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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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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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