Thomas Kuchel – Strong Defense And Civil Rights

March 11th, 2009 at 8:46 pm | 7 Comments |

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Conservatives who object to moderate Republican officeholders have over the years asked themselves how far they are prepared to go to rid themselves of their intraparty rivals. In the case of California’s senator Thomas Kuchel, diagnosis the answer was: very far indeed.

Kuchel (pronounced “kee-kul”) was among the last of the California progressives, sildenafil politicians who had been decisively influenced by the middle-class, moral reform movement of the early twentieth century and leading progressive figures including Republican governors Hiram Johnson and Earl Warren. A key progressive reform, which was still in existence when Kuchel first was elected to the California State Assembly in 1936, was the practice of cross-filing, which allowed candidates to compete in any party primary regardless of party affiliation. Cross-filing weakened party power and favored moderates with wide appeal such as Kuchel and his mentor Earl Warren, who in the 1946 gubernatorial primaries won the nominations of both the Democratic and Republican parties. California’s nonpartisan political culture required successful officeholders to base policies on factual analysis and justify them with concrete results. Lacking the safety net of ideology and party support, politicians were forced to negotiate with constituencies outside the usual party interests. This meant that Democrats had to broker compromises acceptable to management as well as labor, and Republicans had to act to improve social welfare. The tradition of pragmatic moderation persisted in the California Republican Party even after the abolition of cross-filing in 1959, and Kuchel was an exemplar of the kind of Republican the tradition produced.

Kuchel served in state elective and appointive office from 1937 until 1953, when Warren appointed him to the U.S. Senate to replace newly-elected Vice President Richard Nixon. He was elected to the Senate in his own right in 1956, and reelected in 1962, when he became the last U.S. Senate nominee to win all of California’s 58 counties. He was a highly effective lawmaker who was also popular with his Senate Republican colleagues, and was elected a record five times as Minority Whip.

Kuchel was a strong fiscal conservative, outspoken in his opposition to what he considered Congress’ irresponsible and inflationary back-door spending on public programs. A staunch anti-Communist and generally hawkish, he called for continued American intervention in Vietnam even after the 1968 Tet Offensive. However, he raised conservative hackles with his support of Democrat-sponsored measures such as the atomic test ban treaty, his role as co-manager on the Senate floor for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and by bringing into politics young activists such as Leon Panetta (legislative assistant to Kuchel and currently Barack Obama’s head of the CIA). Of particular offense was Kuchel’s leading role in passing Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare legislation. “Progressive Republicans brought to politics the philosophy of governing for the many,” Kuchel later recalled. “If it weren’t for Medicare today, there would be tens of thousands of Americans living in the poorhouse, with no care.  It was a baker’s dozen progressive Republicans in the Senate who agreed we would vote for Medicare. … I was their spokesman, and we provided the necessary margin for passage.”

What cinched the conservative case against Kuchel, however, was his public criticism of the extreme anti-Communist group The John Birch Society, which became a formidable force in California’s conservative Republican circles in the early 1960s. Shortly after John F. Kennedy’s election, Kuchel’s office began to receive thousands of letters alleging that Chinese Communists were massing in Mexico and preparing to invade the United States. When he responded that there was no military evidence for this claim, the Birchers labeled him a “Comsymp” and suggested that he was guilty of treason. “Treason!” Kuchel exclaimed in a much-publicized 1961 speech in the Senate. “I still cannot believe my eyes when I stare at the ugliest word in the American lexicon tossed about in a letter as casually as the ‘Dear Senator’ or ‘Dear Congressman’ salutation…” Referring to the Society’s efforts to impeach Supreme Court Justice Warren, and their leader Robert Welch’s claim that Dwight Eisenhower was “a conscious, dedicated agent of the communist conspiracy,” Kuchel insisted that “The big lie, the smear and witch hunts are not the hallmarks of conservatism, but are the trademarks of communism and fascism.”

His conservative enemies responded by circulating a phony affidavit alleging that the Senator had been arrested for homosexual acts. Kuchel, who was a happily married man with a daughter, knew that this was a ruinous rumor, but that the publicity that would be caused by fighting it could be equally ruinous. He chose to proceed with a libel action nonetheless, which resulted in a no-contest plea from four perpetrators, one of whom was PR assistant to Patrick Frawley Jr., a leading financial backer of conservative causes and politicians. Frawley’s assistant admitted to the police that “We did it to get rid of Kuchel.”

The arrests placed Ronald Reagan, California’s Republican gubernatorial nominee in the 1966 elections, in a delicate position, since he didn’t want to alienate his conservative devotees but also wanted to disassociate himself from the anti-Kuchel smear. He wrote to one of Kuchel’s advisors to insist that he had played no part in “the despicable acts to blacken his name,” apologized for having supported Kuchel’s opponent in the 1962 primary, and offered to work with Kuchel on the Senator’s efforts to establish the Redwood National Park (which passed Congress with Reagan’s support in 1968).

Other conservatives were not so generous. Activist Howard Jarvis (later the leader of the successful anti-tax movement that enacted California’s Proposition 13 in 1978) called for Kuchel’s defeat, proclaiming that “if we’re going to elect a liberal to any office in the United States, it better be a Democrat. … Then when they do the things that they are going to do in this state, they get the blame for it.” The Los Angeles County Young Republicans passed a resolution declaring Kuchel “a Republican in name only,” years before that particular epithet gained common currency. This was an exaggerated charge to make against a moderate who had a record of voting with a majority of the GOP on 78% of all roll call votes, essentially the same percentage as the Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen. Nonetheless, Kuchel lost the 1968 primary to the right-wing school superintendent Max Rafferty, whose campaign was heavily bankrolled by conservative moneymen. Rafferty then was swamped in the general election by the liberal Democrat Alan Cranston, who remained in office for almost a quarter century.

The Republican Party treated Kuchel as a pariah for the rest of his life. Instead of being regarded as an effective and pragmatic lawmaker or honored as an elder statesman, he was held up as an example of the fate that would befall any Republican who dared to stand up against the far right, no matter how ridiculous its behavior. Given that California has not elected a Republican senator since 1988, however, it may be time to examine Kuchel’s lessons of how to win in the nation’s largest state rather than continuing to emphasize the dictum of “no enemies on the right.”

Recent Posts by Geoffrey Kabaservice

7 Comments so far ↓

  • Rhampton

    “Sen. Kuchel, I’d like you to meet Sen. Specter. It seems that he will soon have a lot of time on his hands, and will be in need of a friend. — What was his offense, you ask? That he fairly represented the interests of a moderate state by being a moderate Republican. — Yes, yes, you do know something about that, don’t you?”

  • RepMpls

    I honestly see it like this, we will lose in 2010 and 2012 and until parts of this party realize that a base of 40 million is not enough, when the other side can get 70 million votes.

    plan and simple they don’t think they need moderate reps, and they will continue to push them out. I am pretty silent on this topic because i know they only way they will realize the truth is with more loses, and with the changing demographics there will be more loses.

    look at the left blogs, they are all laughing at themselves waiting for Steele to get kicked out because he admitted he is pro-choice. Our Party is so narrow focused they really believe we would kick out the leader of the RNC because he only agrees 98% on everything and not 100%.

    and you know what? they are probably right. Our party does not like moderates. and we moderate reps have to actually fight for the “right” to be in this party.

  • HollywoodBill

    Sorry, RepMpls, no one is going to fight for the right to be a Republican. In California, the pathway was proven again with the reelection of Arnold. The revival Tent Republicans cannot win statewide and haven’t done so since 1986, Believe it or not Arnold ran as a fiscal conservative and a social moderate, following the Pete Wilson template. Wilson is a rare Republican who actually beat DiFi. In California, no social conservative has a snowball’s chance of a statewide victory. Eventually, the national party will get tired of losing and quit putting up candidates that the public will not accept. But right now, the electorate is not buying whatever the GOP is selling except in the South. And let’s face it, Dr Pepper is a regional product with limited national appeal.

  • jjv

    You do not note that Kuchel failed to back Richard Nixon over Pat Brown in 1962 for Governor. Why did the moderate not support a moderate against a liberal? Do we see a reason why his kind lose? Further, he supported Rocky over Goldwater, thus making enemies. Liberal Republicanism has lost in California to, but conservative ballot measures have won. Conservatism is more popular, aparently, than anybody with the name “Republican>” left or right.

  • Graf

    jjv, I seem to recall that Nixon said in his 1962 race against Brown that he would run an independent campaign and endorse no one else on the Republican ticket. There was a long tradition in California, rightly or wrongly, of GOP candidates running their own campaigns and not getting involved with others. Nixon always blamed his defeat not on moderates but on the conservative supporters of Joe Shell, w sat on their hands and apparently preferred to have a liberal Democrat elected.

  • HollywoodBill

    About the only “conservative initiative” that has passed in recent years is Prop8 and that only got through in 2008 with a 4 point margin. In 2000 it had a 13 point victory. Eventually there will probably be enough generational replacement for it to p by the the elecorate. And for the third time in 5 years Californians defeated an initiative that the religious zealots keep putting on the ballot and that would make minors have parental notification before an abortion. No social conservative Republican has won statewide since 1986. California tends to the libertarian wing of the GOP rather than the revival Tent Republicans of the South. Thankfully.

  • Manfredo

    This article makes no sense even on its own terms.

    We hear about a conservative uprising against the “moderate” Kuchel in 1968.

    Mr. Kabaservice then jumps ahead 20 years to to point out that the GOP has not elected a senator from CA since 1988 (a seat lost in a special election in 1992, the year which began the GOP’s descent in CA). We are meant to somehow connect the two.

    So, what happened between 1968 and 1992? The GOP won CA in every Presidential election–even Ford carried the state. They won U.S. senate elections in 1976, 1982 and 1988., and gubernatorial elections in 1970, 1982, 1986, and 1990 (and would go on to win again in 1994).

    Whatever the merits of the actions against Kuchel in 1968, it’s pretty clear that the effort didn’t hurt the party one darn bit. The following 20-25 years were among the best of times for California Republicans.

    Are we supposed to imagine that it was the anti-Kuchel movement in 1968 which lead to the state turning left in the 1990s? That’s an awfully long germination period.