Former senator and Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole had some harsh words for his political party recently. In a Fox News Sunday interview, Chris Wallace asked, “You describe the GOP of your generation as Eisenhower Republicans, moderate Republicans. Could people like Bob Dole, even Ronald Reagan—could you make it in today’s Republican party?” Dole replied, “I doubt it. Reagan wouldn’t have made it. Certainly Nixon couldn’t have made it, ’cause he had ideas. We might have made it, but I doubt it.”
Left-wing commentators, sensing an opportunity, swooped in to feign sorrow about the state of their political opponents. The problem, argued the New York Times editorial page, is not simply that the GOP has shifted rightward; the party is no longer capable of constructive governance. A “furiously oppositional Republican party” has “mainstream conservatives like Mr. Dole and Senator John McCain shaking their heads in disgust.” Republicans “want to dismantle government, using whatever crowbar happens to be handy, and they don’t particularly care what traditions of mutual respect get smashed at the same time.”
Meanwhile, at the Washington Post, blogger Ezra Klein argued, “Over the last few years, the Republican party has been retreating from policy ground they once held and salting the earth after them. This has coincided with, and perhaps even been driven by, the Democratic party pushing into policy positions they once rejected as overly conservative.”
Is the left-wing accurately analyzing the problems of the right-wing? For that matter, does Bob Dole understand his own party?
The idea that the GOP has shifted rightward over the last several generations is dubious at best. Consider the behavior of House Republicans during the Great Society Congress of 1965-66. That Congress produced Medicare and Medicaid, federal funding for education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and more. On item after item, Republicans in the House opposed or tried to alter drastically these measures. In fact, none other than Bob Dole—then a representative from Kansas—was a regular vote against President Lyndon Johnson’s major reforms. Along with a majority of his own caucus, he voted against Medicare. He voted to reduce spending in LBJ’s war on poverty and retain state authority over funds. He voted against federal funding of elementary and secondary schools. He voted to cut spending for housing assistance. He voted to cut highway beautification programs. He voted to delay implementation of a new minimum wage floor. And so on.
History likewise suggests a skeptical verdict on another liberal complaint of the modern age—that Republicans used to be reliable supporters of the very sorts of programs President Barack Obama has been promulgating. Congressional Republicans opposed Harry Truman’s universal health care program after the 1948 election; Dwight Eisenhower himself disliked it. They opposed Ted Kennedy’s late-1970s proposal. They opposed Bill Clinton’s universal care plan in 1994. As for Obama’s massive 2009 stimulus, Republicans in 1993 successfully filibustered a stimulus that cost a tenth of Obama’s proposal. Leading the charge for the GOP that time? Senate minority leader Bob Dole.
Clinton’s struggles with congressional Republicans during the 103rd Congress of 1993-94 induced from the president a lament that should sound familiar to contemporary ears: He and his advisers were the true “Eisenhower Republicans”; the GOP had gone radically off the cliff. After the 1994 midterm elections, the Republicans gained control of Congress and forced a government shutdown over a budget impasse, surely a sign of the disregard for “traditions of mutual respect” that the Times is now tut-tutting over.
Liberal Democrats of the past—far from admiring Republicans for their inherent moderation and good sense—were well aware of the GOP’s tendency to oppose their ideas, which helps explain why the New York Times has not endorsed a Republican presidential nominee in more than half a century. In its endorsement of Bob Dole’s opponent, the paper declared Bill Clinton could offer “protection from Republican excess.” Sound familiar? Of the welfare reform bill of 1996, which Bob Dole helped shepherd through the Senate, the Times editorial board—in a piece headlined “A Sad Day for Poor Children”—bemoaned, “This is not reform, it is punishment.” It denounced the “harsh cut in food stamps,” the “extreme cuts in benefits for disabled children,” the “devastating” impact on cities. The paper derided the bill as “not fair” and “not humane.”
This jaunt through the last half-century suggests that in some respects Republicans have actually moved leftward over the years. Not on every issue, of course; the GOP can still be counted on to oppose Democrat-drafted pork barrel spending gussied up as “stimulus” and liberal designs for universal health care. But when they had complete control over the federal government from 2003 through 2007, Republicans did not eliminate the Department of Housing and Urban Development. They did not ditch Medicare Parts A and B. In fact, for the fiscal years when the GOP had total control of the budget-drafting process, discretionary nondefense spending averaged 3.8 percent of gross domestic product, about what it was during the Great Society and higher than during the Clinton years.
Here, Republicans have mostly followed public opinion. As the American people have come to accept and expect an enhanced role for the federal government in daily life, the GOP has more or less signed off—exactly what we should expect it to do, considering that the main purpose of the party is to win elections.
So why are liberals complaining about the GOP’s lurch rightward in recent years? One obvious explanation is the “mobilization of bias.” You cannot win elections in this country as a radical; ergo, if liberals can successfully tag Republicans as radicals, then they can effectively eliminate the GOP as a competitor.
Another explanation concerns the rise of House Republicans, now the most dominant faction of the GOP within the government. For 40 years, between 1955 and 1995, the House GOP was a minority, even as Republicans won the White House and eventually the Senate. But since 1995, House Republicans have controlled the speaker’s gavel for all but four years, while Democrats have actually held the presidency for most of these years and the two sides have roughly split control of the Senate.
House Republicans are much more unruly, but a cursory read of the Federalist Papers suggests that this probably has as much to do with the nature of the House as with the nature of the GOP. Indeed, back in 1990, during the supposedly halcyon days of temperate, moderate Republican rule, it was the House GOP that stymied George H. W. Bush’s attempts to pass a bipartisan deficit reduction deal that included tax hikes, and in the end Bush had to cut a deal almost entirely with Democratic support. Current House Republicans also balk at tax hikes for deficit reduction.
But there may be a third, more subtle trend working its way through the political system, one that is acutely influencing Republicans, especially on the House backbench. At the height of the Great Society, polling found that more than 70 percent of Americans trusted the government to do the right thing “just about always” or “most of the time.” But with the Vietnam war, followed by the scandals of the Nixon administration, then the incompetence of the Carter administration, that number plummeted to 25 percent by 1980. Several years of solid governance, from Ronald Reagan to the elder George Bush to Clinton, helped it rebound to about 45 percent by the 2000 election. But after a brief spike following the attacks on 9/11, trust in the government has once again declined. A Pew poll taken in January found the percentage of people who mostly trust the government to be a pathetic 26 percent, while 73 percent mostly distrust it.
The public is responding rationally to the manifest failure of the federal government to keep up its end of the implicit bargain politicians struck with their constituents. For all its regulatory expansiveness, the government failed to anticipate the economic collapse of 2008. Despite the warnings of budget gurus everywhere, it has failed to get its long-term fiscal house in order. Even as it hands out billions of dollars to special interest groups, it has failed to attend to the people’s most pressing problems. The IRS scandal suggests that the government is not even capable of respecting the most basic tenets of the rule of law.
No wonder House Republican backbenchers, elected in 2010, are skeptical about the viability of the political settlement hammered out across the presidencies of FDR, LBJ, and Reagan. The bipartisan regime of low taxes, high spending, and sensible regulation that has governed politics since the New Deal is crumbling, slowly but surely. It is House Republicans who seem to have intuited this most clearly.
Of course, backbench House members are not the driving force of government, per the design of the Framers. It remains to be seen how the Republican party as a whole will deal with the nation’s growing cynicism and crumbling political economy. In the meantime, it is easy to appreciate why those most dedicated to the status quo—like the New York Times editorial page—would be aghast at doubters, such as some House Republicans, and would readily identify them as the cause, rather than a consequence, of the government’s problems.
The future is largely uncertain, but there are a few points to be confident about. For starters, conservative Republicans will continue to oppose liberal Democrats, just as they have for generations. This opposition will be most intense in the House of Representatives. Liberal Democrats will vent their frustration using invectives like “radical” and “dangerous.” They will dutifully forget that old Republicans similarly appalled previous generations of left-wing reformers, and they will long for the good old days when the GOP was sensible and moderate. Thus, in 30 years, wherever the nation finds itself, we can rest assured that the New York Times will bemoan the leadership of the GOP and look back longingly at the tenures of Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.