Whose Republicans?

Published February 3, 2015

The American Interest - March/April 2015 issue


To Make Men Free:
A History of the Republican Party

by Heather Cox Richardson

Basic Books, 2014, 416 pp., $29.99


On His Own Terms:

A Life of Nelson Rockefeller 

by Richard Norton Smith

Random House, 2014, 880 pp., $38


Conservatism’s patron saint, Ronald Reagan, said the trouble with liberals was “not that they’re ignorant; it’s just that so much of what they know isn’t so.” So it is with their view of the conservative movement. Focusing on rhetoric that invokes anti-government themes, critics often seem to believe that the modern conservative seeks to repeal the entire 20th century.

The authors of two recent books about the GOP, Heather Cox Richardson and Richard Norton Smith, both hold this view. Each brings to bear useful insights on the party and the conservative movement, but each ultimately falls short of understanding how Republicans, and especially so-called movement conservatives, see themselves. As such, each sees modern liberalism as the only principled alternative to a laissez-faire America. In doing so they underestimate the degree to which conservatism is both the heir to and the modern interpretation of the historic Republican commitment to freedom for all.

Richardson’s To Make Men Free is modest in size but sweeping in scope. She contends that two camps have always vied for control of the GOP, one guided by Lincoln’s thought and the other by the instincts of big business. The Lincolnian strain casts government as a protector of the people and is unafraid to use government power. It is, in historical terms, Whiggish, after Lincoln’s own first political affiliation. The business strain is proto-libertarian, arguing that government should never be used to redistribute wealth or to regulate society’s “makers.” Modern conservatism, she contends, is but the latest incarnation of this latter element and thus is inherently out of step with, if not consciously opposed to, the modern state.

To Make Men Free is strongest when it illuminates the oft-forgotten history of Republican activism. She explains how the GOP used its newfound power in the Civil War era to subsidize western development and higher education, enact the country’s first income tax, and create the first national banking system. She rightly notes that in 1862 it was the Republicans, not the Democrats, who formed the party of an active national government. She also rightly notes that this activist strain persisted for decades after Lincoln’s death. Those unfamiliar with Republican history will learn about the battles between Mugwumps and Stalwarts over patronage, the battles between Nelson Aldrich and Teddy Roosevelt over trust-busting, and the subsequent battles between Tom Dewey and Robert Taft over the degree to which the GOP should adapt itself to the New Deal. To Make Men Free is a useful primer for such a reader.

Had she contented herself with simply chronicling the history of activist Republicans, Richardson would have written a fine book. Unfortunately, she attempts much more, relying more on polemic than history. In her funhouse mirror, rival Republican factions are either good or evil. Activist Republicans have unsullied motives and wise policies. Laissez-faire Republicans are selfish, greedy oligarchs whose contempt for the average man is exceeded only by their love of money. With this cast of cartoonish heroes and villains, it is not surprising that real history gets distorted.

Richardson frequently omits key facts that would sully her thesis. She never discusses, for example, how religious conflict between Republican northern Protestants and immigrant Catholics affected the party’s fortunes. Most historians agree that 1884 GOP presidential nominee James G. Blaine lost New York, home to many Irish immigrants, because a New York Protestant minister had thundered against the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” Richardson never mentions this episode. She also fails to mention the fact that the Democrats’ 1928 nominee, New York Governor Al Smith, was the nation’s first Catholic presidential nominee. Ethnic loyalties usually trumped partisan ones throughout the country, as Catholic-majority Massachusetts and Rhode Island deserted the GOP for the first time ever to back Smith, while much of the Baptist South voted for the Party of Lincoln to keep a Papist out of the Oval Office.

This error is crucial because it demonstrates that the American conception of equality involves much more than merely economics. The promise of equality is a promise of dignity as much as it is a promise of comfort; denial of respect or dignity offends the American premise as much as denial of comfort. Failing to see this, Richardson cannot understand that modern conservatives are the heirs of Lincoln, not of Southern slave masters. Accordingly, she fails to see that the real battles within the GOP were often between men who merely disagreed with each other over how best to effectuate Lincoln’s ideas today. Even those favoring less government action were not hostile to all intervention in the economy.

Her misleading description of mid-century conservative leader and Ohio Senator Robert Taft is instructive on this score. Richardson’s Taft is opposed to any accommodation with the New Deal. But his victorious rival for the 1952 GOP nomination, Dwight Eisenhower, penned a first-term memoir, Mandate for Change, that paints a different picture. Ike found Taft “unexpectedly ‘liberal’, specifically in his attitudes on old-age pensions, school aid, and public housing.” According to Eisenhower, Taft supported Federal aid to the states for education and sending a Federal monthly check to “every man and woman who reached the age of sixty-five.” (Social Security as it existed then left millions of people uncovered.) Taft’s conservatism was much different from Nelson Aldrich’s, and wishing it weren’t doesn’t make it so.

Richardson’s failure to note how Dewey and Eisenhower were regularly criticized from the Left marks another crucial omission. Richardson argues that New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller was simply a successor to Eisenhower-style moderation. But she never mentions the fact that Rockefeller openly challenged Eisenhower’s moderate policies on defense, civil rights, and health insurance for the elderly (Medicare did not yet exist) from the Left, just before the 1960 GOP convention. This conflict was solved only when Vice President Richard Nixon, the presumptive nominee, secretly visited Rocky in his Fifth Avenue townhouse to hammer out a compromise. The “Treaty of Fifth Avenue” enraged conservatives and deeply offended Eisenhower; yet the critical and well-known episode appears nowhere in Richardson’s book.

The “Treaty of Fifth Avenue” began what became a two-decade struggle between conservatives and Rockefeller Republicans for control of the Republican Party. It is crucial to understand what this struggle was really about to understand the modern conservative movement. Given the glaring shortcomings of To Make Men Free, we must turn to Richard Norton Smith’s epic biography of Nelson Rockefeller, On His Own Terms, to help inform our inquiry.

Smith’s biography is everything Richardson’s polemic is not. Exceedingly well researched and balanced in tone, the book presents Rockefeller “warts and all.” What emerges from this dense volume is a man who felt entitled to rule and exerted his will to wield power.

Nelson Rockefeller’s desire to dominate extended first to his own family. Smith notes how often he skillfully manipulated one parent to get something he wanted: a new Buick, a larger allowance, having the Marxist modernist painter Diego Rivera paint a fresco in the new Rockefeller Center. Nelson was not John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s eldest son, but he dominated the brothers’ charity, the Rockefeller Brothers Trust, even as his siblings chafed. His marriage vows never inhibited him from carrying on decades of infidelities that continued up to the moment he died. Neither sentiment nor convention kept this Rockefeller from doing exactly what he wanted, exactly when he pleased.

The same pattern of presumption also characterized his public life. He constantly struggled with his bosses in the Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower Administrations, incapable of really working for anyone else. Once elected Governor of New York, Rockefeller alternately bullied and used “gifts” from his store of wealth to get state legislators to pass his agenda. While this agenda often was tied to large expansions of government, Smith notes, he was no consistent, philosophical liberal. Instead, he enlisted his formidable will to power to drive through whatever he wanted, when he wanted it. Pondering why he wanted what he wanted did not take up much of his time.

This arrogance marred his three presidential campaigns. Each time, Rockefeller dawdled in his pursuit of the presidency, bypassing open appeals for delegates in favor of waiting for the brokers who then dominated conventions to come to him. Smith shows that the one significant primary he ever won, Oregon’s 1964 race, was largely secured by a staffer’s ingenuity and his rivals’ decision to bypass the state.

Rockefeller’s sense of entitlement rather than his episodic liberalism is primarily why movement conservatives detested him, and this shows what really animates the conservative movement. By the mid-1960s, the Eastern WASP caste that had dominated the GOP since the Civil War no longer held automatic sway. In the face of an America no longer riven by Civil War-era loyalties, with an immigrant class now educated and wealthy enough to contest the elite’s stranglehold on political power, the Republican establishment offered…nothing. As Smith notes, “[A] century after Lincoln’s fiery trial, six decades after Theodore Roosevelt’s zealous trust-busting, Republican moderation had come to be defined by a blandly utilitarian standard ‘Does it work?’” Quoting the late journalist Robert Novak, Smith says that Rockefeller and his fellow GOP moderates ultimately lost “because they had nothing to offer the people but themselves.”

Movement conservatism is best understood in its origins as an alliance opposed to this elitism. Each component faction of that conservatism—and, paceRichardson, there are several—believed the liberal-labor alliance that dominated politics between 1950 and 1980 was imposing on America an alien way of life. These factions’ followings also tended to consist of the types of people often marginalized by the eastern WASPocracy: Catholics, Southerners, and rural and small town Midwesterners. They knew they were not the “extremists” decried by Rockefeller and his ilk; they were certainly as mainstream American as the eastern elite, and their views would no longer go unheard.

These warring tribes were finally brought together under one banner in the mid-1960s by National Review editor Frank Meyer. His policy of fusionism essentially created a confederation in which each conservative element agreed to aid the other against a common foe, defined as excessive government power and the coerced alteration of American social mores at home, and the spread of communism abroad.

This alliance served conservatism well for decades. Once the Soviet Union fell and the specter of communist tyranny vanished, however, it became harder for conservatives to agree on what types of power were excessive and what social changes were coercive rather than naturally arising from the evolution of society toward more specialization and complexity. The increasingly bitter internecine warfare on the Right since the fall of the Berlin Wall arises from this debate.

Now that conservative Republicans hold more political power than at any time since the Great Depression, their need for a firmer self-definition has never been greater. Failure to agree on what conservatism is for means that conservatives risk frittering away their power on diversions and ideological crusades. The swing voters who put the GOP in power on account of their opposition to Obama would quickly swing back to a less aggressive version of liberalism.

That said, one need not search far to find a unifying principle, for it was present at conservatism’s founding. Rhetorical opposition to government expansion was always a means; the end was always the restoration of the principle of equality to its rightful place at the center of American political life.

We can see this by looking at what Ronald Reagan said fifty years ago in his pivotal speech “A Time for Choosing”, which so excited conservatives. For Reagan, the “issue of this election [was] whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” This, not the repeal of every program or regulation legislated in the prior fifty years, was the fulcrum of his cause.

We see this plainly when we come to the middle of Reagan’s speech, where he explained what conservatives were for. He chose to emphasize how conservatives would respond to the problem of poverty in old age. A proto-libertarian solution would be to say that the Federal government had neither the power nor the competence to do anything to address this problem. Reagan rejected that course. Instead, Reagan said conservatives were for using the Federal government to address the real problem, but were opposed to using the problem as a cloak to advance social uniformity and control. Conservatives were for “a provision that destitution should not follow unemployment by reason of old age”, and this included “accept[ing] Social Security as a step toward meeting the problem.” Reagan also said, at a time when Medicare did not yet exist, that conservatives were for “telling our senior citizens that no one in this country should be denied medical care because of a lack of funds.”

These sentiments—government exists not to tell us how to live, but to help us to live—constitute Lincolnism updated for the modern age. In Lincoln’s time, the primary threat to human dignity and equality came from a slave power that openly denied those principles. In Theodore Roosevelt’s time, the primary threat came from an economic power that implicitly denied those principles through its harsh treatment of workers. In Reagan’s time, conservatives believed that the primary threat to human dignity and equality came from two sources: an authoritarian power overseas which proclaimed that equality could only be achieved through dictatorship, and an authoritarian-minded power at home that too often advanced its own interests and desires under the guise of advancing those of others.

The task conservatives face now is how to apply these enduring principles to today’s problems. This means much more than echoing the platform of Reagan’s 1980 campaign. It means looking at how the country and its challenges have changed since then, and creating an agenda that meets today’s needs. The American economy, for example, has dramatically changed since 1980. Then, restoring growth meant that all shared in the increased wealth. By 2007, however, this was no longer true. The top tax rate was cut during George W. Bush’s first term, yet Americans with less than a four-year college degree saw their median income decline during the 2003–07 period after the tax cut took full effect. Americans of all educational backgrounds in their peak working years, between the ages of 35 and 54, saw their incomes stagnate or decline during the same period. Something about the American economy had changed in ways such that what worked in the 1980s did not lift all households’ boats in the new century.

These changes have also made more native-born, lower-skilled Americans reliant on Federal programs. Food-stamp use rose dramatically during the Bush Administration, partly because wage stagnation made more working-class Americans eligible for assistance. Low-income families earning too much to qualify for Medicaid also turned to government for health insurance for their children. Accordingly, expenditures on the State Children’s Health Insurance Program rose more than 250 percent between 2001 and 2008. Applications for Social Security Disability Insurance also skyrocketed by almost 50 percent between 2001 and 2004 and remained at record high levels throughout the Bush-era recovery. According to the New York Times, 20 percent of the increase in men not working since 2000 is due not to unemployment but to disability (whether realistically defined or not is another question). Disability benefit receipt is the single largest cause for the increase in male non-work for those fifty and over.

Changing political circumstances compound the conservative challenge. Accurately or not, most voters today see the terms “conservative” and “Republican” as interchangeable. This is far from true: Today’s GOP, like all American political parties, is composed of many factions. Even a united conservative movement would comprise only about half of consistent Republican voters, fewer in presidential nominating contests that attract less partisan, more moderate participants. This view does, however, mean that some of the traditional, negative images of Republicans as largely representing the rich and big business now taint movement conservatism as well.

Mitt Romney lost in 2012 not because he wasn’t conservative enough, but because he was perceived as uncaring. According to exit polls, 21 percent of Americans thought the most important characteristic in a President is that he “cares about people like me.” Romney lost those voters by 63 percent—81 percent to 18 percent—though he carried all other voters by double digits.

Romney and Republicans are also perceived as supporting policies that would benefit the rich. Some 53 percent of voters thought Romney’s policies would primarily benefit the rich, and he lost these voters by 77 percent. Furthermore, 55 percent thought America’s economic system unfairly favors the rich, a sentiment that has only deepened since 2012. Indeed, in a survey of all fifty states conducted this fall by YouGov, a plurality of respondents in every state believed our economic system unfairly favors the rich. A majority of voters in even the most staunchly Republican states, and more than 60 percent in all swing states, also agreed.

Ronald Reagan did not simply reprise Barry Goldwater’s 1964 agenda in his 1980 campaign. Today’s conservatives must follow Reagan’s example and reapply their principles to meet today’s economic and political realities. This has to involve directly taking on the perception that conservatives are in the pocket of the wealthy. Both the tax code and the Federal budget send tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars each year to already successful people or corporations. Perhaps the most egregious example is Federal crop insurance, in which taxpayers subsidize most of the premiums for wealthy farmers so they can prevent their record-high incomes from dropping. On this point conservatives should follow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who recently declared that he would not support touching entitlements unless corporate subsidies were tackled first, and they should make that a centerpiece of their agenda.

Conservatives must also propose tax code revisions that make sense to and for the average voter. While reducing tax rates on those in the top bracket may make economic sense, making that the centerpiece of conservative tax policy runs counter to current political reality. Instead, conservatives should advocate reducing or repealing the 1.45 percent payroll tax that all working Americans pay to partially support Medicare. The lost revenue can be recovered by earmarking the cuts discussed above to support Medicare.

Conservatives can also revive proposals they made during the debate over the Medicare prescription drug plan to means-test Medicare premiums. Increasing co-pays and premiums for well-off seniors is fair if they can afford the increases. Reducing the payroll tax, on the other hand, helps the working and middle classes in two ways: It directly gives them money they can use to support themselves; and it will increase hiring by lowering the marginal cost of adding new employees.

Conservative economic policy should also focus more on increasing natural resource development, especially for oil and natural gas. The states with the largest increases in employment and wages since the Great Recession are those in which fracking has caused oil and natural gas exploration to skyrocket. Federal environmental laws and other restrictions keep many resources off-limits. Lifting or reforming many of these constraints will bring the sort of economic development that has fueled the economies of Australia and Canada for years.

Cutting spending should be on the conservative agenda, but should focus on reforming programs that exact the highest social and budgetary costs for the fewest benefits. In recent years, such programs increasingly are those that have unwittingly encouraged low-skilled people to leave the workforce or remain in economically stagnant regions. Disability insurance programs are primus inter pares on this list. Caseloads have exploded in the past 15 years, driving the cost of the government’s disability programs through the roof. Together, the main Federal programs that serve the disabled spend nearly $500 billion annually, or nearly 3 percent of GDP, on benefits or services for disabled people. Many of these people are truly disabled, but increasingly many are people who can work but find it difficult to locate jobs in their areas that pay more after-tax than disability benefits do.

Such people would be helped more by adopting a “work first” approach to disability that mirrors the welfare reform of the 1990s. The Federal government can offer rehabilitation, mental health services, or other support that will allow them to make a go of it in the labor market. They could also be required to take paying jobs that are less remunerative than the ones they lost, but have those skimpier paychecks temporarily subsidized to cushion the blow. The goal would be to keep people working who, for reasons mostly outside of their control, find it difficult to stay employed.

Other Federal programs inadvertently keep people tied to stagnant economic areas. Recipients of Section 8 housing vouchers, for example, get their stipends from local housing authorities. These are not portable, so it makes little economic sense for recipients to move to a more economically vibrant area unless they automatically make more than the value of the lost voucher plus any other assistance. Medicaid is also not portable across state lines: Medicaid recipients would lose their insurance and have to reapply in their new state if they moved to seek work. No wonder we find pools of out-of-work men and women in our large, declining cities or in Appalachia at the same time as we observe massive labor shortages in growing areas. Reforming these and other programs to focus on place rather than people could help Americans get jobs and pull themselves out of poverty.

Unemployment compensation could also be reformed to encourage relocation. People receiving unemployment insurance are required to search for jobs, but only in places within a 90-minute commute. In too many regions, there simply aren’t many jobs to find. If state programs were linked in a national job search database, however, people could find out whether moving would be worth their while. The tax code could also be reformed to provide low-skilled workers with refundable tax credits if they need to move to get off unemployment or to take a higher-paying job. Higher-skilled workers already get a similar subsidy through their ability to deduct moving expenses above the line from their taxable income, but few low-skilled workers make enough to pay income tax, much less benefit from this deduction. A moving tax credit could spur labor force mobility, put Americans into jobs, and reduce the overall taxpayer burden. This is the sort of conservative, practical reform that both Reagan and Rockefeller could have agreed upon.

Health care policy, meanwhile, should be focused on extending coverage in private markets while simultaneously deregulating them so that providers are freed to compete more on value for price. There are many conservative alternatives to Obamacare that could accomplish this. The prudent Republican nominee would parse all of them and present his own version that would help the private sector do for health care what it does best: provide a product people want at a price everyone can afford.

Education policy should also be part of this agenda. Too many students are being pushed into expensive colleges from which they are unlikely to graduate. When they drop out, their student loans burden their futures as much or more than the tuition hikes the media likes to focus on. Conservatives can extend their passion for deregulation to higher education, pushing for reforms that make traditional college cheaper for students who seek only professional instruction. They can also extend eligibility for Federal education grants so that professional programs that do not offer a terminal degree, such as on-the-job learning, can qualify. The idea would be to fund people, not programs, teaching, not tenure.

These and other policies would adapt traditional conservative and Republican principles to today’s needs. They would do what Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan did in their times: offer average people direct help that gives them a hand up. Doing so helps people help themselves, which further assists them in developing the quiet dignity that is the hallmark of a happy life. Focusing on their needs also pays them the respect from political authority that most people think has been withheld for far too long.

These policies also directly address conservative Republicans’ political challenge without sacrificing principles. This type of focused agenda can show people that conservative Republicans really do care about people like them. It would also show that the GOP is not focused on an ideology that values the rich first and merely hopes that some of their wealth trickles down to the masses. It would show that the GOP values the real work every person performs every day, and wants to make it easier for each person to perform it.

As Richardson’s and Smith’s work shows, conservative Republicanism is often seen as a backward-looking force in American political life. The truth is, or certainly can be, quite the opposite. Following in the tradition of Reagan, in the Party of Lincoln, reformed conservatism can offer America its best chance to resume its role as the “last, best hope of men on earth.”

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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