The Magazine

Specter of Change

Lessons from a defection.

May 11, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 32 • By NOEMIE EMERY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The numbers say everything: Over recent decades, about a third of the population has self-described as conservative; just under half as moderate; while liberals come in at a little over one-fifth. This shows the strength of the conservative movement, in that it outpolls the liberals and, when combined with the large number of right-leaning moderates, can frequently reach a majority. But it also reveals its critical weakness: It is unable to push its own numbers beyond this one-third. This failure is the source of constant frustration to the movement, because it has to bargain with people it thinks "unreliable," who may stand with it on one set of issues and wander away on the next.

This is true of McCain, of Lindsey Graham, even more of the ladies from Maine, and of no one more than their former colleague Arlen Specter, who is with them on card check but against them on the stimulus package; against them on the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987, but with them as a stalwart on the equally contentious matter of Clarence Thomas. The problem for conservatives is that in the states that these senators come from, on-and-off backing is all they are likely to get. They can rail at the "unreliables" as RINOs (Republicans in Name Only), but this is a misnomer, as the Republicans are not in fact the conservative party. They are the party of the center-right, including those who are about one-eighth of an inch to the right of the center. Olympia Snowe doesn't owe her seat to conservative activists, but to the people of Maine, who elected her and presumably like what she's doing. If conservatives can't make their case to the people of Maine, it's a problem for them, not for Snowe and her voters. The alternative to her is not some idealized conservative activist. It's someone who never votes with them at all.

American political parties have never been uniform, much less monolithic, and shifting alliances on different issues are hardly unknown. The Democratic party of the FDR era included the worst segregationists and the civil rights movement, crypto-communists and southern reactionaries, and it saw the country through the Great Depression and the worst war in history, while electing Roosevelt four different times. Parties succeed when they group a large diverse crowd around a few major -values. They fail when they spend more time pounding heretics than selling their principles.

What can conservatives do, if they want to extend their dominion? They might stop holding up Ronald Reagan as a shield and an icon and look instead at what Reagan did. He was a movement conservative and a movement leader, but he was also a politician, and a builder of party, who understood how a movement fit into a party, and how a party could move a movement ahead. Coalition destruction was not on his agenda. "He set out to run as the candidate of party unity, reaching out to Republican moderates, especially in the Northeast," as his biographer Steven F. Hayward has written. In 1978, when his aide Jeffrey Bell ran a Club for Growth-style primary challenge to liberal Republican Clifford Case of New Jersey, Reagan refused to intervene in Bell's favor, and when Bell won, he did not rub it in, but hailed it mainly as a win for the Kemp-Roth tax cut, which had been Bell's main issue. (Bell lost to Democrat Bill Bradley that fall.)

Reagan made it clear that his party had to grow beyond its old country club image, but when it came time to choose a vice president, he reached out to two country club moderates, Pennsylvania's Richard Schweiker in 1976 and George H.W. Bush four years later. Yet in his remarkable speech of February 1977, on the "New Republican Party," he said the party would also have to reach out to blue collar social conservatives, and recruit them "as leaders and as candidates."

Reagan would have seen Sarah Palin as an asset and not an embarrassment. He did not consider the party an embarrassment either, but the only mechanism through which the ideals of movement could ever be implemented. "The biggest single grouping of conservatives is to be found in that party. It makes more sense to build on that grouping than to break it up and start over," he said to those who suggested that option. "Conservatism is not a narrow ideology, nor is it the exclusive property of conservative activists," he said to an audience of exactly those activists.