…is William Voegeli’s lead article in the latest Claremont Review of Books. He paints a formidable defense of GOP’s “extreme” tendencies of late: Brought to the present by a recent history defined by two fundamentally unprincipled parties compromising on a fundamentally unprincipled post-New Deal agenda—typically with Republicans serving as tax collectors for the welfare state—it should surprise no one (and yet, it does) that “moderation” ran out of things to do.
Among other works, Voegeli devotes special attention to Geoffrey Kabaservice’s Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. Some key grafs:
To this day, 33 years after Nelson Rockefeller’s death, GOP moderates are still called “Rockefeller Republicans.” Yet Kabaservice shows that Rockefeller’s political career was the worst thing that ever happened to moderate Republicanism, since the New York governor who became Gerald Ford’s vice president believed: 1) achieving his personal ambition to be president was vital to the republic’s future; 2) more spending would solve any problem, political or governmental; and 3) not much else. . . .
. . . . We finish Rule and Ruin knowing a great deal about moderate Republicans, yet are left with no sure sense of the qualities that differentiate moderation from conservatism and liberalism. In the end, Kabaservice’s portrait of Republican moderates reinforces the judgment, made by Michael Barone in Our Country (1990), that their differences with Democrats were primarily sociological rather than political. The moderates who controlled the GOP before 1964 accepted that America would never again see government’s domestic powers confined within the limits that obtained before the Great Depression, or its international role to the one considered the norm before Pearl Harbor. But to entrust these new governmental responsibilities to the party that was a congenial home for Ku Klux Klan members in the South and corrupt machine bosses in the North was, in their view, unthinkable. Barone records Thomas Dewey arguing in the 1940s that “the Republican party is the best instrument for bringing sound government into the hands of competent men,” who would “prove that democracy can maintain itself as master of its own destiny, feed its hungry, house its homeless, and provide work for its idle without reliance on political racketeers.” Once Jim Crow and patronage-based urban machines had disappeared, the strongest rationale for moderates to continue to distinguish themselves from the Democrats did, too. Several politicians who started out as moderate Republicans, including former Senator Donald Riegle of Michigan and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, switched parties in the 1970s. Kabaservice reports that three fourths of the people who still cared enough by 2002 to attend the 40th anniversary reunion of the Ripon Society, moderate Republicanism’s most important organization, described themselves in an informal poll as Democrats or independents.
. . . .
In the absence of a satisfactory account of its essential principles, however, centrism stands revealed as an “-ism” without an -ism, the chief reason it ultimately became a -wasm. Lacking a telos, centrism’s logical fate is to collapse into split-the-difference-ism, rendering it not only incoherent in theory but counter-productive in practice. That is, insofar as centrism is a political force that matters, it ends up inciting rather than restraining extremists. If centrists can be relied upon to embrace the middle position between two extremes, the partisans of each extreme have every incentive to make their positions more extreme, not less, before the centrists calibrate and then endorse the half-a-loaf resolution. For all their hopes and exertions, moderates not only do not moderate the political process and policy outcomes, but actually intensify and polarize fights over the nation’s future course.
. . . .
. . . . If or to the extent they were conservatives, those Republicans embraced an utterly domesticated conservatism that prepared them, in Jonah Goldberg’s words, to “gladly serve as Sherpas to the great mountaineers of liberalism, pointing out occasional missteps, perhaps suggesting a slight course correction from time to time, but never losing sight of the need for upward ‘progress.'”
. . . .Those who were in any respect more bumptious were guilty of “revanchism.” . . . [According to New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus devoted a book, The Death of Conservatism (2009),] “Now it is time for conservatives to repudiate movement politics and recover their honorable intellectual and political tradition.” The most honorable part of that tradition was, apparently, its docility.
. . . .
. . . . Scott Walker sought to revise a legal regime that had been in existence barely more than 50 years, not, as Dionne implies, settled by the battle of Agincourt. No matter. Once history’s ratchet has clicked in the direction of progress, however recently, that step is irrevocable and all measures intended to reverse it, illegitimate. . . .
. . . .
. . . . Eisenhower was right to say the government cannot avoid responsibilities the people firmly believe it should discharge. But it would be useful to know how firmly the people believe in the discharge of each of modern government’s many, many responsibilities. Firmly enough to demand it, or firmly enough to pay for it?
Kabaservice’s response deserves attention, but I’m not persuaded by his defense for a reinvigorated “moderate” GOP. He contends that “the moderates were not quite as unprincipled and ineffective as you suggest,” citing to Eisenhower as the last president to balance the budget three timesand reduce the ratio of national debt to GNP. But Eisenhower did not have to grapple with Medicare, which stands far and away as the most expensive and uncontrolled entitlement program. In his reply, Voegeli prods for more specifics of what, exactly, more “moderation” in the GOP would look like: Are we just turning down the volume, or changing the station altogether?
Two years ago Mitch Daniels, Republican governor of Indiana at the time, gave a widely noted speech where he endorsed a “more affirmative, ‘better angels’ approach to voters” since if Republicans hope to win their support “it would help if they liked us, just a bit.” It’s just about impossible to quarrel with that advice.
But after finishing charm school, what do Republicans do? Is Daniels the kind of politician the GOP needs more of? My sense is that he was a very conservative governor over his eight years in office. Upon being elected in 2004, he began his administration by proposing the kind of fiscal balance you recommend-specifically, spending cuts combined with an income tax surcharge on families with six-figure incomes. The tax proposal went nowhere, however, and Daniels dropped it. Everything else he pursued and, mostly, attained sounds like a to-do list from the Cato Institute: cutting spending, writing property tax limitations into the state constitution, privatizing infrastructure, making health savings accounts the centerpiece of the state’s Medicaid program, expanding school choice, and signing right-to-work legislation.
If moderation needs to be substantive rather than just tonal, Daniels’s approach should have failed. He won a 58-to-40% landslide reelection in 2008, however, even as Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Indiana since 1964. Daniels even tripled his portion of the black vote from 7% in 2004 to 20%.
Indiana’s example also exposes the falsity of the claim that increasing taxes is the only way to increase revenue, often recited to prove that the “extreme” GOP, who is unwilling to raise taxes on principle, is simply incapable of leading. It is a truism that “tax revenue to the government equals, always and everywhere, the tax-rate structure multiplied by the tax base. Thus, expanding the tax base is an alternative to increasing tax rates.”
Tenor and volume may be legitimate grievances about extremism. Extremists don’t make good statesmen. But it’s quite possible that the extremists have a point, and if so, ignoring them is not the solution.