism” as a political slogan and, in a few cases, actual programmatic adjustments. Since the Bush administration, Gerson has settled into the role of keeper of the compassionate conservative flame. His strategy has centered around a resolute insistence, in the face of a total abandonment by the party, that his side is prevailing.

So, for instance, Gerson wrote a typical column earlier this year positing that the GOP was divided between (bad, radical) Rejectionist Conservatism and (moderate, beneficent) Reform Conservatism, the latter epitomized by Paul Ryan. According to Gerson, the latter “would replace Obamacare, for example, rather than simply abolish it,” when in fact the budget plan designed by Ryan would repeal Obamacare, not replace it, and leave no fiscal place for any substitute. Likewise, Gerson wrote that “in exchange for serious Medicare reform, for example, [Reform Conservatism] would certainly accept a higher portion of GDP taken in taxes to ease cuts in discretionary spending.” This would come as news to the staffers on the bipartisan deficit commission who tried to forge just such an agreement, only to have Ryan shoot it down.

Douthat represents the most tragic case. He is at once a deeply religious social conservative (and thus unalterably attached to the Republican Party) and a rigorous analyst of American politics. Unlike Gerson and Brooks, who fill the gap between their moderate dreams and the hard realities of a radical party with gauzy rhetoric, Douthat bracingly engages with criticism. It is an admirable willingness that leaves him exposed to constant repudiation by reality. 

In 2005, he and Reihan Salam wrote an attention-grabbing cover story for The Weekly Standard that presciently identified the exhaustion of Bush’s agenda, still three years before the end of his term, and acutely laid out the possible paths the party could follow. The first was to follow its path of tax cuts and spending, especially on defense; the second was to “return to a purer, more fiscally austere faith, even if it means ceding political power, and wait for the looming entitlement crisis to convince Americans of the wisdom of repealing the New Deal”; and the third was to address the economic dilemmas that had festered under Bush. They urged the third course, which would revolve around expanded support for working-class families and “a serious effort to extend health insurance to all Americans,” of which Douthat and Salam offered Romney’s successful reform in Massachusetts as the most promising model.

But the direction chosen by the GOP is unequivocal: it has rejected their advice, in its broader contours and in its particulars. Rather than deepen their commitment to policies such as tax credits for families with children, Republicans have suddenly turned against their own handiwork, complaining that they created parasites free of the income-tax rolls. Rather than commit themselves to universal health care, perhaps based on Romneycare, the party has recoiled against the goal as socialism and the program as unconstitutional. It has embraced exactly the “purer, more fiscally austere faith” that they warned against.

Douthat has hardly ignored these developments, but he has persisted in reading the gale-force ideological headwinds as a faint crossbreeze. He has admirably implored Republicans not merely to repeal Obamacare but to replace it with a genuine alternative. “If the Republicans win the White House and the Senate and then somehow manage to repeal Obamacare without putting any significant reforms in its place,” he wrote in July, “it will represent not only policy malpractice, but a moral scandal as well.” But there is no “if” about this. When Douthat wrote those words, the Ryan budget that the entire party had embraced had already laid out its governing vision, and it did not include allocated resources to expand coverage. Romney has since stated that the fifty million uninsured Americans do not need access to regular medical care, since their ability to get treatment when they reach the emergency room is sufficient. Douthat can muster outrage against this decision, but only by imagining it as a hypothetical possibility.

In August 2008, Douthat saw potential in “Tim Pawlenty or Eric Cantor, both of whom seem much more in sync with the broad thesis of Grand New Party [the book that grew from his article] than your average Republican pol, even if neither of them are running around screaming about wage subsidies or the weighted-student formula.” He subsequently enthused about the potential for Sarah Palin to take up his crusade: “Sarah Palin looks like a perfect face for the sort of Republican Party I want to support: She’s a pro-life working mom; she’s tough on corruption and government waste without being a doctrinaire Norquistian on taxes; she’s more supportive of gay rights than the current GOP orthodoxy (while stopping short of backing same-sex marriage); she has a more conservationist record than your typical GOP pol, but supports drilling in ANWAR.”

Eventually Douthat concluded that neither Pawlenty nor Palin had really tried to run on the sort of reform ideas that he advocated. Palin “became the caricature” her critics had seen in her all along, and Pawlenty, who ran an orthodox campaign of Bushonomics, “had no one to blame but himself.” (In the most recent sign that he may not be destined to lead a new pro-reform, working-class-friendly conservatism, Pawlenty has now signed up to head the banking lobby.) But as soon as one potential champion disappeared, a new one would replace him. Douthat has developed a qualified but persistent enthusiasm for Paul Ryan. He sees past Ryan’s deep roots in Ayn Rand and supply-side economics, his extensive record of supporting spendthrift tax cuts for the rich and sabotaging bipartisan compromises, and his extreme vagueness about everything save his specific intentions to cut tax rates for the rich and slash spending for the poor and the sick—Douthat sees past all of this to envision, hidden in the massive gaps in Ryan’s proposals, a wonkish compromiser who will lead his party toward the center.

After Ryan delivered a dishonest and vacuous address before the Republican National Convention, Douthat conceded that “that Paul Ryan—the policy entrepreneur, the risk-taking wonk, the man who’s willing to get out ahead of his own party—is not the Paul Ryan who appeared on the convention stage last night.” But he insisted that just as Sarah Palin’s exposure as an anti-intellectual culture warrior did not vindicate critics who identified her as such all along, so Ryan’s fulfillment of the expectations set by his critics was not “proof that they’ve been right about him all along.” Douthat is genuinely puzzled that the Republican politicians he gazes upon so hopefully turn out in the end to be advocates of an indefensible agenda. The mystifying pattern keeps repeating itself.

The moderates, either in exile or in a state of permanent denial, believe that their day will eventually come. Ultimately, they are probably right about this. The GOP cannot keep moving rightward indefinitely. As the economist Herbert Stein put it, any trend that can’t go on forever, won’t. Stein himself was a paradigmatic Republican moderate, one of the sole figures in his party of any standing openly to oppose the GOP’s embrace of supply-side economics and other forms of magical thinking. He died in 1999 an almost totally marginal figure within the party, so his famous maxim may offer limited comfort. 

And eventually is a very long time. By the time the rightward migration of the party has finally halted, the definition of Republican “moderate” will likely have corroded beyond all recognition. Already the extremism of the party has advanced to such a point that its most fervent elements are identified less by their ideology—which is nearly impossible to distinguish any more from that of the mainstream—than by the degree to which their detachment from reality departs from paranoia as a mere figure of speech and approaches actual, clinical paranoia. “Radical” Republicans believe that Obama has created death panels, may have been secretly born overseas, and is plotting a United Nations invasion. The “mainstream” Republicans believe in goldbuggery and a massive plot by climate scientists, and deny the dramatic rise in income inequality in America.

Recently a voter at a forum asked Paul Ryan about “the death panels that we’re going to have.” Ryan framed his answer as a mere semantic disagreement. “That’s not the word I’d choose to use to describe it. It’s actually called. It’s actually called, so in Medicare, what I refer to as this board of fifteen bureaucrats. It’s called the Independent Payment Advisory Board.” When a tape emerged recently of Romney regaling donors with a fever dream that 47 percent of the country had grown irrevocably dependent on government, it later emerged that he had drawn the notion of the moocher half-nation from conversations with Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute. Here, then, was the most moderate candidate in the party’s presidential field, in conjunction with the president of its most prestigious think tank, producing a bizarre worldview of plutocratic hallucination.

It was a horrifying peek into the intellectual state of one of our two major parties, but only a peek. The changes in a party remain largely obscured when it is out of power. Many Americans found themselves shocked by the obstinate, anti-empirical methods of George W. Bush, who seemed in 2000 like a sensible man surrounded by establishmentarians. But in the GOP’s exile since the first Bush administration, the party had determined that its misfortune occurred entirely because its last president (George H.W. Bush) had betrayed the true faith. Through a thousand op-eds and foundation panels and talk radio sermons, the Republicans undertook a vast ritual of purification. But they lacked power to implement their own agenda, and so the full results of the transformation lay mostly hidden from sight until they revealed themselves. This time its radicalization in exile has occurred even more swiftly, the final results awaiting only the party’s chance to exert power once again. How long can the current respite last?

Jonathan Chait is a daily columnist for New York. This article appeared in the October 25, 2012 issue of The New Republic under the headline “The Revolution Eats its Own.”