Radio personality Rush Limbaugh would have found himself marginalized in the 1950s Republican Party. Now he is the de facto leader of the GOP. Any politician hoping to rise in the party must appear on Limbaugh’s show and pay respects to the great arsonist of the airwaves.
It was not always this way. As Geoffrey Kabaservice writes in his marvelous new book Rule and Ruin, moderates and liberals were once far more powerful in Republican ranks than were conservatives. “It is the only in the last decade or so that movement conservatism finally succeeded in silencing, co-opting, repelling, or expelling nearly every competing strain of Republicanism from the party, to the extent that the terms ‘liberal Republican’ or ‘moderate’ Republican’ have practically become oxymorons,” Kabaservice writes. Now, cooperating with Democrats and deviating from conservative orthodoxy is electoral suicide for a Republican leader. Witness the failure of former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman’s presidential campaign or the many right-wing primary challenges to Maine Senator Olympia Snowe.
Moderate and liberal Republicans are now derogatorily nicknamed RINOS – Republicans In Name Only. How did they become as rare in Washington as those other rhinos – rhinoceroses? According to Kabaservice, the answer lies partly in the failures of the Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations. With the personal discrediting of Nixon came the political discrediting of the centrist branches of the Republican Party in which Nixon had roots as Eisenhower’s vice-president. Similarly, Ford’s loss in 1976 to moderate Democratic governor Jimmy Carter in the quest for the presidency left open the door to right-wing icon Ronald Reagan’s ascension.
Many other factors interceded, of course, and some of have been exhaustively detailed in other works. The rise of the neoconservative and Christianist movements, a backlash against the civil rights movement and the welfare state, and a suburban middle class terrified of crime and disorder are among them. Kabaservice unwisely downplays the role race played in segregating the two parties; when Southern Democrats defected to the Republicans in response to their old party’s embrace of black equality, each party essentially became ideologically monolithic. Democrats were liberals, and Republicans were conservatives. Moderates had nowhere to go.
“Rule and Ruin” recalls the minutiae of their downfall. No other book has chronicled the movement so thoroughly or eloquently. Karabservice’s research is magnificent, as he digs into numerous archives and personal diaries. He provides a helpful taxonomy dividing moderate, liberal/progressive, conservative, and Taft-stalwart factions in the Republican Party, but focuses on the moderates, who gained the Republican nomination in every presidential election from 1944 to 1960. Kabaservice performs yeoman’s work in resurrecting what was once a vibrant movement devoted to fiscal prudence, pragmatism, and multilateralism.
Recalled is the tragically short-lived Advance magazine, which attempted to push back against National Review for control of the Republican Party. Honorable men like Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., William Scranton, George Romney (yes, that Romney), and Nelson Rockefeller led the party as much as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan did. The centrist think tank known as the Ripon Society, now rarely heard from, was once a leading forum of ideas in political debate. Kabaservice shows why they all mattered, and why they were ultimately defeated.
“Rule and Ruin” also examines the progressive aspects of Nixon’s presidency that are often overlooked in the shadow of Vietnam and Watergate. Nixon established negotiations with the Soviet Union and China, created the Environmental Protection Agency, and introduced a health care plan that was far to the left of Obamacare. Some left-wingers have in retrospect called Nixon America’s last liberal president. Kabaservice is more nuanced and astute than that, but he provides ample evidence for the claim that Nixon offered a hodgepodge of policies and ideas that included cherished Democratic plans.
At a time when the Republican Party seems bereft of constructive ideas about how to fix America’s many problems, “Rule and Ruin” offers a reminder that the GOP once stockpiled ideological variety and reasonable personalities. Perhaps it will be once again in the future. All it has to do is to reclaim its past.
Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon.