The Battle For the Republican Party: An Interview with Geoffrey Kabaservice


Geoffrey Kabaservice is the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Oxford University Press, 2012). He documents the transformation of the GOP that occurred during the rise of the New Right, as well as the attempts by moderates to challenge its ascendancy. PolicyMic’s Sagar Jethani spoke with Kabaservice about the changes that occurred in the GOP after Eisenhower, and the crisis faced by conservative and moderate Republicans today.

During the first half of the 20th century, conservatives were only one constituency within the Republican Party. Who else filled the ranks?

The Republican Party was a coalition of a lot of different political views, and in 1960 you really had four principal factions. One was the conservatives, who were actually a relatively new group, and the smallest of the four factions in the party at that time. The conservative faction stemmed from Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist movement in the early 1950s and Bill Buckley's founding of National Review magazine in 1955. Barry Goldwater was its champion. The biggest faction by far was the Tafties, a predominantly Midwestern group of small-government conservatives who were faithful to the legacy of Senator Robert Taft. They were conservatives, but they were not ideologues. They could be conservative on some issues but fairly progressive on others, such as public housing or education. Then there were the moderates, who were economically conservative but socially tolerant — Wall Street Republicans, for instance. And finally, there was a small group of progressives.

Progressive Republicans? That sounds like political science fiction.

Actual progressives. They took their inspiration from Lincoln's foundation of the party back in the 1850s as well as Teddy Roosevelt's progressivism of the early twentieth century. They thought that Republicans should be outflanking the Democrats on the left on certain issues, particularly with regard to civil rights — people like Senator Jacob Javits from New York, for example, was a real progressive on most social issues.

One of the many surprises in your book is that the conservative takeover of the GOP was not waged against any perceived liberal threat, but against the moderate Republicanism of Eisenhower. Why didn't conservatives like Ike?

As conservatives saw it, Eisenhower essentially had betrayed the Republican Party by failing to repeal the New Deal when he took office. Between the time that Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932 up until Eisenhower's election in 1952, there hadn't been a Republican president. It was a serious era of Democratic domination, and many on the right assumed that when Eisenhower took office he would simply roll back all of what the Democrats had done over the previous two decades. They thought that he would restore the status quo of 1931.

But he didn't do that.

Ike believed that the American people had welcomed many of the innovations of the New Deal — programs like Social Security, for example. And to take that away from them at that point would be a radical act rather than a conservative act. Eisenhower actually built on certain areas of the New Deal while also repealing some of its errors.

After Nixon's defeat to Kennedy in 1960, a small group of determined conservatives set out to take over the party. They started with students. Why?

Young people are tireless, fearless, and they haven't got enough experience to know that something is impossible to do. The resurgence on the left also began with young people in organizations like Students for a Democratic Society. Every political group wanted to take advantage of young people back in those days. The Baby Boom was just coming into its own, and young people were empowered by the sense that they were a new generation with an identity of their own.

Two of the men who led the conservative takeover of the Republican party were William Rusher and F. Clifton White. Ironically, they employed organizational tactics used by Communist infiltrators.

Clif White had been active with a group called the American Veterans Committee (AVC)  for returning World War II veterans who wanted to see various kinds of progressive change in American life. The group was targeted by Moscow and penetrated by Communist agents. These nice, reasonably liberal returning veterans suddenly found themselves up against people who were operating from a very different kind of political playbook. The Communists practiced tricks and techniques that minority groups use when trying to take control of larger groups — not through persuasion or logical argument, but just by manipulating the process.

Can you give an example?

The Communists would stick together and vote for one candidate, while all of their opponents dissipated their votes over a bunch of other candidates, and they would win. They would prolong debates into the wee hours of the morning through endless procedural maneuvers and put off any kind of action until enough of their opponents had gotten tired and gone home. Then they would ram through their own legislation. White was set to become the chairman of the AVC until the Communists spread a false rumor that he had diverted funds to make a love nest for his girlfriend. They destroyed his nomination.

And Clif White absorbed the lesson.

He saw that the Communists were willing to stoop to these unscrupulous tactics. They would never compromise, and they would never give in. That was the kind of mentality he thought that conservatives needed to have if they were going to take over the Republican Party.

Conservatives knew in their hearts that they were just a minority within the GOP. They had to find some way of stealing power.

One of the most dramatic passages in Rule and Ruin is your account of the 1964 Republican National Convention. What happened?

Political conventions have always been very tumultuous occasions. Lots of noise, fighting, and dirty tricks, but not a lot of ideology. In the end, everyone with all their black eyes and swollen lips usually came together to shake hands and make up, pledging unity toward the coming fight against the Democrats.

But the conservatives in '64 gave absolutely no quarter to Republican moderates, no voice whatsoever. Conservatives stood behind Goldwater's rejection of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and they ripped up a lot of what the Republican Party had stood for through the previous several elections. Barry Goldwater's statement that if you're not committed to our cause you should leave, and that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice — these were messages to the moderates that they were not wanted in the Republican Party. That they needed to go. And it was followed by purges of moderates in Republican campaigns and in the Republican National Committee. This was a real shock, because this is not how you were supposed to run a political party or win elections.

It was then that ideology for the first time took control of the party, and it was really alarming to a lot of people.

To the conservatives, of course, this was their Woodstock — this golden moment when they at last managed to overthrow their masters in the establishment and turn the party toward their desired end. But this was disastrous for the Republican Party.

Moderates viewed the rise of the right with trepidation.

And what motivated that fear was not just that Goldwater was conservative, but that he had rejected the whole heritage of the Republican Party by voting against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He was implicitly calling for the Republican Party to take aboard the Southern segregationists who had been loyal Democrats since the end of the Civil War. Moderates fought this tooth and nail in 1964.

How did moderates fight back?

Moderates fought pitched battles against Goldwater throughout the primaries leading up to the 1964 convention. Goldwater lost the New Hampshire primary to Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.  Goldwater lost the Oregon primary to Nelson Rockefeller. Goldwater came very close to losing the California primary to Rockefeller, and if Goldwater had lost in California, he probably would not have received the presidential nomination. California was a real pitched battle between moderates and conservatives. Without Rockefeller as their champion after that, moderate Republicans turned to William Scranton to try to get a rival candidacy going.

Despite the fratricidal war within the GOP, moderates and conservatives reached a kind of détente after Goldwater’s defeat, didn't they?

Yes, after the big disaster in 1964 there was a sort of rebalancing of the Republican Party. The moderates saw that they need to work with conservatives to some extent if they were going to keep the Republican Party from being completely marginalized. And conservatives saw that they needed to have some kind of understanding with the moderates. There was a coexistence that lasted all the way through Ronald Reagan's presidency into the 1980s. It wasn't until the arrival of George W. Bush and the last decade or so that you really saw the last elements of moderates pushed out of the Republican Party.

What role did 9/11 play in all this? Did it breathe new life into the right wing?

9/11 was a double-edged sword for the George W. Bush administration. On the one hand, this moment of national turmoil gave Republicans a much stronger hand than they would have had otherwise. Bush had been floundering at that point as president. But, on the other hand, it also strengthened the uncompromising, hard-right element which saw this as their moment to get everything they had always wanted. They would not give in to opponents in the Democratic Party or, indeed, within their own party.

In the last few weeks, prominent Republicans like Bob Dole, Olympia Snowe, and Lincoln Chafee have all lamented the reading-out of moderates by the right. This is a constant theme in your book — the special disdain conservatives have for moderate Republicans.

You have to remember that while conservatives saw Democrats as the foe, they saw the moderate Republicans as traitors. They believed, perhaps correctly, that if the Republican Party purged itself of its moderates and polarized American politics along ideological lines, that the overall center of gravity would swing toward the right.

And it caused the ground to shift under Democrats' feet as well — look at the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980s and its abandonment of traditional liberal positions.

I remember talking to Elliot Richardson, who had held four or five different cabinet-level positions in Republican administrations going all the way back to Eisenhower. I interviewed him in the first term of Bill Clinton's presidency and asked him if he liked Clinton. He said that people don't realize that Bill Clinton is actually to the right of Richard Nixon. And, in some ways, Bill Clinton is to the right of Dwight Eisenhower. That's the kind of shift the conservatives succeeded in effecting in American life over the last several decades.

Eisenhower believed that the political opinions of Americans formed a bell curve, and that it made sense for him as president to pursue policies that resonated with the general consensus while shunning the extremes. Are Americans still centrists at heart?

I do believe that most Americans are centrists at heart, but there are more people on the extreme right than a bell curve distribution would seem to imply. I don't believe that it is quite that centrist-dominated as it might have been in Ike's day because political loyalty defines people today in a way that it didn't in the past.

Does the Internet and the rise of online communities play a part in this?

People today are self-segregating, not just politically, but in terms of where they live, where they go to school, and the kind of people they associate with. The internet has allowed people to go without ever being exposed to the political views of those with whom they don't agree. I do think that Americans are still moderate overall, but you have to hedge that with regard to this self-sorting.

Conservatives sometimes argue that they moved to the right to simply mirror Democrats, who they say moved to the left to an equal degree. Is that a fair observation?

Every political scientist who has studied politics lately would say that there has been an asymmetric polarization going on. Democrats have become more liberal, but it isn't anywhere near the extent of the Republican Party becoming more conservative. It's true that we are living in a time of political polarization, but Republicans have gone much further to the right than the Democrats have gone to the left.

After Mitt Romney's defeat in November, the RNC published a report called the Growth and Opportunity Project which contained a number of surprising recommendations about how the party can get back to winning presidential elections. What did you make of it?

It was one of the more soul-searching documents that the Republican Party has produced since 1965, but it's incomplete. Essentially, it's saying "Republicans need to not bare their fangs at everyone who disagrees with them on any point of ideology."

But it's not an invitation for such folks to come back into the party. The words moderates or moderation don't appear anywhere in that document. It says the Republican Party ought to be campaigning for minority votes. But it doesn't really suggest that the Republican Party needs to change its ideology in any way to appeal to those constituencies. I think the odds of that approach working are pretty unlikely.

Shouldn't the minority vote be more competitive?

If Republican candidates for office begin spending a lot of their time campaigning in black and Hispanic areas, that's a good thing. It's not a positive thing for any group to be completely captured by one party or the other. But the Republican Party is not going to be a rival suitor for minority voters unless it’s willing to allow for some degree of ideological diversity within its ranks. There's no signal from within the RNC report that they're contemplating that at this point.

It's a cosmetic change.

You describe how William Scranton commiserated with Eisenhower about how one could be a Republican in 1964 and vote against the Civil Rights Act as Goldwater had done.

It's worth remembering that the Republican Party gave more of its support to the Civil Rights Acts of '64 and '65 than did the Democratic party, proportionally speaking. The most racist elements in American life were supported by Southern politicians, who had really become entrenched in the Democratic Party.

All that started coming undone in the 1960s. Barry Goldwater's argument, backed up by people like Bill Rusher, was that the Republican Party needed to reach out to the Southern segregationists, soften its position on civil rights, and therefore become a majority party.

What you essentially had was a nudge and a wink from the Republican Party to the remaining racist elements in the South, and the party took on more and more of a Southern complexion. You start getting officeholders like Strom Thurmond switching over to the Republican Party and being welcomed in with seniority and eventually committee positions.

This is part of what the moderates like Scranton were really irritated about — this kind of courtship of these Southern racist elements. And eventually they end up defining the Republican Party.

Wasn't this a repudiation of what the Republican Party had been founded on?

The quest for civil rights is so much of the Republican birthright that to turn against it was to turn against the Republican Party as it had historically existed. You can also argue that in making the Republican Party a Southern-dominated party, you were, in effect, founding a new party in American life rather than simply modifying the old one.

A new party with little interest in getting the black vote.

That was the trade-off. In 1956 Eisenhower attracted about 40 percent of the black vote. Even Nixon in 1960 got about 33 percent of the black vote. But with Goldwater, that total cratered to 4 percent. It really hasn't risen that much since. The Republican Party now is in a bit of a bind. If it was the choice of just a minority of African-Americans, that would be one thing. But today it seems like an existential threat to African-Americans and other minorities.

Did the Southern strategy change more about Republicans than their views on race?

There's an awful lot of Southern attitude that gets smuggled into the Republican Party with this transition. Southern views on militarism were different from the rest of the party in that they were much more willing to use military force to achieve foreign policy goals. And Southerners practiced a unique form of crony capitalism. Every kind of significant enterprise in the South — agribusiness, textiles, defense contracting, aerospace, oil and natural gas extraction — all depended on massive state subsidies and political connections. And this became the kind of capitalism the Republican Party would later champion, but it's a kind of capitalism that is very different from the one the Republican Party had historically stood for.

You get all of these transformations driven by the fact that Republican Party is allowing itself to become a Southern-dominated party.

Race is an important part of puzzle, but it is only one part of it.

The takeover of the Republican Party by the right wing began in the 1960s. As a result, many young people today cannot imagine a time when the party was not synonymous with the views of the far right. Can the GOP resuscitate its progressive tradition — the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt, Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton — or is it too late?

I don't think there's going to be a reappearance of progressives in the Republican Party because progressivism is simply too much of a red flag to the grassroots. Organizations that can really affect races at the primary level, like the Club for Growth, would never tolerate a progressive Republican nominee. Nobody is going to be associated with progressives.

The question is: what's the role for moderation in the party? The Republican Party is arguably doing pretty well right now at the state level. They have thirty governorships at this point and control of an awful lot of state houses. If any kind of moderate resurgence is going to come in the party, it's probably going to come from the gubernatorial level.

Why is that?

Because many governors don't have the luxury of ideology. Unless they come from a blood-red state, they have to deal with Democrats as well as Republicans. They have to deal with industrial sectors as well as agricultural sectors. They have to deal with the cities as well as the rural areas. There's a lot more constituencies that they have to take in because they don't have the luxury of gerrymandering themselves into ideologically-pure districts.

This is actually a drawback for them at the level of national politics. Rick Perry had all kinds of flaws that might have prevented him from taking the presidential nomination last year, but one of the key strikes against him was that he was from Texas. Texas has an enormous, growing Hispanic population. Texas Republicans have to appeal to some sizeable percentage of Hispanics if they want to win an election. So Rick Perry had supported in-state college tuition for children of illegal immigrants, and that was a complete red flag to the Tea Party base. That would have disqualified him even if his ineptitude in speaking had not.

Republican governors are not going to be purist Republicans if they're going to be effective in states where there is some substantial proportions of Democrats or people who aren't down-the-line Republicans. That's why governors have the power to get the party to at least tolerate a variety of ideological positions.

Do you think a moderate like Chris Christie could clinch the nomination, or does the fact that he is already having to defend his credentials to the base disqualify him out of the gate?

Chris Christie is probably too moderate for the base to tolerate, but I could be wrong about that. Someone like Jeb Bush could surface as a nominee in 2016. He could actually draw the party back toward the center in some sense. It kind of depends on how much of a tolerance for losing the party has: if the party does not succeed in reaching out to the groups that voted against it in 2012, it's going to lose the 2016 election as well.

The problem for the Republican Party is that conservative Republicans never had any idea that they would have to coexist with the moderates again once conservatives had achieved their goal. Reagan had the idea of the Republican Party as a big tent, but the grassroots have this view of the Republican Party as an ideological cause. Ultimately, those two views are not really compatible.

Was Reagan a kind of “conservative whisperer?”

One of the great skills of Ronald Reagan was that he was able to finesse the difference between the big tent and the base. He was able to reassure grassroots conservatives that he had their best interests at heart and that he was one of them, even as he took steps to broaden the Republican Party's appeal and include moderates in the party. There hasn't really been anyone with that kind of skill since.

I was surprised to learn in Rule and Ruin how several of the most prominent leaders in the conservative movement today began political life as moderates working to counter the rise of the New Right — including Newt Gingrich, Donald Rumsfeld, Mitch McConnell, and Dick Cheney.

When people like McConnell and Cheney were young Republicans in the 1960s, a lot of the most influential Republican members of Congress were moderates. McConnell came under the guidance of Marlow Cook, who was a senator from Kentucky, and Cheney came under the guidance of William Steiger, who was a Republican congressman from Wisconsin.

Cheney went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin and worked for Steiger there. He sent him some reports which I found in Steiger's papers in Wisconsin, and, to the best of my knowledge, those Cheney documents had never been looked at before.

What you get from them is a very different portrait of Dick Cheney in the 1960s. He's against extremism on the left, but he actually has friends in SDS. He's a much more open-minded person. He realizes that the way to deal with the problems in American life protested by the left is not to pretend there are no problems, but to try to address them in a pragmatic fashion.

So how did we go from Dick Cheney in Love to Revenge of the Sith?

(Laughs) What happened? Conservatism took the upper hand in the Republican Party, and if you wanted to get ahead, then you had to come across as a conservative. In Cheney's case it also might have had to do with the fact that his mentor, Bill Steiger, died at the shockingly young age of forty from a heart attack in 1978. Without that kind of guidance, Cheney went on to become a very different kind of congressman. But Dick Cheney was still a kind of co-existence conservative during the time that he was in Congress. He wanted there to be progressives and moderates in the party.

I think it was when he went to work for Halliburton and really started to run in neocon circles that he changed his views. He came to have contempt for the moderates and was not willing to give them anything when he came to office. He then became the uncompromising, hardline conservative Cheney, who was a very different creature from what he once had been.

And you could multiply that example in a lot of ways. Isaac Chotiner has a piece in The New Republic about Mitch McConnell’s civil rights origins. You could cite the youthful correspondence of these former moderate Republicans to embarrass them, but I don't think they're capable of embarrassment at this point. As they see it, the conservatives' hardline, uncompromising way is the only way possible. It's just something they have to do.

Last month, a letter surfaced from the Heritage Foundation advising congressional Republicans not to advance policy, but to simply focus efforts on disrupting Democratic attempts to govern.

Some congressional Republicans would rather lose than compromise. They retained control of the House thanks to the gerrymandering  that resulted from their big win in 2010. They're not going to be all that challenged in their congressional districts until 2020. That's the power of gerrymandering. They might just be happy to make sure that government is completely gridlocked thanks to their control of the House. The Senate can't pass anything because they don't have enough votes to override a filibuster. Congressional Republicans will be pretty happy being an oppositionist power, preventing a Democratic president from achieving anything significant. They're not going to get the blame for it. If Barack Obama is seen as a failure, it reflects more on the Democratic Party than on the Republican Party.

The Heritage Foundation was also in the news recently for publishing a study on immigration reform by a man who argues that Hispanics cannot fit into American culture because their IQs are too low.

The very act of choosing Jim DeMint as president of Heritage was a statement that partisan politics is more important than any kind of intellectual content that conservatism may once have had. It’s a terrible bind for conservative intellectuals. To be intellectual means, to some extent, to be independent. But you can’t be an intellectual independent in the Republican Party today, or you will suffer the fate of David Frum: you will be fired, expelled, and marginalized. To be a conservative intellectual today is almost a contradiction in terms because of this dependence on partisan politics.

By contrast, Robert Taft held deeply conservative principles, but was not bound by ideology.

When Taft was confronted by a genuine problem, he wanted to solve it. The fact that solving it might involve the use of the federal government was not inherently a disqualifier for him. His strong preference was for smaller, less interventionist government in all ways. But he was prepared to make some adjustments to that if he had to, if that was what the situation called for. He was a very intelligent guy. He graduated top of his class at Yale and Harvard law. He was a great believer in data and evidence. He would gather the evidence and he would think it over, and then he would come to the position that struck him as the right position — not necessarily the ideologically-correct position, but the most-effective position. There are decreasingly few Republicans who are capable of that kind of independent thought today, and you certainly don't see any of them up at the leadership level.