Last spring GOP columnists were already urging their fellow party-members to nominate a centrist for the presidential race. Kim Strassel (April 5, 2011) and Peggy Noonan (April 29, 2011) in Wall Street Journal and Michael Barone and Jonah Goldberg in their syndicated columns all warned against reaching too far right for a presidential candidate. Noonan identified this practice with a “mood of antic cultural pique” and a tendency “to annoy the mainstream media” that came out of the Tea Party insurgency last year. She pointed to McCain, Dole, the two Bush presidents, and Romney as suitable candidates for a party that needs “the center where most of the voters are.” On May 18 Goldberg announced that “already the conversation on the right is moving toward the all-important question of electability – which candidate can peel off the handful of independents needed to win an election that will be a referendum on Obama and his record.” He knows his fellow “conservative voters” “barring a truly fringe nominee” can be counted on to “vote against Obama, no matter what.”
Goldberg, Noonan and other Republican journalists were and are shoving their party toward the center even before the primaries get underway. Fortunately for them, the targets of their advice may already be where they want. Republican voters have usually favored presidential candidates who hug the “center.” Unlike the Democrats, who in 2008 happily reached leftward to nominate and win with “the candidate of hope,” Republicans try hard to avoid controversy.
They are happy with lackluster moderates like Jerry Ford, Robert Dole, and George H.W. Bush and perhaps they will soon be nominating that ultimate waffler Mitt Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts moved from the social and economic left to the center right, when he decided to seek the presidency in 2007. Once Romney sews up his party’s nomination, he’ll be expected to move a bit to the left, in order to pick up independents and perhaps a few stray black, Jewish and Hispanic voters from the Democrats. Stephen Baldwin, who is gathering information for a book The Manufactured Candidate, has argued that Romney holds no “coherent worldview” except for shameless flipping on issues to advance his career. Black Republican columnist Deroy Murdock complained as early as February 2007 that Romney is so “fine a thespian” that” no one knows where the performer ends and the character begins.”
This may in fact be an exaggeration. In foreign policy Romney is a paradigmatic neoconservative who in his recent Iowa debate stated that “democracy is not defined by a vote. There has to be the underpinnings of education, health care….” According to the former governor’s website, his foreign policy will not only expand NATO and build closer alliances with Israel and Russia’s neighbors (thereby ringing Russia with enemies), but also “promote and defend democracy throughout the world.” Here we have the makings of another George W. Bush in Barbie Doll form. Note a major complaint against Obama from Republican strategists Dick Morris and Karl Rove is that he won’t play by their rules. Obama won from the left and continues to rule from there. This president won’t be a “centrist,” that is to say, a Republican president.
All of this is even truer of Romney’s latest rival Newt, who true to his centrist credit was instrumental in giving us the Martin Luther King festival and getting Confederate symbols removed from public places in Georgia. Gingrich in his centrist inclinations also pushed for sanctions against apartheid South Africa and has been even more strident than W in calling for a liberal internationalist foreign policy, built around cooperation with the Israeli government. With due respect for Israel and its oppressive security problems, does Gingrich really have to begin every discussion of the Middle East with the phrase “our fellow democracy Israel”?
Even a Republican leader now widely identified as a world-historical president, Ronald Reagan, played by the Morris-Rove rules. On the positive side, Reagan avoided tax increases and reduced marginal tax rates; and he helped topple the “evil empire” by placing military and financial pressures on the Soviets. But he failed, or perhaps didn’t even try, to abolish major departments of government; and while Reagan didn’t support quotas and set-asides, his attorney general’s office prosecuted more cases of discrimination in the private sector than any other administration had done until then. In 1987 Reagan supported an amnesty bill for illegals that opened the door to many of the problems that Congress is now (more or less) addressing. Undoubtedly Reagan nominated (or tried to nominate in the case of Robert Bork) far more conservative federal judges than his Democratic successor. But a survey of his record also shows that he brought others on board.
These were the Republican hangers-on who went to Washington supposedly to rid us of bureaucracy but who stayed on to become big-government conservatives. The Reagan-appointees would also include the neoconservatives, who during the Reagan years acquired a powerful foothold in the foreign policy establishment as well as in the department of education, national endowment for democracy, and national endowment for the humanities. The current attempts to depict Reagan as a “conservative” version of Wilson or FDR border on the ridiculous. At home Reagan was a transactional not transformational president, aside from the cataclysmic effects of his incorporation of neoconservative ideologues into his administration.
In 1994 the Reps focused on critical reductions in government and won both houses of Congress, but in 1996 they ran for president a centrist looking leftward, Bob Dole. Two achievements that candidate Dole boasted of having brought about, with encouragement from centrist Republican president George H. W. Bush, were the American with Disabilities Act and a 1991 Civil Rights Act, which reopened the door to racial quotas. Dole’s endorsement of the latter bill was appropriate, seeing that another centrist Republican Richard Nixon had introduced racial set-asides with his Philadelphia Plan in 1969. This may be a rule in American politics: Each time a Republican presidential candidate goes begging for minority votes, he loses a higher percentage of them than the centrist Republican presidential candidate who preceded him.
But why do Republicans expect their standard-bearers to display this center-mindedness? The answer most often given stresses strategic necessity. Although Republicans (allegedly, since there is no evidence of this) would like to run principled “conservatives” in presidential elections, the votes simply aren’t there. Elections are decided where Dick Morris, Karl Rove and Peggy Noonan indicate they are, somewhere in the center and among independent voters.
But Republicans aren’t likely to win by running low-octane Democrats. The more they imitate the opposition even while attacking it, the more likely it is they will drive the vital center of political debate toward the left. GOP candidates have been pursuing what is generally a no-win strategy for decades, by trying to sound like Democrats while throwing mud at the opposition. Equally silly has been their tendency to blame the other party for doing what Republican administrations have been doing almost as frenetically, engaging in massive deficit spending, monetizing wars and giving away lots of patronage. Listening to Fox-News and Republican politicians, one gets the impression that all runaway federal spending began the day Obama took office. Parties that market such moonshine, while offering little in the way of significant change are not likely to look believable. That may be why even with Obama in trouble, the Republicans have not been gaining in popularity.
There are two compelling reasons that the Republicans keep trotting out faceless moderates (usually turned leftward once the primaries are over). First of all, being Republican is a sociological more than ideological choice. The party is predominantly white Protestant; and according to the Pew survey, 81% of the Republican votes cast in the 2010 election came from churched white Protestants. On a good day a GOP candidate may be able to peel off 40 to 45 percent of the Catholic vote, 15 to 20 percent of the Jewish vote, 30 to 40 percent of the Hispanic vote and about 3 to 5 percent of the black vote. But this doesn’t change the recruiting problem. Only 5% of Hispanics and only 2% of blacks identify themselves as Republicans, and despite their often over-the-top Zionist rhetoric and neoconservative advisors, Republicans rarely pick up as much as 20% of the Jewish vote.
Party strategy has aimed at expanding this base, and the logical next step would be to work for increased Republican support among white Catholics. (Republicans obtained a majority of their votes in 2010). While some effort has gone toward this end by appealing to anti-abortion Catholics, more energy seems to be directed toward roping in black and Hispanic voters. This has taken the forms of waffling on illegal immigration, except in the case of Gingrich who openly supports amnestying illegals, and making public apologies for past expressions of white Protestant prejudice. Republican voters can generally live with these maneuverings. They are mostly people who hope to keep things as they are. They rarely undo (or expect their elected officials to undo) what the Dems have done, and their politicians pride themselves on managing the federal welfare state in a fiscally responsible way. Unlike the protesting minorities in the Democratic Party, Republicans were not inclined to manifest outrage before the Tea Party surfaced. They were delighted with the Bush-status quo before Obama and Obamacare came along, and they are still celebrating our government even in its present disarray as a shining and exportable example of “exceptionalism.”
Republicans also want minorities to like them and the city on a hill their ancestors settled. And so they probably expect their leaders to be like George W. Bush, who on a visit to Senegal on July 8, 2003 condemned the transatlantic slave trade as “one of the greatest crimes in history.” Needless to say, this terrible crime was not associated in any way with non-Westerners, whether African tribal chiefs or Arab slave-traders. Bush was placing the blame on the West, more specifically on white Americans. In his memoirs Bush noted that his most bitter presidential experience was having the radical black intellectual Cornell West call him a “racist.” This kind of remark may be more hurtful for Republicans, whose desperate wooing of the blacks has been unsuccessful, than for Democrats, who can assume overwhelming black support. Moreover, presidential candidate McCain made a point of reproaching Southerners who fly Confederate flags, for upsetting black Americans. McCain could do this without having to worry about offending Southern white sensibilities. White Protestants who fancy Confederate battle flags will likely vote Republican no matter what.
Republicans who think their party has been about cutting back government are grossly mistaken. The GOP has only rarely been a friend of decentralized government or to limited, cautious intervention abroad. In the 1860s the party was for consolidated government and defeating the rebellious South; then Republicans gave us Reconstruction together with cozy deals between industrialists and the state. They were later the party of imperial expansion; and under TR, the Republicans became the promoters of a federal managerial state, even before the Democrats turned in this direction under Wilson. There was never a war until the 1930s that most Republican congressmen didn’t welcome; and the Spanish-American War and the War to End All Wars were more popular among Republicans than they were among Democrats. The liberal interventionist Council on Foreign Relations, created in 1919, boasted such Republican founders as Elihu Root, Herbert Hoover and Henry Cabot Lodge.
If some Republicans later protested the New Deal and were reluctant to get involved in the Second World War, such attitudes have not been the rule. Republicans have usually embraced both big government and foreign adventures and were ahead of the curve on women’s right when Democrats were still arguing for a single-family wage for the male breadwinner. Indeed down to the time of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, the Democrats were generally perceived as the more conservative party, that is, the one that supported states’ rights and commanded the loyalties of fervently Catholic ethnics and the defeated South. What opposition there was to an interventionist foreign policy came typically from the Democratic side, represented by such heroic figures as William Jennings Bryan.
It is no surprise therefore that the Republicans today are crusading for democracy abroad. Discounting such constitutionally-minded leaders as Calvin Coolidge, the Republican opponents of European intervention before the Second World War and the anti-interventionists who survived briefly into the postwar era, the Republicans have a fairly consistent history of crusading for democracy. Bush II, McCain, Romney, and Gingrich are all in the Republican interventionist mold. Those who talk about the GOP’s going back to its small-government and isolationist past don’t have much to look back to.
A second factor for understanding why the GOP shuns rightwing presidential candidates is its present priorities. While the last Republican president did little to cut government expenses and made only scattered concessions to the Religious Right’s moral positions (mostly in Supreme Court appointments not always freely made), Bush was frenetic about launching wars to bring American-style democracy to other countries. The moral core of his administration could be found in the memorable speeches he made about a global democratic crusade, orations that we owe to David Frum and Michael Gerson. Such tropes reflect the vision of the heavily neoconservative GOP media, although for the advocates first things must come first. They have to attack Obama’s wasteful spending in order to capture the presidency. Then they’ll be able to stop Obama’s timid approach to foreign relations and address the continuing threat of an undemocratic “axis of evil.” Can anyone think of a leading Republican presidential candidate, except for Ron Paul, who doesn’t march in lockstep on foreign policy with Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page?
In a penetrating commentary for Amcon Online (May 18) “Has the Republican Party Left Reagan?” Jack Hunter quotes CPAC director Christopher N. Malagasi on the conservative “tripod” that Republican presidential candidates are believed to represent. Supposedly presidential candidate John McCain embraced all three legs of this tripod, because he was a fiscally responsible social traditionalist who favored “national defense.” This three-pronged conservative world view, according to Malagasi, was putatively the legacy of Ronald Reagan, and it is one that GOP presidents and presidential candidates have continued to uphold. Therefore an isolationist like Ron Paul is not truly “conservative” but a “liberal Democrat” because he rejects the third, and perhaps most vital, of the three legs.
Hunter has no trouble shredding these assertions, first by showing that most Republican presidential candidates, and certainly the last Republican occupant of the White House, have not been conservatives at all, with due respect to misleading media labels. Republicans have allowed the “conservative” brand to be identified with a neoconservative foreign policy – not national defense, which Paul does not oppose. Adopting neoconservative rhetoric and policies and complaining about high federal budgets when the Dems are in power is what currently defines a “conservative” presidential candidate. Those who meet the foreign policy standard often get a pass on other things. Thus we saw Religious Right hero Bill Bennett support the pro-abortion- and gay rights advocate Joe Lieberman for president, because Lieberman was good on Middle Eastern affairs. Republican Evangelist Pat Robertson not only had kind words for Lieberman but in 2008 also backed for president another socially liberal Zionist and war hawk Rudy Giuliani. Obviously not all legs in the tripod are of equal importance, particularly with the neocons supplying the funding for “conservative” enterprises.
This brings up the question about what if any opposition will confront the neocon-Republican establishment as it tries to put one of its friends into the presidency in 2012. One group this establishment will not in any way have to fear is the Old Right. What there was of this opposition when the neocons were getting into the driver’s seat has been either coopted or professionally destroyed. And there is no chance that those who were removed from public view will be achieving belated prominence, seeing that most of its leaders are already senior citizens.
But the libertarians are another story. They are better funded and more of a media presence than the hapless paleos; and their presidential standard-bearer Ron Paul has already recruited multitudes to work in his campaigns and vote for him. Paul is not likely to gain the presidency but he can run as a spoiler against a Dole-like candidate in 2012. This 74-year old congressman can help keep Obama in the White House, if he siphons off enough votes as a third party candidate.
Unlike older-generation conservatives, who appeal to social traditions and inherited hierarchies and unlike the neocons advocating a neo-Wilsonian, Zionist foreign policy, libertarians take a relatively value-free position by opposing America’s centralized public administration. They view an aggressive missionary foreign policy as an extension of a constitutionally questionable government that has seized power at home. They therefore wish to avoid military commitments abroad while reducing the scope of government to a few constitutionally allowable tasks. Usually these tasks are negatively stated, for example, staying out of the affairs of other countries, not monetizing our debts, abolishing the Federal Reserve, and not allowing the federal government to go on infringing on the constitutionally delegated power of the states.
Finally it’s not true that libertarian political figures avoid taking stands on social issues. Ron Paul and Chuck Baldwin are devout Protestants, who strongly oppose abortion. What such libertarians stress is that moral questions should be settled by state legislature, not legislated by federal bureaucrats, and least of all by the Supreme Court. While libertarians of the Right, like Paul, hold no brief for homosexuality and the taking of mind-altering drugs, they also believe that the federal government has exceeded its constitutional powers by interfering in such matters. Further, the state’s attempts to ban drug-use, libertarians argue, has allowed police power to be used against property and other rights without solving the problem it was meant to remove.
Not surprisingly, Paul’s candidacy has picked up support from lifestyle liberals as well as from small-government conservatives. Although neoconservatives launched attacks on Paul during the 2008 campaign, accusing him of being a disguised racist and fanatical anti-Zionist (Paul opposes giving foreign aid to Israel or to any other country) the accusations didn’t stick. Unlike the neocon smears against the Old Right, which worked all too well, these attacks seem to go nowhere. Paul enjoys credibility even on the left, as someone who opposes military adventures and wants to legalize drugs. The libertarian problem is not about to go away for establishment Republicans or for their neoconservative PR-network. Although libertarians in the short run may not be able to keep Republicans from nominating a presidential candidate, they will continue to put pressure on the party, from without as well as from within. And let us remember that they are not entirely dependent on Republican votes. Libertarians can reach out effectively without promising government programs and without abjectly apologizing to Democratic minority-voters.
Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt, The Strange Death of Marxism, Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right, and Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers. His latest book, Leo Strauss and the American Conservative Movement: A Critical Appraisal, was just published by Cambridge University Press.