You were thinking there was a war going on for the soul of the Republican Party. You were right, and it just went nuclear.
First, Karl Rove, who until last week was no one’s idea of a moderate, began an initiative to find Republican candidates with a good chance of winning in general elections, which is political Esperanto for Republicans without a hint of tea on their breath.
Then L. Brent Bozell III, leader of a group called “ForAmerica,” went on the attack himself. He proclaimed that the “days of conservatives listening to the moderate GOP establishment are over,” described many of the most familiar names in Republican politics as members of a “second Democrat Party in Washington,” and argued, “When the GOP is once again unabashed in its support for real conservative values like freedom, prosperity and virtue, only then will it succeed.”
Mr. Rove’s offensive is just the sort of thing that party leaders often do after a devastating defeat. The onetime Bush guru has a historian’s view of politics, and surely he remembers the emergence in the mid-1980s of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council after a series of devastating Democratic losses in presidential elections.
Mr. Bozell, too, is no stranger to this fandango, nor a historical ingenue. His father, brother-in-law to conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr., was an early supporter of Sen. Barry Goldwater for president; he urged the Arizonan’s nomination in 1960 against Vice President Richard M. Nixon, a full four years before Goldwater won the GOP nomination at the extremism-in-the-defense-of liberty convention. The elder Bozell’s unsuccessful 1964 campaign against one of the signature GOP moderates of the time, Rep. Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland, can be seen in retrospect as a vivid precursor to the tea party challenges of our own time.
The Democratic Leadership Council was formed in 1985, after first President Jimmy Carter and then former Vice President Walter F. Mondale were defeated by Ronald Reagan and before Gov. Michael S. Dukakis would suffer the same gloomy fate three years later. The DLC’s leaders, who included Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, eventually the group’s chairman, sought to steer the Democrats away from the left, arguing that the party was addicted to liberal nominees who were doomed once they faced Republicans in the general election.
Now, many on the tea party right are employing the same idiom to describe their predicament after two consecutive losses to Barack Obama, an opponent who in some ways was as different from his predecessors as Reagan was from his. Bozell’s critique of Republican regulars: “Their idea of the most ‘electable’ presidential candidate was Mitt Romney, and before him John McCain and before him Bob Dole, and we have all seen the results.”
Sen. McCain’s ideology has been impossible to describe until recently, when he has become a reliable pugilist on the right, but hardly anyone could reasonably describe Mitt Romney since 2005 or Bob Dole since 1923 as anything but conservative. Indeed, for many years Dole, now softened in temperament but not in passion, personified Washington conservatism — that may be Bozell’s beef with him — and was able to explain his few adventures in centrist consensus by saying he was interested in making a deal (as he did with several bills coming out of his Senate Finance Committee in the 1980s) or helping his farm constituents (as he did in his support of food-stamp legislation).
The regulars’ view of the tea party insurgents is rooted in Republican losses in Senate campaigns in Missouri and Indiana in November and in Delaware, Nevada and Colorado two years earlier.
In each case, seats regarded as safely Republican or competitive were lost by candidates with colorful backgrounds or incendiary rhetoric, particularly about abortion, which itself is not a top tea party priority.
But that does not tell what Paul Harvey — a hardy conservative who is enjoying a bit of a posthumous comeback after his appearance in a pro-farmer Super Bowl advertisement for Dodge — would call the rest of the story.
Because Mr. Bozell isn’t wrong when he makes this point: “If we had listened to them,” he said in reference to Rove and his allies, “there would be no Pat Toomey, no Marco Rubio, no Mike Lee, no Rand Paul and no Ted Cruz in the Senate today,” adding: “In every case the moderates said they too were ‘unelectable.’ It’s these same Rockefeller Republicans who said Ronald Reagan was unelectable. Instead of lectures, these moderates should stand aside and let the conservative movement lead the party back to prominence.”
(Aside to readers: Anybody seen a Rockefeller Republican since, say, Charles Goodell of New York, appointed to the Senate by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller amid the tumult of 1968 and defeated by William F. Buckley’s brother in 1970? Indeed, Rockefeller himself wasn’t a Rockefeller Republican when he left public life as vice president in 1977.)
And so the Republicans are falling into the very trap the conservatives’ favorite conservative, Winston Churchill, warned of when he said in his famous “finest hour” speech in 1940: “If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”
The future for Republicans may be determined by ideology — how best to fight the transfers of wealth, spending and expanded rights they believe are part of a dangerous but ascendant Democratic creed. But there is no question it also will be shaped by demography.
In truth, the GOP has become more diverse, with its first black senator since Edward W. Brooke (new Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina), with Indian-American governors in Louisiana and South Carolina, Hispanic senators from Florida and Texas, and House members from Florida, California, Utah, Texas, Washington and Idaho. But it has a ways to go, and many Republicans speak openly about it.
Yet this question persists: Is the Republican range war good for the party (as an expression of openness and a display of passion) or bad for the party (as an unseemly spectacle diverting attention from the work required to mount a comeback in the midterm congressional elections of 2014 and the presidential election of 2016)?
Or maybe the question doesn’t matter. Parties out of office often fight with the party in power but more often fight with themselves. This may be an extraordinary struggle, but it is not an unusual one.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.