Halt­ing Repub­li­can in­fight­ing

Op­pos­ing wings of the GOP must sheathe their claws and fly to­gether

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By David A. Keene

The New York Times and vet­eran con­ser­va­tive rab­ble-rouser Richard Viguerie are hap­pily pre­dict­ing a “Repub­li­can Civil War” be­tween “es­tab­lish­ment” Repub­li­cans and pop­ulist con­ser­va­tives that could make the Gold­wa­ter-Rock­e­feller strug­gle of the 1960s and the Rea­gan-Ford bat­tle of the ’70s look like child’s play. In pol­i­tics, am­bi­tion, ego and pro­found po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences can lead to in­ter­nal strug­gles within a party as new faces ap­pear on the scene or when party elites lose touch with the party mem­bers and the vot­ers they sup­pos­edly rep­re­sent. That’s what hap­pened in the ’60s as a newly emerg­ing con­ser­va­tive move­ment clashed with a GOP es­tab­lish­ment that was clearly out of touch.

The Repub­li­can Party of the ’50s and ’60s wasn’t much in­ter­ested in fight­ing the in­creas­ingly col­lec­tivist trend of the age, but in bet­ter man­ag­ing it. The GOP crit­i­cism of the Democrats run­ning the New Deal pro­grams be­queathed to the na­tion by Franklin D. Roo­sevelt and Harry S. Tru­man was not that there was any­thing wrong with the pro­grams them­selves, but that the Amer­i­can pub­lic would be bet­ter served if level-headed Repub­li­can man­agers were run­ning them.

The mod­ern con­ser­va­tive move­ment emerged with Wil­liam F. Buck­ley Jr.’s found­ing of Na­tional Re­view in 1955 and his tak­ing on the mis­sion of stand­ing “athwart his­tory, yelling ‘stop,’ at a time when no one is in­clined to do so, or to have much pa­tience with those who so urge it.” The new con­ser­va­tives were men and women with lit­tle in­ter­est in run­ning a more ef­fi­cient wel­fare state or learn­ing to get along with the Soviet Union, but in fun­da­men­tally chang­ing the na­tion’s think­ing on th­ese vi­tal is­sues.

Barry Gold­wa­ter’s 1964 can­di­dacy was the first truly na­tional man­i­fes­ta­tion of this emerg­ing move­ment, and while Gold­wa­ter failed to unseat Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son, his fol­low­ers found them­selves in vir­tual con­trol of the GOP, but with­out a fol­low-on can­di­date. That can­di­date, how­ever, was in the wings. Ron­ald Rea­gan’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer took off dur­ing the 1964 cam­paign and even­tu­ally gave con­ser­va­tive con­trol of the White House.

This in­tra­party rev­o­lu­tion was in­cred­i­bly messy. Po­lit­i­cal blood was spilled on both sides, and ca­reers were both made and de­stroyed as two essen­tially in­com­pat­i­ble strains of Repub­li­can­ism bat­tled it out over more than a decade in an in­tra­party civil war, the out­come of which was far from cer­tain at the time.

In the mid-’70s, Bill Rusher, who was Na­tional Re­view’s publisher and as im­por­tant to the growth of the new move­ment as Buck­ley, thought the bat­tle within the GOP was un­winnable and urged con­ser­va­tive to go their own way and form a third “new ma­jor­ity” party. He said at the time that it was hard to imag­ine the GOP nom­i­nat­ing “some­one like, say, Ron­ald Rea­gan” for pres­i­dent.

To­day, the philo­soph­i­cal dif­fer­ences be­tween the es­tab­lish­ment and pop­ulist wings of the GOP are much dif­fer­ent than they were back then. There are few “Rock­e­feller Repub­li­cans” about th­ese days, and vir­tu­ally no Repub­li­can of­fice­holder buys into the idea that the gov­ern­ment knows bet­ter than the in­di­vid­ual how peo­ple should lead their lives. In this re­gard, the bat­tle over Pres­i­dent Obama’s health care law is in­struc­tive. It passed with­out a sin­gle Repub­li­can vote. Even as Sen. Ted Cruz be­gan at­tack­ing fel­low Repub­li­cans as part of a “sur­ren­der cau­cus” or hint­ing that some of his col­leagues re­ally, se­cretly sup­ported Oba­macare, most ob­jec­tive ob­servers sensed that what he was re­ally do­ing was con­demn­ing those with whom he had tac­ti­cal dis­agree­ments to the outer dark­ness.

It turned out that both fac­tions were right. Ex­pe­ri­enced in­sid­ers who ar­gued that Mr. Cruz and his al­lies nei­ther had an endgame nor the votes to ac­com­plish their goals were proven right, but the Texas se­na­tor’s fo­cus on an ob­nox­ious and un­wieldy law may end up help­ing his party in the long run.

The dan­ger is that be­cause of the essen­tially per­sonal at­tacks from both sides that char­ac­ter­ized the de­bate over essen­tially tac­ti­cal dif­fer­ences, the sit­u­a­tion could get quickly out of hand. Karl Rove and oth­ers are threat­en­ing to raise funds to “take out” Tea Party-backed can­di­dates in next year’s pri­maries lest a few more Ted Cruzes show up in the next Congress. Mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans are sign­ing on to the cru­sade be­cause they see a chance to fi­nally win some­thing, some­where. Thus, for­mer Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio (who would be a Rock­e­feller Repub­li­can if the species wasn’t ex­tinct) prom­ises to “beat the snot” out of Tea Party types. Even out­side con­ser­va­tive func­tionar­ies, who ques­tioned the tac­ti­cal wis­dom of what Mr. Cruz tried to do, have been caught up in all this, with an of­fi­cial of Amer­i­cans for Tax Re­form tweet­ing that the Tea Party is “freaking re­tarded.”

This has to stop if Repub­li­cans are to cap­ture the seats they’ll need to win leg­isla­tive bat­tles over the fi­nal two years of the Obama pres­i­dency. Cruz al­lies are pri­ma­ry­ing Se­nate Repub­li­can leader Mitch McCon­nell of Ken­tucky and are threat­en­ing other es­tab­lish­ment Repub­li­cans just as Mr. Rove and oth­ers are gear­ing up for what could amount to a shoot­ing war with Tea Party-backed can­di­dates. In Vir­ginia, mod­er­ate or lib­eral Repub­li­cans un­happy with their gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date have jumped ship and are in some cases ac­tu­ally back­ing an in­cred­i­bly lib­eral Demo­crat.

No good can come of this. Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee Chair­man Reince Priebus ought to get as many of th­ese peo­ple to­gether as pos­si­ble, knock heads and get them to at least pre­tend to get along un­til Novem­ber 2014. David A. Keene is opin­ion ed­i­tor of The Wash­ing­ton Times.

ILLUSTRATION BY LINAS GARSYS/THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

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