Stories by Geoffrey Kabaservice

Geoff Kabaservice, recently a visiting assistant professor of history at Yale University, is the author of The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment (Henry Holt).  He is currently at work on a book about moderate Republicans.

A False Correction on Reagan’s Record

October 20th, 2011 at 10:33 am 18 Comments

After I wrote my piece on why a candidate with Ronald Reagan’s record would encounter problems if he were trying to become the Republican presidential nominee today, I received the following comment from Stan Greer of the National Right to Work Committee from the National Institute for Labor Relations Research:

The author’s comment about Ronald Reagan’s stance on Right to Work laws is very misleading. Actually, that’s too kind. It’s basically false.

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Reagan As He Was

October 17th, 2011 at 11:59 pm 41 Comments

An increasing number of political commentators are saying, in effect, that it’s a surefire certainty that Mitt Romney will be the Republican presidential nominee in 2012.  Of course, four years ago the Higher Punditry was united in foreseeing that Hillary Clinton would be the 2008 Democratic nominee, so don’t bet the mortgage on Romney’s coronation yet.

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It’s 1994 All Over Again! (Or Is It?)

November 2nd, 2010 at 11:25 pm Comments Off

We’ll have to wait at least a few more hours to find the exact number of Republican gains.  Obviously it’s a huge night for the GOP, but the gains probably won’t be quite on the scale of 1994.  In 1994, not a single Republican incumbent lost reelection, including not only members of the House and Senate but the governors as well.  In this year’s election, the GOP may exceed the ’94 tally of 52 seats in the House, but they probably won’t retake the Senate.  So far there don’t seem to be any Democratic defeats quite as dramatic as that of Ways and Means chairman Dan Rostenkowski, who lost to an essentially unknown Republican challenger, or Tom Foley, who became the first sitting Speaker of the House to be turned out of office since 1862.

However, the Class of 2010, much like the Class of 1994, will include lots of relatively young people who identify themselves as outsiders to the party establishment.  The Class of 2010 will even look different from the typical Republican delegation, with many more women and minorities.  The 73 members of the House GOP freshman class of 1994 made up one-third of the total Republican delegation; the 2010 class may be nearly as large a fraction of the GOP total.

Most of the freshmen in 1994 felt that they owed their elections in large measure to Gingrich, and the money, advice, and direction he had provided to them.  Gingrich rewarded the freshmen by appointing them to significant committees such as Rules and Ways and Means, leapfrogging incumbents with greater seniority.  Even so, the two dozen or so “True Believers” on Gingrich’s right flank constantly pressured him into taking more conservative stands than he wanted to, including the government shutdown that backfired badly on the GOP.  John Boehner is likely to face even greater pressures, particularly since most House Republican newcomers are likely to feel that they don’t owe him anything; their obligations will run toward the Tea Party and Sarah Palin.  Boehner isn’t a self-styled revolutionary like Gingrich was, and he may feel more bound by traditions of seniority.  An early indicator of Boehner’s relation with the newcomers will be how many of them — and particularly how many Tea Partiers — he appoints to committees with spending and fiscal authority.  Further down the road, Boehner may not be any more able than Gingrich to restrain House members on his right from overreaching, through actions such as shutting down the government, or mounting impeachment efforts against the Obama administration or Obama himself.

Gingrich consistently supported Clinton’s foreign policies, and browbeat conservatives into supporting actions that most opposed, such as the 1995 “bailout” of the Mexican economy.  As Steven Gillon described in his book The Pact, Gingrich also attempted to reach an agreement with Clinton on far-reaching reform of Social Security and Medicare.  Clinton, for his part, moved toward the center after the 1994 elections and co-opted significant parts of the Republican agenda, particularly welfare reform.  Will Obama move toward the center?  Will Obama and Boehner be able to compromise on spending reforms, deficit reduction, or anything at all?

The Republicans’ post-2008 approach of negativity, of opposing Obama at every turn rather than trying to seek common ground, has been vindicated, at least in narrow political terms.  As they now move into control of one house of Congress, however, the question is whether the strategy of the past two years will serve the Republicans well for the next two years.  When the GOP took control of Congress in 1994, they remained in power for the next dozen years.  After the GOP took over the House in 1946, though, President Harry Truman ran against the “do nothing” Congress in 1948 and won not only the presidency but Democratic control of both the House and Senate.  So will this election be more like 1946 or 1994?  The current widespread belief is that the House Republicans will adopt a posture of uncompromising conservatism, but they have already confounded the pundits’ expectations, and they may do so again.

Posted at 12:20am


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Newt Gingrich has become such a well-known and controversial figure that it’s hard to remember what he was like in 1994, when only 42% of Americans recognized his name.  Part of Gingrich’s success, in those days, was that he was very difficult to categorize.  He had spent much of his early political career in the progressive wing of the GOP.  He served as a state chairman for Nelson Rockefeller’s 1968 presidential campaign and was associated with the moderate activists in the Ripon Society.  Gingrich became a leader of conservative forces within the GOP after his election to Congress in 1978, but he retained many of the ideas and approaches that he had picked up during his time on the moderate side.  His philosophy drew on the futurism of Alvin and Heidi Toffler and the managerial strategy of Peter Drucker.  Following the example of Ronald Reagan, he called for a big-tent party.  The House Republicans in those days included about thirty representatives who could be characterized as moderates or progressives.

Gingrich served as a bridge between moderate and conservative forces.  The 2011 House GOP caucus is unlikely to include a significant number of moderates, and John Boehner’s role as the new majority leader is more likely to be as a bridge between Tea Party-style conservatives and more established conservatives.

The campaign strategy that Gingrich advanced in 1994 called for the GOP to reverse Tip O’Neill’s dictum that “all politics is local,” and instead to nationalize the election as a referendum on Clinton and his administration.  The “Contract for America” probably didn’t influence the election one way or another, but it offered a generally centrist platform based on proposals that, according to Gingrich’s poll-testing, could command the loyalty of at least 60 percent of the voters.  He purposely kept divisive social issues out of the Contract, and committed the GOP to passing its programs into law if the party gained the majority.  The Contract offered Gingrich a way of bringing cohesion and coherence to national Republican races, and of keeping the party’s candidates on-message.  It also gave him an unusual degree of discipline over the party when he became majority leader.

The GOP’s 2010 “Pledge to America” is a considerably less ambitious document, and has achieved only a fraction of the media coverage that the Contract achieved.  It remains to be seen if Boehner will be able to rally the Republicans around the items of the Pledge.  There seems to be little disagreement between Tea Partiers and the establishment over the need to repeal Obama’s health care plan and to rein in federal spending, but no ideas about what a Republican alternative to the health reform might look like, or agreement on specifically what federal programs to cut.

The Republicans appear poised to pick up House seats in New England for the first time since Connecticut’s Christopher Shays lost his 2008 bid for reelection.  But the 2010 Republican gains are unlikely to be as geographically balanced as the 1994 pickups.  In 1994, the Republicans gained a dozen seats in the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic, compared to 23 in the South, 20 in the West, and 18 in the Midwest.  The Republicans ended up with almost half of the House seats in the Northeast; the party is unlikely to get more than a quarter in 2010.

Of the 73 freshman members of Congress in the Class of ’94, there were about 15 moderates.  Most of them were from the Northeast, but their ranks also included Ray LaHood in Illinois, Greg Ganske in Iowa, Robert Ehrlich in Maryland, and Tom Davis in Virginia.  There will be mighty few moderates in the incoming class in the House in 2011, although GOP senatorial candidates like Rob Portman in Ohio and Mark Kirk in Illinois are likely, if they win, to strike reasonably moderate positions.

Posted at 10:07pm


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Many people have pointed to the obvious parallels between the political situation in 2010 and the situation in 1994.  Barack Obama, like Bill Clinton, has been President for two years and has seen his popularity slump from early highs.  Then as now, a Democratic plan for health care reform proved to be controversial for a large segment of the electorate.  Obviously health care legislation failed in 1994 while it passed under Obama, so perhaps the better parallel of the ’90s was the Democrats’ passage of a crime bill that included a ban on assault weapons, which led to many previously Democratic voters (especially in the South) voting Republican.  Other parallels include the unpopularity of the Democratic-controlled Congress, public worries over high deficits, and a generally superior Republican electoral operation.  Glenn Beck arguably played a similar role in this election that Rush Limbaugh played in 1994 in motivating their audiences; it will be interesting to see if the House GOP freshman class will make Beck an honorary member as they did with Limbaugh in ’94.

Still, I think the dissimilarities between the elections are more compelling than the similarities.  To begin with, we’re only four years removed from the last time the GOP controlled Congress.  In 1994, the Republicans had not controlled the House in forty years.  There was not a single Republican in the House who had previously served in a Republican majority.  Very few people in politics expected that the Republicans would ever take control of the House — in fact, a good political science study of House Republicans, published in 1994, was titled “Congress’ Permanent Minority?”  Republican rule was a completely unknown quantity as far as the public was concerned.  A Republican-controlled House in 2011 will probably be different in some ways from the Republican-controlled House of 2006, but since the Republican losses of 2006 and 2008 were not followed by any serious partywide introspection, let alone an agonizing reappraisal, the GOP is likely to revert to form.

Because no one seriously expected the Republicans to regain the House in 1994, the Democrats were taken almost completely by surprise.  Many of the defeated Democrats even had sizable reserves of cash left unspent in their campaign accounts.  While Democrats may not fare better in this election than they did in 1994, they weren’t taken unawares this time — analysts have been projecting sizable Republican gains all year, and Democrats have mobilized to the best of their ability.

The contribution of the Tea Partiers to this year’s election results is bound to be a subject of much disagreement, but there wasn’t an organized (or even semi-organized) grassroots conservative movement quite like the Tea Party back in 1994 — although the religious right did significant organizational work on behalf of the Republicans and the GOP cultivated the remnants of Ross Perot’s movement of two years earlier.

The context of the two elections were dissimilar.  In 1994, the economy had rebounded from recession, and most economic indicators were trending upward.  Clinton had expended considerable political capital to address the budget deficit, which as a result had shrunk over the previous year.  Unemployment was nothing like today’s rate approaching 10 percent, although the real boom years of the ’90s were still in the future.  The Democrats of 1994 were plagued by scandals on a scale that the Democrats of 2010 have largely avoided so far: Whitewater, Vince Foster’s suicide, Paula Jones, Travelgate, and the indictment of Dan Rostenkowski, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, on charges of misuse of House funds.

The biggest dissimilarity between then and now, however, is that the current Republican leadership doesn’t have anyone like Newt Gingrich, who as the House Republican Whip was the chief strategist and change agent of the ’94 GOP campaign.

Posted at 9:00pm


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If John Boehner were as central to the Republicans’ performance in the 2010 elections as Newt Gingrich was to the 1994 elections, perhaps tonight’s anticipated Republican surge would be known as “the Orange Revolution,” in homage to the Ohioan’s perpetual tan.  But it’s much more likely that some sort of tea-related moniker will be pinned on these elections instead.

Posted at 7:23

Paul Hoffman: Internationalism And Public Service

March 28th, 2010 at 6:00 am 4 Comments

This week, we are also reposting a classic series from the FF archives: Geoffrey Kabaservice’s “Secret History of the Republican Party.”

For the past several decades, moderates have believed that their position in the Republican cosmos is, at best, that of a small and wary moon orbiting a raging conservative sun. It was not ever thus. In the mid-1950s, one prominent Republican, Paul G. Hoffman, rejoiced that moderates had the upper hand in the party and urged that conservatives be eliminated from the GOP. Hoffman is an obscure figure now, lacking even that modest indicator of contemporary relevance, a Wikipedia entry. But as a renowned businessman, chief administrator of the Marshall Plan, head of the Ford Foundation, and chief proponent of overseas development aid, he was among President Dwight Eisenhower’s best known moderate Republican advisors. He was also one of the right wing’s main targets, and his battles with conservatives point to the intraparty tensions that boiled within the GOP even during the placid era of Ike.

Hoffman became famous for reviving the Studebaker Corporation, a midsized auto manufacturer, after its near-bankruptcy during the Depression, and for his innovations in marketing and salesmanship. Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine lionized him as a young, intelligent business leader bringing a progressive spirit of rational and scientific management to the auto industry.

In 1942, he founded and served as first chairman of the Committee on Economic Development, an organization of business leaders and academics created to prevent a post-war depression and serve as a counter to reactionary business organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers. Hoffman was a Republican and was disturbed by the anti-business animus of the New Deal and its attempts to control prices and profits. At the same time, he believed that the era of laissez faire was over and that government needed to meliorate the harsher aspects of capitalism. It was in the enlightened self-interest of business to negotiate in good faith with labor unions and to support government social welfare programs such as unemployment insurance and the minimum wage. Robber-baron types who kept wages low and tried to squelch unions actually threatened the free enterprise system; by refusing to give workers an equitable share of capitalism’s benefits, they sparked class conflict and undermined the economy by allowing potential consumers too little purchasing power.

Not all businessmen held such views, of course, and the NAM bitterly criticized Hoffman and the CED for surrendering to socialism. But many executives during the ‘40s and ‘50s, especially the heads of large corporations, believed that they had to demonstrate social “responsibility” and win back the public confidence that was lost when the economy collapsed into Depression.

Hoffman’s standing as a moderate Republican business spokesman led Harry Truman to select him as head of the Economic Cooperation Administration, the agency set up in 1948 to administer the Marshall Plan. The U.S. spent some $13 billion, a stupendous sum at the time, to rebuild Western Europe after the war’s devastation. While Hoffman acknowledged that it was in the U.S. interest to revive overseas export markets, he stressed the program’s contribution toward making Europe sufficiently strong, integrated, and prosperous that it could resist Communism’s appeal and Soviet domination. By the time Hoffman stepped down after two and a half years as the ECA’s chief, European production had increased to more than 25% above its prewar levels.

Hoffman was named president of the Ford Foundation in 1950, and raised conservative hackles by using some of the organization’s immense resources to support civil rights and civil liberties. He set his standard further against the isolationist wing of the GOP by helping to create the first incarnation of the Committee on the Present Danger (1950-53), a citizens’ group that lobbied for military preparedness and negotiation with the Soviets from a position of strength.

In 1952, Hoffman predicted economic catastrophe if the Democrats held the presidency and World War III if the anti-internationalist Robert Taft obtained the GOP nomination. He took a leave of absence from the Ford Foundation to become the chairman of the Advisory Committee of Citizens for Eisenhower. He helped persuade Ike to enter the presidential contest, and played a significant role in attracting liberals, moderates, and independents to the General’s winning campaign.

In 1956, Hoffman wrote an article in Collier’s magazine praising President Eisenhower’s party leadership, estimating that 95% of the Republican rank and file shared his moderation, and insisting that his philosophy should “become the permanent program of the party.” He called for the expulsion from the GOP of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his followers, who were “a totally new element” in the party and “had nothing in common with rigid but honest conservatives such as Senator Robert A. Taft.” McCarthy’s “rampage” against civil liberties was unnecessary, since Americans already were united in their resistance to communism, and created a disastrous image for the party at home and abroad. Men of such “dangerous thinking and reckless conduct” had “little place in the new Republican party.” While the conservatives around Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater were not wild men like McCarthy, they were unable to accept “the modern America with its needs of social security, or balanced labor-management relations, or government partnership and guardianship of our complex economy.” Nor could they “accept America’s role as the chief champion of peace and decency in active international relations.”

Congressional conservatives howled in outrage, and right-wing radio commentator Fulton Lewis, Jr. charged that Hoffman was leading “his ultra-liberal modernist Republicans” in a GOP coup. Readers of the new National Review magazine mounted a letter-writing campaign against Hoffman.

While Eisenhower privately shared Hoffman’s low opinion of the right wing of his party and threatened to run for reelection as an independent, he took no action against his conservative detractors in Congress. Hoffman was too hot a target for conservatives to be reconfirmed in his position as US delegate to the General Assembly of the United Nations, but served as a top-ranked official in the UN Secretariat from 1959 to 1971. There he became the foremost American advocate of policies to help the less developed countries, both to enable them buy U.S. exports and to advance peaceful economic development as an alternative to Communism and revolution.

Hoffman was representative of a sizable swathe of Republican business opinion that considered conservative domestic and foreign policies to be outmoded and irresponsible. Their opponents in turn regarded such businessmen as a graver threat than liberal politicians, and conservative critics of Hoffman were fond of quoting Lenin’s prediction that the capitalists would sell him the rope he would use to hang them. But his example may be instructive at a time when, amidst another severe economic downturn, business leaders once again seek to regain the public’s esteem.


Originally posted on February 15, 2009

Charles Whalen: Congressman Of The Real Majority

March 27th, 2010 at 9:00 pm 8 Comments

This week, we are also reposting a classic series from the FF archives: Geoffrey Kabaservice’s “Secret History of the Republican Party.”


In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon and his conservative aide Patrick Buchanan believed they had discovered a winning Republican formula. A recent book, The Real Majority by Richard Scammon and Benjamin Wattenberg, had argued that the prototypical American voter was a forty-seven-year-old machinist’s wife from Dayton, Ohio. The authors believed that Democrats could sway this pivotal voter by emphasizing economic issues, but Nixon and Buchanan realized they could counterattack by playing up social issues on which Democrats were vulnerable, including welfare, busing, crime, student radicalism, and drug abuse. Nixon wrote that this new conservative strategy would be aimed “primarily at disaffected Democrats, and blue collar workers, and at working class ethnics. We should set out to capture the vote of the forty-seven-year old Dayton housewife.”

But who in fact was the politician who won the votes of that Dayton housewife? For most of the 1960s and ‘70s it was Congressman Charles W. Whalen, Jr., who was usually considered among the most liberal Republicans in the House. Whalen was perhaps the GOP’s most successful vote-getter, racking up margins of over 70% in most of his elections and running unopposed in 1974, despite running in a district with a two-to-one Democratic registration margin. He was counted among the best and most effective Congressmen in multiple surveys, and even his opponents respected his intelligence and integrity. His heterodox positions angered his local Republican organization, however, and raised the question of how much divergence from a conservative agenda the party ought to tolerate.

It was easy to make the case that the former businessman and economics professor was a liberal. As a member of the Ohio state legislature from 1954 to 1966, Whalen had been an outspoken supporter of civil rights and author of the state’s first fair housing law. From the time of his first Congressional victory in 1966, he became a thorn in the side of the GOP leadership, opposing the military draft and the Vietnam War that the party supported, and calling for a reordering of national priorities to address issues such as air and water pollution, education, urban decay, hunger and welfare. He opposed most new weapons systems, including the Nixon administration’s proposal for an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense. In 1971, he co-authored an amendment to the defense procurement bill that would have prohibited new funds being spent on military involvement in Indochina. The measure failed, but offered the first indication of significant House opposition to the Vietnam War. Whalen also made early and controversial calls to offer diplomatic recognition to Communist China and reestablish ties with Castro’s Cuba.

Whalen himself felt that his advocacy of civil rights, education, and the environment were well within the Republican progressive tradition. His social liberalism was also balanced by a deep and sincere fiscal conservatism. His early battles with the GOP leadership came because of his opposition to tariffs, and indeed he proposed a world free trade association that would have eliminated trade barriers entirely. His belief that government needed to address social problems set him apart from Ohio’s mainly rural conservatives, while his conviction that the cost of government services had to be kept low set him apart from liberals who didn’t really seem to believe that government services had to be paid for. He was a severe critic of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which he found inefficient, corrupt, and overly centralized, and pioneered the idea of a negative income tax to replace the costly and paternal welfare bureaucracy.

Above all he opposed the Vietnam War and what Dwight Eisenhower had called “the military industrial complex,” on economic rather than moral grounds. Defense requests were not given the same financial scrutiny to which all other programs were subject. The war was overheating the economy, driving inflation and tax increases, wasting men and materiel in pursuit of undefined strategic goals. “I have always been amused,” he wrote to one correspondent, “when pundits refer to a Congressman as ‘liberal’ for voting against $150 billion of waste in Vietnam and another Congressman as ‘conservative’ when he voted for it.” Ultimately, Whalen believed that the country’s overall defense posture and grandiose international ambitions were unaffordable and unsustainable.

It passed almost unnoticed in the 1970s that Whalen, as a Roman Catholic, was one of the strongest adversaries of the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion. However, his personal conservatism may well have been one of the factors that allowed him to retain the vote of the proverbial Dayton housewife. As one of his conservative opponents was overheard to complain, “He doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t womanize. So what the hell good is he?”

Whalen believed it was in the best interests of the GOP to leave room for moderates and liberals. He thought that ideological diversity within Republican ranks was “beneficial in that it provides the Party not only with the vitality necessary to keep astride of current political tides, but also the restraint that is helpful in making far-reaching decisions.” He opposed too much uniformity, whether within parties or in government as a whole. When one party had total control of government, he thought, there was a loss of perspective and balance.

The conservative leaders of his district did not agree. Whalen tired of fending off primary challenges from the right and retired in 1979, at the relatively young age of 58. The GOP promptly lost his seat to a Democrat, Tony Hall, who remained in office for more than twenty years, perhaps prompting the Republican establishment to bitter reflection on the old baked goods proverb regarding the half loaf. Today’s GOP leadership might also reflect whether they would rather win Democratic constituencies with political hybrids like Whalen or take their chances with the kind of ideological uniformity he deplored.


Originally posted on February 12, 2009

Robert Taft: Misremembered Conservative

March 27th, 2010 at 2:30 pm 12 Comments

This week, we are also reposting a classic series from the FF archives: Geoffrey Kabaservice’s “Secret History of the Republican Party.”


Many Republicans like to believe that the torch of conservatism has been passed along undimmed through the decades, and that those who now guard the sacred flame can trace their conservative lineage directly to past giants like Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and Robert Taft. In fact, the meaning of conservatism has changed drastically with each handoff. The conservatism of Senator Taft – son of President William Howard Taft, leader of the GOP’s right wing during the ‘40s and early ‘50s, three-time unsuccessful contestant for the Republican presidential nomination – had little in common with the current version of conservatism. Indeed, “Mr. Republican” (as Taft was widely known) likely would have failed the ideological litmus test too many Republicans now seek to apply to would-be party members.

Balding, bespectacled, cold-eyed, and usually clad in old-fashioned three-piece suits, Taft embodied the WASPy Midwestern conservatism of the first half of the twentieth century. He inherited the uprightness, ambition, intelligence, and belief in rugged individualism and free enterprise that had defined the Taft family since his grandfather settled in Cincinnati in 1839. Like his forebears, he was a stalwart Republican regular, opposed to reform efforts within the party. He shared the characteristic Midwestern mistrust of Easterners, foreigners, and Wall Street. Even before his election to the Senate in 1938, Taft was the spearhead of opposition to Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal, which he found wrongheaded, wasteful, arbitrary, autocratic, and dangerous. “If Mr. Roosevelt is not a Communist today,” he inveighed in 1936, “he is bound to become one.”

Unlike today’s conservatives, however, he shunned populism, and while he disliked liberal intellectuals he respected intellect. Bill Buckley liked to tell a story about one of Taft’s reelection campaigns, when the Senator’s wife was asked at a rally whether her husband was a common man. “Oh no,” she retorted, “he is not that at all. He was first in his class at Yale and first in his class at Harvard Law School. I think it would be wrong to present a common man as a representative of the people of Ohio.”  The political professionals blanched, but the crowd gave the Tafts a standing ovation.

Perhaps the most important difference between Taft and modern conservatives was that while he had certain deeply held principles, he was not bound by ideology. When confronted with an issue, his response was not to follow polls or conservative tablet-keepers, but to study the issue, obtain as much relevant information as possible, and only then arrive at his own conclusions.

For this reason, Taft was not the uncompromising scourge of liberalism that many of his followers imagined. He recognized that parts of the New Deal were legitimate responses to real needs, and he tried to offer social welfare alternatives more in keeping with Republican ideals of small government, sound finance, and local responsibility. He supported government-funded old age pensions, medical care for the indigent, an income floor for the deserving poor, unemployment insurance, and an increased minimum wage. Because he believed that a home was necessary for a decent family life, and because the free market was not supplying low-cost housing, he advocated urban slum clearance and public housing. Because he believed that all children deserved an equal start in life, he reversed his earlier position and called for federal aid to education. Because he did not believe in deficit financing, he was willing to raise taxes to pay for these needed measures. As his brother Charles recalled in 1966, Taft was “an innovator of the first class in a number of welfare fields, going beyond what the Democrats had the courage to talk about in those days.”

Although he championed free enterprise, Taft was no laissez faire conservative and opposed bigness in business as well as labor. While his Taft-Hartley Act of 1946 met hysterical denunciation as a “slave labor law,” in practice it did little to impede the growth of unionization. Taft in fact was an ardent defender of labor’s right to organize and to strike, and forced President Harry Truman to back down from a proposal to draft strikers in vital industries into the armed forces.

Indeed, Taft abhorred the military draft (which he associated with totalitarianism) and was the main opponent of a wider international role for the U.S. Though disdainful of Hitler and the Nazis, in 1940 and 1941 he preferred that the country stay out of World War II rather than accept the large, activist, intrusive government that total war would require. After the war, he supported the United Nations and the World Court though not the Nuremburg Trials, which he thought violated international law. Though a firm anti-communist, he did not believe that the effort to contain the Soviet Union required a full-fledged Cold War, and he became sharply critical of the military buildup, increased presidential power, and overseas involvement accompanying the conflict, which to Taft smacked of imperialism. He did not adhere to bipartisanship in foreign affairs, believing that the opposition’s role was to oppose. He voted against NATO and the IMF, tried to cut funding for the Marshall Plan, and blasted what he called the “tendency to interfere in the affairs of other nations, to assume that we are a kind of demigod and Santa Claus to solve the problems of the world.”

Taft’s quixotic opposition to a U.S. global role has continued to appeal to dissenters from bipartisan foreign policy consensus, whether New Leftists in the 1960s or Ron Paul’s libertarians today. He sincerely believed that, bad as the victory of Nazi Germany in Europe would be, the death and bankruptcy and socialism that war would bring to the U.S. would be worse.  Likewise, he saw the Cold War as a ploy to internationalize and institutionalize the New Deal. But foreign policy for Taft was always a distraction from his main interest in domestic policy, and his thinking on international affairs was uncharacteristically muddled, contradictory, and even Oedipal, given his father’s moderate internationalism and support of globalists like Henry Stimson (who was William Howard Taft’s Secretary of War). Taft’s easy adjustment, as Senate majority leader after the 1952 elections, to Eisenhower’s restrained international approach suggests that at least some of his earlier and often extreme opposition stemmed from intense partisanship as well as his reluctance to adapt to a changing world.

Taft’s anti-internationalism was the primary factor in his defeat at the hands of Eastern factions in the Republican presidential conventions in 1940, 1948, and 1952. He died suddenly in 1953 at age sixty-three. A decade later, Barry Goldwater’s supporters would proclaim that they had avenged Taft by humbling the Easterners and moderates at the 1964 GOP convention. In fact, the Westerners’ brand of conservatism differed greatly from Taft’s in its ideological certitude, militarism, and antagonism to social welfare. The conservatism which eventually came to dominate the GOP was marked by a populism, anti-intellectualism, religiosity, and fiscal laxity that derived from Southern Democrats rather than Midwestern conservatives like Taft. The manifold differences between “Mr. Republican” and today’s Republicans should give pause to anyone who claims that conservatism is a changeless code.


Originally posted on February 9, 2009

Ogden R. Reid: Anti-communism And Civil Liberties

March 26th, 2010 at 9:44 am 6 Comments

This week, we are also reposting a classic series from the FF archives: Geoffrey Kabaservice’s “Secret History of the Republican Party.”


Moderate Republicanism diminished as a national political force when its principal media organ, the New York Herald Tribune newspaper, folded in 1966.  While the Herald Tribune is remembered as a “newspaperman’s newspaper,” with sparkling contributions from writers like Red Smith, Jimmy Breslin, and Tom Wolfe, it also served as the house organ of Eastern moderate Republicanism; its lineage extended to Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune and the foundation of the GOP.

Ogden “Brownie” Reid, before his election to Congress in 1962, was the president of the Herald Tribune, which in different inceptions had been in his family’s possession for nearly ninety years, and heir to an even longer Republican tradition.  It was a matter of national significance, then, when Reid switched parties in 1972, and raised questions about moderate Republicanism and its future.

Reid joined the family paper in 1950, after completing college and paratrooper service in World War II.  The Herald Tribune at that time was still a close rival of the New York Times, and its politics were congenial to the city’s business and professional elites.  It was internationalist, strongly supportive of the United Nations, anti-imperialist and anti-Communist.  In its pronouncements on domestic policy, it was pro-business, a defender of civil rights and civil liberties, censorious of corruption and complacency in New York City’s Democratically-controlled government, and bitterly critical of labor unions.

After a shaky start at the Herald Tribune in the early 1950s, when Reid wrote a crudely anti-Communist column spiced with unverifiable inside dope direct from J. Edgar Hoover, he moved to Paris for two years to head up the paper’s European edition and then returned to New York as president and editor in 1955.  While Reid received mixed reviews for his performance, the paper’s circulation and advertising revenues continued to decline.  The Reid family was forced to sell the Herald Tribune to Republican multimillionaire John Hay Whitney, a deal brokered in part by President Dwight Eisenhower, who was a daily reader of the paper.  Ike appointed Reid the U.S. ambassador to Israel, an appropriate assignment given the Zionist leanings of the Herald Tribune and Reid’s WASPy philo-Semitism.  Reid returned to the U.S. in 1961 to chair the New York State Commission for Human Rights on behalf of governor Nelson Rockefeller (whose 1958 campaign the Herald Tribune had championed), then was elected to Congress from a district representing most of Westchester County.

Reid began office as a Herald Tribune-style Republican, slamming Kennedy for weakness against Communism and listlessness in support of civil rights.  (Reid’s civil rights concerns had a Republican spin, as he worried that repression of Southern blacks would make emerging African nations likelier to turn Red and criticized the Democrats for protecting racist labor unions.)  He approved the education and health components of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, but not its public works spending on marginal enterprises: “Federal subsidies do not create new markets,” he insisted.  He decried Johnson’s inflationary policies and demanded a return to pay-as-you-go financing and balanced budgets.

But the events of the ‘60s began to move Reid and other moderate Republicans leftward.  The Herald Tribune, reacting against the GOP’s nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964, refused to endorse a Republican for the first time in its history.  Reid formally supported the ticket but made plain his anger at the party platform’s abandonment of civil rights and its refusal to condemn extremism or assure civilian control over nuclear weapons.  A visit to Vietnam shook his previously resolute defense of the American war effort there, as he realized that Johnson had not leveled with the American people about the scale of U.S. military involvement required or the weakness of the South Vietnamese government.  From 1966 on, he faced primary challenges from the Conservative Party of New York, an organization created to defeat Nelson Rockefeller and all of his allies.

By the early 1970s, Reid was in more or less open rebellion against Richard Nixon, offended by what he perceived as the administration’s authoritarian ways and the efforts of Vice President Spiro Agnew to drive away whatever youth and minority support might have gone to the GOP with his pursuit of “positive polarization.”  Reid believed that his evolving position was within the legitimate Republican tradition, and often quoted Lincoln’s 1862 message to Congress: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. … As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”  But Nixon’s perceived disrespect for Congress, Agnew’s attacks on the media, and the Southern Strategy finally led Reid and several other moderate-to-liberal Republicans to leave the party in 1972.  As Reid put it, “Just as in World War II, there came a time when some of us simply couldn’t eat another can of Spam.”

Reid was reelected as a Democrat in the 1972 elections (overcoming a furious challenge from a Rockefeller-financed Republican) but declined to seek office in 1974, and never won office to any other posts in several attempts.  In a 1998 interview, Reid sounded more sorrowful than angry about the changes that had led him and the party of his forebears to part ways: “In my own view, the Republican Party needs to latch onto the center and the future.  It can’t be exclusionary.”


Originally posted on February 3, 2009

Thomas Curtis: Free Trade And Civil Rights

March 25th, 2010 at 5:45 am 5 Comments

This week, we are also reposting a classic series from the FF archives: Geoffrey Kabaservice’s “Secret History of the Republican Party.”


Historically, moderate Republicanism was most strongly associated with the East Coast and regions settled by New Englanders such as the upper Midwest, the Northwest, and California.  There were many exceptions to this rule, however, and one of the most notable Congressional moderates in the ‘50s and ‘60s was Thomas B. Curtis, a Missourian who considered himself a “constructive conservative.”

Curtis came from a long line of Democrats, but turned against his ancestral party to fight bossism, like Kansas City’s Pendergast machine that produced Harry Truman.  Elected to Congress in 1950, at a time when he was one of only a handful of GOP officials in Missouri, Curtis followed a process of studying and deliberating issues individually, without reference to a pre-cast ideology or opinion polls.  Typically this led him to take positions that were highly conservative on fiscal matters but moderate or liberal on social issues, which led to his being one of the few Republicans supported by the liberal political action group The National Committee for an Effective Congress.

Curtis campaigned for Taft in 1948 and 1952, but approved of Eisenhower’s restraint with regard to fiscal matters and the power of the executive branch.  Curtis won his first election attacking Truman for his failure to seek adequate Congressional authorization for the Korean war, and later would make the same criticism of Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam.  He believed that Eisenhower’s military reputation gave him unique credibility to check the growth of what Ike called “the military-industrial complex.”  Curtis (who served in the Navy during WWII) led the effort to reduce waste within the military bureaucracy, and helped end the services’ practice of running their own procurement agencies; the Navy, he discovered, was in the business of roasting its own coffee.  At the same time, Curtis also attacked Eisenhower for failing to adhere to strict standards of good government by allowing his attorney general, Herbert Brownell, to retain patronage power.

Curtis was one of the prime movers in the “Young Turks” revolt against two successive Republican House minority leaders, Joe Martin and Charles Halleck.  At issue was the gross imbalance in Democratic to Republican Congressional staff workers – researchers, writers, counsels, and clerks.  While this was partly a matter of the GOP leaders’ failure to stand up against majority Democratic bullying, it also pointed to the party’s underdeveloped research and policy-making capacities, which limited Republicans’ ability to advance original and positive proposals rather than simply dragging their feet in response to Democratic initiatives.

Curtis faced repeated primary challenges from the right for his support of free trade (much resented by protectionist industries such as Monsanto in St. Louis) and civil liberties (against the likes of Joe McCarthy).  What particularly raised anger against him in the Jim Crow state of Missouri, however, was his unswerving advocacy of civil rights for African-Americans.  Contrary to much later mythology, civil rights efforts in Congress during the 1950s and early ‘60s were led by Republican moderates like Curtis rather than better known Democratic liberals.

Washington Post reporter Meg Greenfield recalled that when she first arrived in the nation’s capital in the early ‘60s, she gradually discovered that in terms of the political forces at work opposing and defending segregation, “I seemed to have the lineup of players just about completely wrong.”  With the Democratic Party heavily dependent on its autocratic Southern chairmen, even the northern liberal Democrats who were most vociferous in their denunciations of Jim Crow were mainly posturing.  “At that moment,” Greenfield wrote, “the principal force truly committed to taking immediate action against the kinds of crude racial repression still officially in place seemed to be, of all things, a bunch of Republicans, many of them unknown.”  Some were northeasterners with urban constituencies, but “the effort’s most tireless organizers and/or communicants were a few generally conservative midwestern House members, notably Tom Curtis of Missouri.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 originated in Curtis’ office in 1962, and it was mainly Republican pressure from Curtis and his fellow Republican Judiciary Committee member William McCulloch of Ohio that forced John F. Kennedy to make his first, hesitant message on civil rights in April 1963.  Curtis’ defense of civil rights was rooted partly in the Lincoln tradition of the GOP, but more simply in the belief that civil rights were at the base of the American philosophy of government and Judeo-Christian morality and that their defense was “the most fundamental issue that confronts any government at any time,” as he wrote in 1952.

Curtis’ independence continued to distinguish him when he resigned as chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1973, accusing the Nixon administration of “tampering” with the agency in an attempt to gain political control, and later when he quarreled with Congress over the autonomy of the Federal Election Commission, of which he was the founding chairman.  In all of his government service, Curtis consciously attempted to live up to the standard set by Edmund Burke in his 1774 speech to the Electors of Bristol: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”


Originally posted on February 1, 2009

Tom Dewey: Mob-Buster and Highway Builder

March 24th, 2010 at 9:33 pm 10 Comments

This week, we are also reposting a classic series from the FF archives: Geoffrey Kabaservice’s “Secret History of the Republican Party.”


Most people remember Thomas Dewey, if at all, as the Republican candidate who lost the seemingly secure 1948 presidential election, the fall guy to a grinning Harry Truman holding up the botched Chicago Tribune headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”  But Dewey had an active career before and after his stunning defeat, and did more than anyone else to shape the Republican response to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

For most of his career, Dewey was associated with New York City and East Coast establishment Republicanism, as opposed to the Midwestern conservatism of his great party rival Robert Taft.  Actually, Dewey grew up in small-town Michigan before moving East and becoming a celebrated crime-fighter, serving as special prosecutor with a mandate to combat corruption in New York City.  Dewey made national headlines with his racket-busting exploits, and his fame helped him win the New York governorship in 1942, in the process reviving a nearly moribund Republican Party.

Dewey served three terms as governor of what was then the nation’s largest state, and was the Republican nominee for president in 1944 and 1948.  He became the rallying point for moderates in the GOP partly because he was one of the few Republicans able to win in heavily urban and historically Democratic areas and to reach out to new constituencies.  His primary appeal was to middle-class professionals attuned to the need for social reform and an internationalist foreign policy, but who were uncomfortable with the Democratic Party’s reliance on corrupt city machines and Southern racists.

Unlike the stalwarts who continued to dominate what little remained of the Republican representation in Congress in the ‘30s and early ‘40s, Dewey believed that the Depression had permanently reshaped the political landscape and that it was insufficient for Republicans simply to denounce the New Deal and hope in vain for the eventual disappearance of the welfare state.  As Dewey said in his first gubernatorial address, “There has never been a responsible government which did not have the welfare of its people at heart… anybody who thinks that an attack on the fundamental idea of security and welfare is appealing to people generally is living in the Middle Ages.”  As governor, he put forward social programs that included unemployment insurance, sickness and disability benefits, old age pensions, slum clearance, state aid to education (including the creation of the State University of New York), infrastructure projects (particularly highway construction), and pathbreaking anti-discrimination legislation.

Dewey attempted to distinguish his programs from similar Democratic programs by running a government that was acknowledged to be clean, honest, and efficient.  His was pay-as-you-go liberalism, as he managed to implement his social programs while cutting taxes, reducing the state debt by over $100 million, and still achieving budget surpluses.  He also argued that while Republicans and Democrats might agree on social ends, the parties would differ in their means, with moderate Republicans emphasizing individual freedom and economic incentive over collectivization.  However, this relatively sophisticated position inevitably opened Dewey to conservative gripes of “me-tooism” and Democratic claims that he was offering a lesser version of the genuine article.

No one could credibly charge that “the Gangbuster” was a softie.  The toughness and even ruthlessness that he had exhibited while prosecuting mobsters carried over into his administration, and contributed greatly to his political effectiveness.  Dewey also displayed a skill for organization that most moderates lacked, and he was able to use his New York business and legal connections to build an effective national network within the GOP.

On the advice of his counselors and pollsters, Dewey took a high-road approach to try to preserve his frontrunner status in the 1948 presidential race.  Contrary to later allegations, he did defend the record of the GOP-controlled 80th Congress, and pointed out that the Republicans Truman attacked as “do-nothing” had supported the president’s Cold War internationalist program, including the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, and the Vandenberg Resolution that opened the way to NATO and other regional defensive alliances.  But Dewey’s failure to counter Truman’s slashing attacks, or to exploit the Democrats’ potential vulnerability on the issue of Communism, cost him the election.  It’s perhaps significant that no other presidential contender since Dewey has worn a mustache, which made him look (in one cruel but memorable phrase) “like the little man on top of the wedding cake.”

Despite his loss, Dewey retained his political network and his desire to see the moderate, internationalist position prevail within the GOP.  He was instrumental in pushing the moderate Dwight Eisenhower to run for the presidency in 1952, selecting Richard Nixon as Ike’s vice presidential running-mate, and securing the victory of the internationalists over Taft and the non-interventionists at the Republican convention.  Eisenhower’s victory cemented the triumph of Stimson- and Dewey-style internationalism within the GOP, but the bitterness of Taft’s conservative supporters at having been denied what they considered to be their rightful nomination would erupt with Barry Goldwater’s victory over moderate and Eastern Republicans in 1964.

Goldwater suffered a defeat of historic proportions in the presidential election, and dragged down Republican office-seekers across the nation.  GOP representation in the Senate was reduced to 32 seats out of 100, in the House to 140 out of 435, while the party lost nearly 500 state legislative seats.  It became fashionable among conservatives to assert that Goldwater actually won the election sixteen years later, with the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan.  However, the triumph of conservatism in 1980 was in large part the result of liberalism’s drastic overreach at home and abroad under Johnson’s presidency, a failure that was unforeseeable and unlikely to recur on the same massive scale.

Republicans seeking a path back to majority status might consider the continuing relevance of two of Dewey’s key strategies for Republicans.  The first is that the GOP is a national party, one that should not write off any region or race or ethnicity.  It’s startling to recall that 70% of African-Americans living in the Northeast voted for Eisenhower in 1956.  And second, the party is an ideological coalition in which diverse views can coexist so long as there is unity on basic principles.  Dewey granted that American politics would be simpler if the GOP consisted only of conservatives, but “The results would be neatly arranged, too.  The Republicans would lose every election and the Democrats would win every election.”


Originally posted on January 29, 2009

Stimson: National Security & Social Reform

March 24th, 2010 at 1:05 pm 7 Comments

This week, we are also reposting a classic series from the FF archives: Geoffrey Kabaservice’s “Secret History of the Republican Party.”


Secretary of War under William Howard Taft and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of State under Herbert Hoover, Henry Stimson was the prophet of the American Century and the paragon of pragmatic yet idealistic Republican statesmanship.  He was a role model and mentor to two generations of Cold Warriors inspired by his example of service to the nation and his vision of American global power.

Stimson was born into one of New York’s ruling families and became one of America’s earliest corporate lawyers.  When his law partner Elihu Root was named Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, Stimson came under TR’s wing and began his political career when Roosevelt appointed him U.S. Attorney for New York.  He called himself a “progressive conservative” in the Roosevelt tradition, and advocated Rooseveltian policies of enlightened reform at home and interventionism in the service of enlightened reform abroad.  As Stimson wrote to TR in 1910, “To me it seems vitally important that the Republican party which contains, generally speaking, the richer and more intelligent citizens of the country, should take the lead in reform and not drift into a reactionary position.”

The sort of East Coast, upper-class Republican progressivism that Roosevelt and Stimson embodied manifested itself through liberal policies undertaken for conservative reasons, social reform not necessarily motivated by social conscience.  Because Stimson and other progressives wished to preserve the social order from which they had benefited handsomely, they thought it necessary to prevent a violent working class revolution by creating a modern welfare state, much as Otto von Bismarck had done in Germany in the 1880s.  The policies advocated by Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” included government regulation of corporate power, a minimum wage, child labor laws, unemployment compensation for workers, progressive income taxes and inheritance taxes.  Progressives also opposed the boss rule of corrupt (and usually Democratic) urban machines and formed Good Government Clubs (leading their detractors to mock them as “goo-goos”).  Many progressives left the GOP after Roosevelt’s bolt from the 1912 convention to form the Bull Moose Party, and some never returned, but the progressive tradition survived within the Republican ranks through individuals like Stimson.

In foreign policy, Stimson carried forth the Roosevelt maxim to “speak softly and carry a big stick.”  He was an ardent internationalist, at odds with the prevailing isolationism of Republican conservatives (especially in the Midwest).  He felt that it was in the nation’s best interest to engage with the rest of the world in forums such as the League of Nations and its successor the United Nations.  At the same time, Stimson was convinced that the U.S. could only maintain peace by preparing for war; the country “could not long remain safe in a world where aggressors were allowed to roam free.”  Stimson led the military preparedness movement before the First World War, and helped lead the fight for rearmament and a military draft before the Second.  As Hoover’s Secretary of War, in the wake of Japan’s seizure of Manchuria from China in 1931, he articulated the Stimson Doctrine: the U.S. would not recognize any international territorial gains based on conquest.  The U.S. invoked the Stimson Doctrine following the Soviet Union’s annexation of the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in 1940, and the policy of non-recognition remained in effect until those countries regained their independence in 1991.  The doctrine to which he gave his name was not, in the case of Manchuria, Stimson’s preferred policy; he wanted Hoover to impose sanctions on the Japanese and was disgusted that the president refused to brandish the “big stick” of American power against aggression.

In some ways Stimson would strike later Republicans as excessively idealistic – he dissolved a predecessor organization to the CIA on the grounds that “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,” and stood foursquare for unquestioning bipartisanship in foreign policy.  But he was also capable of taking hard and even brutal decisions, such as the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Some Republicans were angry that in 1941 he would lend his considerable prestige to the administration of “that man,” their arch-enemy Franklin Roosevelt, by accepting the offer to serve (for the second time) as Secretary of War.  But with the country facing an impending war, Stimson believed that partisan politics had no place in foreign policy; as Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg later expressed it, such politics should end “at the water’s edge.”

Stimson headed a network of influential “Wise Men” who shuttled between the elite professions and high unelected offices in government.  His protégés included key post-World War II foreign policy decision-makers like Robert Lovett, John McCloy, and McGeorge Bundy, members of the so-called establishment that helped America take on quasi-imperial world responsibilities after the war.  Critics on the right called this elite group an unaccountable “invisible government,” while leftists saw, in the establishment’s readiness to exercise U.S. military force globally to maintain American hegemony, the assumptions that led to America’s involvement in Vietnam. Nonetheless, Stimson and his descendants personified establishment ideals of bipartisanship, toughness, sound judgment, trustworthiness, and mature wisdom that most Americans felt was required of statesmen to navigate the perils of an atomic age.


Originally posted on January 28, 2009