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Morning Jay: Leave Ike Out of It!

6:00 AM, Aug 19, 2011 • By JAY COST
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Check out this short clip from MSNBC’s Hardball  (h/t Allahpundit):

Howard Fineman: Dwight Eisenhower couldn't exist in the current Republican party, where Rick Perry is saying, "My job if I'm president is to reduce the federal government to insignificance." He couldn't get from Lubbock to Dallas without the federal government! He couldn't! Somebody's got to tell him that there's an interstate highway system!

Chris Matthews: By the way, Eisenwowher was the one who brought federal troops into Little Rock. Do you think Rick Perry would for that? Do you think he'd be cheering for Ike today as he brought the troops in to desegregate the schools in Little Rock? I don't think so!

For starters, I just can’t get over how liberals in a city with such stark de facto segregation preen about how morally superior they are to conservatives because of de jure segregation that was outlawed two generations ago. This is a toxic brew of hypocrisy and ignorance.

But what I really want to talk about today is the notion that past Republican leaders – like Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford – would have nothing to do with today’s GOP, because the party has supposedly veered so far to the right.

This notion is entirely wrong-headed. In the last fifty years, the entire political discourse has shifted to the left, in large part because of the Great Society. Liberals today are more liberal than their counterparts in the 1950s or early 1960s, and conservatives are more liberal as well!

Consider, for instance, Gerald Ford. He is regularly cited as an example of a Republican who would be far too moderate for today’s rabidly conservative GOP. Yet looking at his legislative track record from the mid-1960s, that argument becomes untenable.

1.  He voted against the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which sent funds to cities to combat poverty.

2. He voted to recommit Medicare/Medicaid to the House Ways and Means Committee, with instructions to create a voluntary program.

3. He voted against the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which provided federal funds to local schools.

4. He voted against making Housing and Urban Development a cabinet-level position.

5. He voted to recommit the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965 with instructions to remove the rent subsidies for poor families.

6. He voted against repealing Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act, which authorizes right to work laws.

7. During the Great Society period (1964-1966), Ford received a legislative score of just 9/100 from Americans for Democratic Action and 3/100 from the AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education.

The only politically contentious issue from this list in today’s debate is right to work. Everything else is settled in principle. Republicans regularly vote for anti-poverty and urban programs, Medicare and Medicaid funding, education funding, and so on. When the GOP had complete control of the government from 2003 through 2007 none of these programs disappeared. In other words, the Republican party once opposed the Great Society, but with the passage of time, it has accepted the politically popular elements of it. The debate today is not whether the federal government should support these activities, but who should control the funds, how should the programs be evaluated, and what level of funding will achieve maximum results?

So, bringing out Republicans of yesteryear to cast judgment on today’s Grand Old Party is really nothing more than a category error. The political debate has changed in the decades since Eisenhower and Ford’s day – and they simply don’t belong to the contemporary political battles.

The primary way that the past has relevance is in the deeper principles that both parties embody, the philosophies that connect each side’s positions on the contentious issues of the day. And in that regard, past Republican leaders fit – along with today’s GOP – in the tradition that has defined the party since at least William McKinley: a belief in the unmatched power of American private enterprise to bring about mass prosperity, and the job of the federal government to support entrepreneurs in their endeavors. That’s the core Republican economic creed, and it is what binds today’s Republicans to those of past generations, including Eisenhower and Ford.

Liberals have scoffed at this philosophy for over a century. William Jennings Bryan articulated this view of affairs quite well in 1896:

There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.

This has been the Democratic point of view ever since. Sixty years ago, Harry Truman said that the GOP was and always had been the party of the special interests. Twenty years ago, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and Bill Clinton blasted Reagan’s “trickle-down economics." And so on and so forth. The issues and people change, but the core philosophies remain the same.

That’s why it is supremely frustrating that yesteryear’s perpetuators of “trickle-down, special interest crony-Republicanism” are now cited as paragons of moderation to blast today’s GOP "cronies." But take heart! In a generation, today’s conservatives will be remembered as sensible moderates, and our grandchildren will be the evil conservative extremists who want to rob the poor to pay the rich!

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