Charles Whalen: Congressman Of The Real Majority

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

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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

Recent Posts by Geoffrey Kabaservice



8 Comments so far ↓

  • joemarier

    Promoting pro-life, anti-”interventionist” Republicans now? What is this site coming to?

    I’m kidding, of course. I find these portraits fascinating.

  • ZacMorgan

    Definitely an intriguing take. It’s always good to be reminded that simply because someone holds political positions that should not win a certain segment of voters it does not mean that he or she cannot win them over.

  • dragonlady

    Ideological conformity? Last I checked, Snowe, Specter, Collins are still in the GOP helping pass crappy stimulus bills. All politics are local so some states will vote in moderate Republicans if desired by the voters. Our mistake wasn’t ideological conformity…it was a Republican administration that overreached overseas and here at home with fiscal spending.

  • jjv

    I think when in the minority it is crazy to knock off Rhinos. I’m all for that hunt when there are more Elephants arounds.

  • George H

    Excellent article on a congressman that deserves a chapter. As conservative as I am, I do not like labeling moderate GOPers “RINO”. With these members, the GOP can gain a majority and get the committee chairmanships. That is far more important than spending an eternity in the minority.

  • Joe Whalen

    As one of Charles and Barbara Whalen’s six children, and as a journalist, I salute you for a job well done. You perfectly summarized my father’s career and provided trenchant glimpses into the content of his character. He was a maverick in the best sense of the word, a politician who truly voted his conscience. He is a man of great integrity. And I can vouch for his rep as a teetotaler: He’s 89 years old and has never taken a drink. Way ahead of his time on so many levels, he was a designated driver for his friends in the late 1930s roughly, oh, half a century before the term was coined.Again, fine work. I thank you on behalf of my father and our entire family.

  • Mark Rosenthal

    I was born and raised in Dayton OH. Everyone knew Whalen. He’s a good man. The kind of pragmatist the GOP needs to come back out of the woods.

  • JonF

    Re: Last I checked, Snowe, Specter, Collins are still in the GOP helping pass crappy stimulus bills.

    At the time the above was posted it was true. However fast forward 13 months and Specter is no longer a Reublican.