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