Arthur Larson: Moderation And Controversy

February 24th, 2009 at 6:48 am | 16 Comments |

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If Dwight Eisenhower had made any real effort to build a political base within the GOP, ampoule his moderate brand of Republicanism – often termed “modern Republicanism” – might have continued to dominate the party after he left office, and Arthur Larson would have been remembered as its leading theoretician.  Instead, the GOP’s philosophy came to reflect the conservatism of the two main critics of “modern Republicanism,” William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater, and Larson was reduced to a footnote.  The brief notoriety that surrounded Larson and his 1956 manifesto, A Republican Looks at His Party, is worth revisiting both as a reminder of why moderation once was thought to be the Republican wave of the future, and also why moderates ended up losing out to their conservative rivals.

Larson grew up in South Dakota, attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and taught labor law as a professor and dean before becoming Eisenhower’s assistant secretary of Labor in 1954.  During his first year with the administration, Larson used his spare time to write his defense of Eisenhower Republicanism.  A Republican Looks at His Party became a surprise bestseller, and Larson briefly served as Ike’s top speechwriter.

Larson positioned Eisenhower between the ideas of 1896 (Old Guard Republican conservatism) and those of 1936 (New Deal radicalism).  Ike was fiscally conservative, greatly concerned that the United States balance its budgets; he was no believer in the power of Keynesian deficit spending.  Modern Republicans also believed that the balance of federal-state power under Franklin Roosevelt had swung too far in the federal direction, and that decentralization rather than further centralization was both the moral and practical path.  They believed that business was a progressive force, and that the New Deal had been unnecessarily hostile to capitalism. 

However, the moderates’ aim was to rationalize and reform the New Deal rather than repeal it.  Moderates conceded that government had an obligation to protect the rights of labor, and that most Americans wanted a limited welfare state, which they credited for the security they’d gained since the hard years of the Depression.  Eisenhower realized that to try to take away those gains and abolish the status quo would not be a conservative but a radical act.  Ike also believed that while all Americans had a duty to oppose Communism, the irresponsible Red-hunting of Senator Joseph McCarthy damaged America.

Larson depicted modern Republicanism as, in a sense, Eisenhower’s personal qualities writ large.  It was as much a temperament as an ideology, espousing balance, reasonableness, prudence, and common sense.  Not that Ike was a pushover – he had, after all, staked the existence of the free world on the D-Day landings and at one point threatened to nuke Communist China.  But Larson believed that Eisenhower and the American people shared a common instinct for the political center, and that Ike’s policies were making the GOP the party of the American center.  And Larson reminded his readers that “in politics – as in chess – the man who holds the center holds a position of almost unbeatable strength.”

Larson’s critics on both the right and left denied that moderation could be a separate political stance between liberalism and conservatism.  Liberals slammed moderation as a flint-hearted imitation of liberal social concern, and joked that a moderate Republican was like a man who, seeing a group of people drowning fifteen feet off shore, would throw them a ten-foot rope and feel that he’d gone more than half way. 

Moderation was even more of a red flag for conservatives, who saw Larson as a traitor who was legitimizing liberalism by incorporating it into the Republican Party.  Barry Goldwater sniped that Larson had not even registered to vote until 1954, and that he was one of “the political do-gooders and opportunists who have so lately crowded under the Republican banner.”  The modern Republicans, according to Goldwater, were seeking to subvert the basic traditions of the GOP, and Larson’s philosophy “in practically every respect parrots the old and decrepit New Dealism of Harry S. Truman.”

William F. Buckley Jr. devoted much of his 1959 work Up From Liberalism to attacking modern Republicanism, though he thought Larson had “verve and spirit” and smirked that his book “had the singular distinction of being read by President Eisenhower.”  Buckley scorned bipartisanship in foreign affairs, thought moderate Republicanism incapable of halting the advance of the welfare state, and blamed Larson as well as liberals for marginalizing conservative ideas in political discourse.  Above all, Buckley found the moderate philosophy to be as bland as Eisenhower himself; like the political upstarts on the left during the 1960s, he craved madder music and stronger wine than the ‘50s centrist consensus.

Barry Goldwater’s 1960 political declaration The Conscience of a Conservative (ghostwritten by Buckley’s brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell) accused Larson of conniving with Democrats in “an unqualified repudiation of the principle of limited government,” and acquiescing to a statism that inevitably would lead to absolutism.  Goldwater’s book charged that moderation was too vague to inspire a political movement, and pointed out that Eisenhower’s popularity had not translated into Republican Congressional majorities (aside from 1953-55).  While Americans liked Ike and the eight years of peace and prosperity he brought to the country, they found it hard to differentiate his moderate position from the Democrats’ and were not particularly eager to join his Republican Party. 

Eisenhower and his followers were indeed poor base-builders, which allowed conservatives to seize the machinery of the Republican Party after 1964, never to relinquish control.  In the long run, though, it doesn’t appear that the conservatives definitively won their arguments with Larson and the modern Republicans. Larson left the government in 1958, wrote another book on moderates (more or less), and became a law professor at Duke, where he remained until his death in 1993.

The moderates were on the right side of history in supporting federal efforts (which both Buckley and Goldwater opposed) to end Jim Crow segregation in the South.  The GOP’s massive defeat in 1964, when Goldwater was the party’s presidential nominee, disproved the hypothesis that a hidden majority of voters was waiting to embrace a radically conservative agenda if they were give “a choice, not an echo.”  While conservatives were able to galvanize grassroots support in a way that moderates could not, a conservative Republican Party would become a majority party under Ronald Reagan only after the Democrats had drifted too far left from the political center, and conservatives had grudgingly accepted government responsibility for at least some level of social welfare, much as Larson had counseled in the 1950s.  In hindsight, the views advanced by Larson on the moderate side and Buckley and Goldwater on the conservative side were not incompatible opposites but complementary viewpoints in a necessary dialogue.

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16 Comments so far ↓

  • ESB

    I’m intrigued by the critique of Republican moderates from the left — it would be interesting to hear more about the rock to the Buckley-ites’ hard place. Looking ahead from Larson to the Reagan years, don’t forget to credit the source of “a choice, not an echo”: Phyllis Schlafly, the Cold Warrior whose anti-ERA campaign provided a bridge to social conservatism.

  • Rhampton

    Republican Moderation is politically viable in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Western states. Rudy Giuliani and Sen. Arlen Specter are the two biggest examples of how the GOP can win, and hold onto, power in states/districts with Democratic majorities. Unfortunately the GOP base is dominated by social conservatives, especially in the South, and they would rather have the Democratic Party sweep the elected offices of the federal government then to share tent space with Republican moderates. The near future will likely see a continuation of this trend.

  • HollywoodBill

    As a Pacific Coast moderate or more appropriately, a Western state libertarian, I would rather see the Dems in power than any hard core social conservative in the White House ever again. And that means a resounding NO to Sarah Palin or Bobby Jindal. The GOP has moved unnacceptably to the far right on matter that are and should be the responsibiliy of the individual. Fortunately, in CA, the GOP doesn’t follow the rapturous pipe dreams of the religious zealots. Not one Republican candidate for Governor in the 2010 race in pro life nor do they carry the unelectable baggage of the southern revival tent Republicans.

  • ireign

    Hollywood Bill-There is a big distrinction between being a “Pacific Coast moderate” and a “Western state libertarian.” Remember, Goldwater, who was of the latter and Rockefeller who would have been considered close to the former despite being from the Northeast had vast ideological differences.

    I wouldn’t be bragging about the CA GOP. You have a governor who has been considerably worse on fiscal issues than his predecessor who was removed by a recall vote.

    As for Eisenhower, he didn’t really have an ideology. He was someone who easily could have run on either party’s ticket and was in fact wanted by the Democrats. Being in fair of a balanced budget does not make you a fiscal conservative. There are both fiscal liberals and fiscal conservatives who both support and oppose a balanced budget at the federal level. In the current crisis, we would need a massive tax hike to balance the budget. A pure balanced budgeter would advocate for such. That would kill the economy. Does that make one a fiscal conservative?

  • ireign

    The reason most “moderate” Republicans are having trouble (most are more properly defined as liberal Republicans as Arnold is to the left of many Democrats) is because few of them are governing well and there is a dearth of ideas coming from moderate Republicans. Pataki was a moderate to liberal governor but ended up spending more than the Democrats on wasteful things. Ditto for Arnold. If we see a successful moderate Republican with interesting ideas similar to Rudy or Tom Ridge in the 1990′s than you would see the rise of the more moderate and liberal wing of the party.

    DLC has its own think-tank and is really about promoting progressive ideas in a more mainstream fashion and recognizing differences in public opinion. Most moderate Republican ideas in their current form appear to be taking the Democratic narrative and saying make slightly less and we will take it. A good example is Tom Davis’s recent piece.

  • Rhampton

    ireign — There is no shortage of ideas from moderate Republicans, but there is a shortage of air-time and promotional support for those ideas on talk radio, National Review, FOX News, etc. And that’s precisely the reason you do not see a rise in the “liberal” wing. Anyone bold enough to challenge the Limbaugh-wing of the GOP will be endlessly assaulted for being a RINO (not a CINO) – and that’s a tough gauntlet to overcome. In addition, the social conservatives have now acquired enough power to quash any moderate ideas brought forth in the GOP Senate or House. That leaves moderates with very little ground to operate – either work with Democrats, or be silenced by the Soc-Cons. On a final note: don’t ever forget that Sen. Santorum lost PA because he was TOO conservative. If you think a Tennessee-type Republican is the way to win-over Blue States, then you have effectively surrendered.

  • ireign

    Rhampton-name a good idea? Santorum lost because he was controversial. He also ran against a good candidate who effectively neutralized his popularity with Reagan Democrats in a tough year for Republicans. Would he have benefited from being more liberal? Sure. But I don’t think we can tack up his loss solely to him being too socially conservative.

  • Churl

    HollywoodBill says “Fortunately, in CA, the GOP doesn’t follow the rapturous pipe dreams of the religious zealots.”

    And the success of California’s Republicans in upholding conservative principles like fiscal responsibility is visible to a candid world as well.

  • HollywoodBill

    Man on Dog Santorum, the poster boy for the social conservative movement, was thankfully thrown out by the PA voters in the third largest Senatorial loss for an incumbent in American history. As for Calfornia’s fiscal mess and the GOP’s role in it, 2010 is right around the corner. But there aren’t any religious zealots running for the top spots as thankfully, we don’t elect them in CA, at least not in statewide races and haven’t done so since1986.

  • Rhampton

    ireign — of course Santorum lost because of his social conservatism. 1. Sen. Arlen Specter (whom the SocCons despise) is in his fifth term precisely because he reflects the moderate Republicanism that PA Democrats respect, 2. Santorum’s connection to Intelligent Design and the Discovery Institute was especially damaging after the 2005 Dover vs. Kitzmiller ruling, 3. Santorum’s role in the Schiavo fiasco was just as damaging, 4. Santorum’s comments on the Boston Catholic Church and homosexuality were widely disparaged by the likes of Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. Ted Kennedy, 5. Santorum was never in contention at any point in the 2006 election despite having his book “It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good” published the previous year. I could go on with demographic statistics, but I think you get the point.

  • Churl

    HollywoodBill, You say that California has elected non-religious non-zealot Republicans in statewide elections since 1986 and I’ll take you at your word. Now, please tell us exactly which conservative principles these middle roadie Republicans managed to advance or even maintain in the ensuing 23 years.

  • HollywoodBill

    Churl–I wasn’t aware that any Republicans were required to advance any conservative principles on a statewide level. I thought it was enough for Republicans to get elected particularly in a state where Democrats have an average about a ten point advantage in voter registration. The two winners, Pete Wilson and of course Arnold ran on fiscal conservatism or what passes for it out here.

  • Churl


    Well, if Republicans can’t advance conservative principles on a statewide level, please tell me who can.

  • mpolito

    Hollywood Bill- two points. First of all, “moderate” Republicanism has, combined with a left-wing legislature, driven your state into the group. Arnold’s unprincipled mish-mash has made CA a state businesses are running away from. Second, remember that PA voters replaced Rick Santorum with an openly pro-life Democrat, Bob Casey.

  • HollywoodBill

    However the hard right social conservative views were thrown out in PA wih the massive defeat that Santorum was handed. The electorate is deciding that the religious zealots are not going to be given positions of power. Musgrave in Colorado, and JD Hayworth in Arizona among others definitely serve notice that the socons are on a kamikaze mission in their attempts to force their theocaratic views on the county. And that means that the moosehunter and the Louisiana excorcist are never going to have enough crossover appeal to win national elections.

  • sinz54

    ireign & HollywoodBill: The GOP has another major conundrum, besides the one HollywoodBill cares about– how to balance the social conservatism of the GOP base with the need to appeal to non-Red states. There’s another big problem that ireign alluded to: Balancing the demands of the “Wall Street” economic conservatives–like Larry Kudlow and much of the rest of the National Review–with the demands of the “Main Street” economic conservatives, like those on The Weekly Standard. Consider the debate over economic stimulus. Cutting capital-gains taxes, favored by Mr. Kudlow, will help Wall Street investors a lot more than it will help struggling families on Main Street. Cutting the SS payroll tax would help every working guy and gal, but it won’t be of much help to wealthy investors, whose SS contributions are a tiny portion of their total income anyway. Balancing the Federal budget was quite popular among Northeasterners, even among upscale Democrats; the Concord Coalition and Paul Tsongas, a Democrat, made that their signature issue. But in recent years at least, the GOP cared more about cutting taxes than about balancing the budget.