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Tales of Woe

The myth of a powerful Republican establishment.

Mar 5, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 24 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Late in 2003, Charles Krauthammer coined the phrase “Bush Derangement Syndrome” to describe the rage of the left at our 43rd president, a loathing so intense that when the president was reelected his anguished opponents needed grief therapy simply to cope. This morphed in time into Palin Derangement, which infected the elites of both parties. And now some on the right have come down with a similar affliction​—​Establishment, and/or RINO Derangement​—​the belief that a Republican party elite is conspiring against them and is behind all of their woes. The symptoms are a sense of intense persecution along with one of perpetual grievance, and a feeling of having been wronged by unscrupulous people, endowed with magical powers that allow them all too often to triumph, in spite of their being so wrong. Out of this has grown a series of what Mona Charen calls fables designed to make the victims feel better and avoid looking hard at their vulnerabilities. This may work in the sense of affording condolence. But the myths are simply not true.

Photo of the Ronald Reagan Republican Center

Myth number one is that in every presidential election since 1984 (when Ronald Reagan ran for the last time) conservatives have been held down and forced to suffer the torments of Hades as one inept RINO (Republican In Name Only) squish after another has been shoved down their throats. George H. W. Bush won once but paved the way for Bill Clinton by breaking his pledge not to raise taxes. Bob Dole lost, taking the glow off the 1994 midterms. George W. Bush won, and then won again, but spent too much money, wasn’t really conservative, and led congressional Republicans astray. Then the RINO par excellence, John McCain, failed to succeed him and gave us Obama’s long night.

All of these men, of course, were challenged in primary contests by a legion of more conservative figures, who fought to derail them and failed: The elder Bush was challenged by Jack Kemp, Pierre du Pont, and Pat Robertson (and by Pat Buchanan, in 1992); Bob Dole by Phil Gramm, Steve Forbes, and Buchanan; the younger George Bush by Orrin Hatch, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes, and Gary Bauer; McCain by Mike Huckabee (a social conservative), Mitt Romney (a fiscal conservative), Rudy Giuliani (a law-and-order conservative, though a social libertarian), and Fred Thompson, a total conservative who ran rather less well than them all. 

Save for 2008, when all the contenders were serious (and four of the five were distrusted by movement conservatives), the “establishment” candidates were far more credentialed than their conservative challengers (save for Kemp, Gramm, and Hatch, who never gained traction). George Bush the elder had been a congressman, director of the CIA, and ambassador before serving two terms as vice president; Dole had been Senate majority leader and a congressional fixture; George W. Bush the younger, a successful governor of one of the biggest states in the Union; and McCain was a multi-term senator, widely seen as a leader on defense and foreign affairs. By contrast, their challengers tended to be vanity candidates, preachers and pundits, people who might be seen as trying to raise their profiles or lecture fees, activists for one or more boutique causes, people whose time to shine had long vanished, and those whose time never came.

The 2012 primary campaign has been an exaggerated version of this dynamic, with one credentialed ex-moderate running against a social conservative who served only five years in the House, a marketing whiz who was a political half-wit, a former speaker dethroned by his caucus, an ex-senator who lost his last race by 18 points, a 76-year-old member of the House with an eccentric agenda, and a four-term Texas governor whose résumé was impressive, but who tripped over his tongue and his feet. It took no manipulation by sinister forces to eliminate most of them. Conservatives did run, but not the best of them. This was not a dark RINO plot.

Was there ever a case of a thumb being put on the scale for an establishment candidate? Yes, it turns out that there was. In 1980, Reagan chose the elder George Bush as his running mate to win over the country club voters, and this mixed ticket won. Eight years passed, and Bush began running for president, presenting himself as Reagan’s helpmeet, successor, and heir. Running against him was Jack Kemp, who was a much closer fit with the Reagan agenda, but Reagan could not disown his loyal vice president. His lack of endorsement was fatal to Kemp, who always believed it was Bush’s positioning of himself as Reagan’s legitimate heir that sucked the air out of his campaign. This not only led to the first Bush presidency but inspired Bush’s two elder sons to enter what was becoming the family business. As a result, a generation later, people are still discussing the possibility of a third Bush as president. And who kickstarted this so-called establishment dynasty? None other than Reagan himself.

Myth number two is that George W. Bush almost destroyed the conservative movement, first by running as a bleeding heart or “compassionate conservative” and then by spending too much once he was in office, trashing the brands of the cause and the party, and leading to setbacks in 2006 and 2008. But in 2000 he ran as a compassionate conservative because the original kind had worn out its welcome. Clinton’s triangulation had pushed politics back to the center, the economy was booming, and aggressive cost-cutting was not in vogue. In fact, it might have been a distinct liability. As National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru has pointed out, “Republicans were more popular in Bush’s first term, when they were expanding entitlements, than in his second term, when they were trying to reform one. .  .  . His expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs .  .  . was overwhelmingly popular. .  .  . It’s hard to believe that Bush would have won Florida in 2000 without promising to match the Democrats on the issue, or that he would have won Ohio in 2004 without having made good on the promise.”

Spending was not an issue in the 2006 or 2008 elections, and did not become one until later, when Barack Obama’s tripling of the debt and expansion of government forced it front and center, and the collapse of the eurozone made it clear that the welfare state as known in the West was approaching the end of its tether. The GOP took a pounding in the 2006 midterms, but largely because of Mark Foley, Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, Hurricane Katrina, and the fact that 2006 was the worst year, and October 2006 the worst month, in Iraq since the war started. The party took a bath again in 2008 because Lehman Brothers collapsed in September, almost bringing down the Western financial system with it​—​an event traceable less to Bush in particular than to both parties’ connivance in the housing bubble, a disaster that no party in power could have hoped to survive. 

Small-government conservatives may have been seething for a long time before their anger erupted in 2009, but until then they were merely one part of a large coalition, and it took the financial collapse and Obama’s big spending to put the size-of-government issue front and center in the public mind. Their critiques would have been more convincing had they been made while Bush was president, and not after the fact and in retrospect, when it was a lot more convenient and easy to do.

Myth number three is the belief that McCain ran and lost in 2008 as a moderate, failing as promised to win independents, and losing an election a conservative should have been able to win. But in fact he did a remarkable job in a difficult year​—​people were war-weary, and all parties have trouble holding the White House for more than two terms in succession​—​drawing close to Obama through most of the summer, and pulling ahead with independents in early September, before the financial implosion kicked in. At the time of the financial implosion on September 15, McCain was leading in all the key swing states (some of which Bush had lost in both his elections) and among swing voters, who were moving in his direction. But after the economic crisis, he quickly lost ground and never regained it, losing independents by 8 points, and losing most of the states that had been in his column, including some that had not gone Democratic in years. Most of the losses came in states which had large cities surrounded by large, wealthy suburbs, in which real estate values and stock market holdings had fallen most sharply, suggesting that circumstances and not ideology were a key driver.

To conservatives, this proved that Republicans should never nominate anything less than a true-blue believer, but it may prove only that having a financial meltdown less than two months before an election when you hold the White House is really bad planning. And who really believes that they can hold power forever, when history shows us that control of the White House tends to turn over in fairly regular swings?

Myth number four is that moderates are losers, going back to the election of 1948, when northeastern moderate Thomas E. Dewey was chosen over Robert A. Taft to face Franklin Roosevelt and then Harry Truman, and lost. But there is no reason to think that Taft would have done any better, and a look at history after this happened suggests that this theory is wrong. In the next two elections Dwight Eisenhower won twice as an Eisenhower Republican (in other words, as a moderate) and became very popular; Richard Nixon won twice and governed to the left of John Kennedy; Ronald Reagan of course won twice as a Reagan conservative (i.e., as a real one); George H.W. Bush won once and lost once as an establishmentarian; and George W. Bush won twice as, according to Democrats, a ferocious right-winger, according to his friends, a compassionate conservative, and to his foes in his party, a big-spending, big-government squish. Around and between them, Nixon lost once as Ike’s heir and vice president, Barry Goldwater lost as an ultra-conservative, Gerald Ford lost as a moderate (and victim of Watergate), Bob Dole lost as a sort of acerbic Main Street Republican, and John McCain lost as a maverick in a star-crossed and difficult year. 

So, keeping score, Reagan won two landslides as a movement conservative, but nonconservatives managed to win seven times, with Eisenhower, Nixon, and George W. Bush being elected to two terms apiece, and Bush the elder elected to one. The right holds up Reagan’s two landslides as proof that conservatism is electoral magic, but the fact remains that in all of our history he is the only movement conservative to have been crowned with success on the national scene. And he was in some ways an anomaly, having been a celebrity before running for office and an ex-liberal, who voted four times for Franklin D. Roosevelt and used New Deal language in making his case. He was also a monster political talent (as had been Roosevelt), succeeding a failed president of the opposite party at a time when the failures of the other side’s theories had painfully come to the fore.

Seeing election results through the ideological lens flattens out and omits other dimensions, whose role in the outcomes is equally great. Circumstance matters: In 1964, the country was still in the shadow of Kennedy’s murder; 1968 was roiled by violence; in 1976 Ford carried the anvil of Watergate; and 1964 and 1972 each featured candidates whose ideas were so far removed from the national mainstream that two of the least pleasant figures in history won epic landslides (and then lost favor not long after that). In more normal years, the edge goes to the larger political talent, who understands the fine points of coalition assembly, and excels at the art of rapport. Eisenhower was a better campaigner than Adlai E. Stevenson; Kennedy was better at connect-and-inspire than Nixon; Reagan much more so than Carter or Mondale; George H.W. Bush was more so than Michael Dukakis, though neither excelled. And he was less so than Bill Clinton, one of the more extravagant natural talents, who also was better than Dole. Barack Obama was a brilliant natural candidate (whatever one thinks of his tenure as president), whose hope and change mantra (and lack of specifics) put away two more-battleworn veterans, his primary rival, Hillary Clinton, and of course John McCain.

If there is one guarantor of conservative triumph, it appears to be liberal failure or overreach: Jimmy Carter plus the Great Society blues paved the way for the two Reagan landslides; Bill Clinton’s first two years’ overreach (and failure of health care) for the 1994 Congress; Obama’s first two years’ overreach (and the passage of health care) for the Tea Party Congress of 2010. The next time a movement conservative rails against Dole or McCain for having lost as a “moderate,” he ought to be asked to name a contemporary conservative he thinks could have won against talents such as Obama and Clinton in circumstances that favored the Democrats. Many conservatives ran against both men, and failed to convince even a Republican primary audience of their superior theories and gifts.

Myth number five is the contemporary one used by the right to explain the unhappy state of the current Republican primary contest: the idea that Romney and/or his establishment allies have managed on purpose to split the non-Romney vote, enabling the dreaded Establishment Moderate to worm his way up to the top. Oddly enough, Chris Matthews seems also to believe this, as he told his six viewers on the cable network Republicans refer to as MSDLC: “I can’t win the hearts and minds of Republicans, but I can keep them divided,” he imagines Mitt Romney as thinking. “I can make sure the evangelicals get their day with Santorum, that the libertarians get their say with Ron Paul.” In this, Matthews is on the same page as Rush Limbaugh, who told his vastly larger audience that this indeed was the case. “The Republican establishment is trying to split the conservative vote among all the other conservative candidates,” he said in December. “The Gingriches, Bachmann, Perry, Santorum .  .  . they’re dividing that vote.”

That “they” managed to do this was declared with assurance, though the mechanics of how this was managed were never described. Did “they” first discourage all of the stronger conservatives? Did they go to all the non-Romneys early last year, and, knowing that each had a following and yet was too weak to dominate the others, convince them their moment was now? And once all were in, how was a proper balance maintained? If one were too strong, he would dominate, and become a genuine threat and contender. If some were too weak, they would be forced to drop out, or cease to drain the right number of votes from the others. This had to be handled with infinite cunning: A false move made in either direction and the entire grand scheme would implode. 

It’s one thing to say this dynamic has helped Romney​—​it has​—​or that it’s what he would do if he did have the power​—​he undoubtedly would​—​and another thing entirely to say that he does have the power, and did. As Jim Geraghty notes, movement conservatives tend to believe that their base is larger than that of the moderates (as well as more virtuous) and that their ideas are more popular; hence defeat in a fair fight is not possible. Thus if they lose, the fight must not be fair, and there must be a reason. If no reason seems clear, then one must be invented. Hence the belief in strange plots.

Hence the belief that an establishment, as opposed to mere voters, must have foisted Dole, McCain, and Bush père et fils on a helpless Republican party, and now plans to do this again. But this is a whole lot of foisting, and bypasses two critical things. One is that there is no evidence of any foisting since 1968, when Democratic insiders gave their nomination to Hubert H. Humphrey after the murder of Robert F. Kennedy, a show of muscle and arrogance that led to changes in both major parties that have made it next to impossible for anyone to do the same again. Since then, potential nominees have foisted themselves on the voters, often to the dismay of their party leaders, flooding the zone with eccentric, unlikely, and vanity candidacies, and leaving it to voters to sort the wheat from the chaff. Party elites, who would give all their teeth for the chance to foist anything, have been forced to gesticulate from the sidelines, while Howard Dean, Herman Cain, Jesse Jackson, Dennis Kucinich, and Pats Buchanan and Robertson disported themselves in the main arena. What’s a poor foister to do?

Not much apparently, as shown by the story thus far. For months on end, “establishment” figures have busted their guts trying to push other establishment figures, many of them well to the right of Mitt Romney, by hook or crook into the race. In fact, a field picked by the Republican establishment would probably be more conservative than the one that we have, featuring the likes of John Thune, Paul Ryan, Mitch Daniels, and Tea Party star Marco Rubio, as well as entitlement-cutter Chris Christie. And the GOP “establishment” is not what it was. In South Carolina, the establishment is Jim DeMint, Tim Scott, and Nikki Haley, all Tea Party figures. None did a thing to stop Romney, and Haley endorsed him. In Florida, Marco Rubio, a true-blue conservative and a Tea Party hero, a protégé of Jeb Bush (from the establishment), did not endorse anyone, but made himself useful to Romney. If you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, you frequently can’t tell the teams either, as they keep changing and trading players and sides. This makes it incredibly hard to sustain a conspiracy.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.

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