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If Reagan Tolerated GOP Moderates, Why Can't Today's Conservatives?

Two recent events have served to highlight some of the problems facing the Republican Party as it gropes its way forward toward an uncertain future.

The defection of Arlen Specter and the death of Jack Kemp both highlight in their own way the biggest question that will face the GOP for the foreseeable future: whether to build a majority party based on an ever-narrowing definition of who can join and receive support from the Republican Party or accept that there are different kinds of Republicans in different areas of the country who should have a say in party affairs.

Arlen Specter’s defection says little about the GOP and much more about Specter himself, whom liberal Jonathan Chait referred to as an “unprincipled hack.” Nevertheless, Specter’s move across the aisle has intensified the conversation over ideological purity in the Republican Party and set off a bitter debate among conservatives and moderates over tactics and strategy.

Also, the death of former Congressman and 1996 vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp has reminded some conservatives that the GOP used to be a party that featured a much bigger tent, welcoming politicians like Kemp into the fold despite large disagreements on fundamental issues. During his political career, Kemp broke with the conservative base on “red-lining” by banks (discriminating against minorities in their lending practices), poverty programs, and, most notably, immigration reform. He was proud of his association with more moderate Republicans like Pete Dupont and counted many Democrats among his friends.

To say that Kemp would have been drummed out of the conservative movement today for his support for illegal alien amnesty is self-evident. But here was a politician who helped turn Ronald Reagan’s ideas into policy, someone who probably agreed with the conservative base 90% of the time. How can any party or movement that seeks majority status so blithely dismiss conservatives like Kemp and refuse them a seat at the table?

The fact that there are many in the party who actually think it a good idea to shrink the GOP by subtracting less conservative, less ideological, more moderate members is incomprehensible. In the minority already, draining the Republican Party of anyone who fails to demonstrate what many conservative activists determine as sufficient enthusiasm for their agenda strikes me as madness.

It’s not that the activists don’t have a point. Tossing aside conservative principles and running candidates who offer little in the way of contrast to the Democrats would be useless. But at the same time, there has got to be some recognition that the party must expand beyond the 30% or so of the electorate who identify themselves as “conservative.” Otherwise, you condemn the GOP to permanent minority status — a regional, monochromatic grouping that would exist largely in the south and pockets of the Midwest and Mountain West.

To clarify, if the reason one holds to conservative principles is something beyond idly exercising one’s brain, it should be obvious that one of the purposes of conservatism is that it be realized as a governing philosophy. For that to happen, conservatives need a political vessel to translate thought into actions. This is where the Republican Party comes into play and why looking for reasons to include people rather than inventing reasons to exclude those with whom they disagree must be the number one goal for both activists and party regulars.

RNC Chairman Michael Steele is trying. But his comments at a recent party conclave in Wisconsin point up the difficulty in translating that idea into any kind of practical program:

“All you moderates out there, y’all come. I mean, that’s the message,” Steele said at a news conference. “The message of this party is this is a big table for everyone to have a seat. I have a place setting with your name on the front.

“Understand that when you come into someone’s house, you’re not looking to change it. You come in because that’s the place you want to be.”

Eh … OK. Everyone can come in and sit down for the feast but if you are pro-choice, or pro-gay marriage, or pro-amnesty, kindly realize that no one is going to listen to you so you might as well keep your mouth shut. Meanwhile, your cousins and other relations can publicly chastise you for your different opinions, actively seek to undermine your re-election by running a primary challenger against you, deny you party support, and will stay at home on election day so a Democrat will probably defeat you anyway.

An exaggeration? Not by much if you listen to many conservatives on talk radio and the internet. For these activists, war has been declared on those they consider “establishment” Republicans or “elitists.” Just what makes these animals dangerous is never articulated to a satisfactory degree. Sometimes, the transgression is as small as praising President Obama for something he’s done. More serious violations include working with Democrats in Congress to solve problems, being pro-choice, or daring to say that the party has become too ideological and even too conservative to win in many states and districts around the country.

Activists and ideologues will tell you that they want candidates to adhere to “first principles” and that anyone who strays from their narrow interpretation of those principles should be shown the door. But is our understanding of these principles an intellectual monolith that brooks no deviation and no independent thought about what they actually mean? Can Republicans from differing parts of the country define these principles in different ways and still be thought of as party members?

Herein lies the difference between “the movement” and what constitutes a political party, as Noemie Emery makes clear in a Weekly Standard column:

After the 2008 election was over, an election which saw Republican numbers grow ever more minuscule, activists on all sides began vigorous efforts to make the party still smaller by purging from it everyone who failed to act, think, and talk as they did themselves. On op-ed pages, in magazines, on websites and cable and radio, a wide range of Republicans and right-wingers announced themselves shocked, appalled, mortified, and repelled to the point of nausea to find themselves in the same party with the likes of David Brooks, David Frum, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Meghan McCain, Karl Rove, and a collection of other politicos, pundits, and personalities whose presence they seemed to find intolerable. A passion for coalition-destruction seemed to rage on all sides.

What lies behind this is (a) the feeling that oneself and one’s friends make up a majority; and (b) a failure to realize that a party and movement are not the same thing. A movement exists to express and promote a coherent set of principles in the world of ideas and of values. A party — especially in a two-party system — is something quite different: a gathering of diverse political forces around a large and loosely held set of interests and values, that exists to give all of its factions access to power in the practical world of events. A movement gives a party a spine and a platform; the party assembles a coalition around them that is large enough to win and hold power, and turn some of the movement’s ideas into law.

Emery makes the point that the “urge to purge” is not confined to merely conservatives wishing to banish the less conservative but also to the less ideological wishing social conservatives would just go away and leave the party alone. The latter is something akin to cutting off the head and tail of the animal and wanting to ride it to victory — a bad idea that is as ridiculous as it appears in the mind’s eye.

The difference is that there are a heck of a lot more of the former who are sharpening their long knives than the latter. But in the end, it all adds up to trying to build a party by subtraction rather than addition.

A dialogue among the factions is currently a non-starter. There is no common language spoken by conservatives and moderates at the moment. Conservatives feel that moderates and “elitists” dominate the party in Washington and don’t understand those of us who live in flyover country. Moderates simply feel besieged — and threatened by those they feel are dragging the party to the edge of an ideological cliff.

Moderate Olympia Snowe (R-ME) wrote a widely circulated op-ed in the New York Times, in which she expressed bafflement at the schism and wondered why “big tent” Republicanism was dead:

There is no plausible scenario under which Republicans can grow into a majority while shrinking our ideological confines and continuing to retract into a regional party. Ideological purity is not the ticket back to the promised land of governing majorities — indeed, it was when we began to emphasize social issues to the detriment of some of our basic tenets as a party that we encountered an electoral backlash.

It is for this reason that we should heed the words of President Ronald Reagan, who urged, “We should emphasize the things that unite us and make these the only ‘litmus test’ of what constitutes a Republican: our belief in restraining government spending, pro-growth policies, tax reduction, sound national defense, and maximum individual liberty.” He continued, “As to the other issues that draw on the deep springs of morality and emotion, let us decide that we can disagree among ourselves as Republicans and tolerate the disagreement.”

Snowe, who believes in “restraining government spending, pro-growth policies, tax reduction, sound national defense, and maximum individual liberty,” doesn’t understand why her adherence to those broad principles isn’t good enough for the ideologues. They could inform her that it is her interpretation of those concepts that is at issue and that because she takes a less ideological, more pragmatic approach to her job, she simply doesn’t pass the “test” of being a true conservative Republican.

The idea has been advanced that if the Republicans had a dominant personality to rally around, many of these problems would disappear. But world historical figures like Ronald Reagan come along once in a great while and it is not likely that such a happy event will occur anytime soon. Meanwhile, the search continues for someone who can unite the factions. But conservative leaders have no desire to make nice with the moderates, while the pragmatists don’t have anyone that the conservatives would give the time of day.

Nor does it do the party any good to keep trying to resurrect the Gipper’s ghost and stroke his memory like a magic talisman, hoping that by recycling the Reagan agenda, electoral lightening will strike. Conservative darling Jeb Bush said as much recently:

“So our ideas need to be forward looking and relevant. I felt like there was a lot of nostalgia and the good old days in the [Republican] messaging. I mean, it’s great, but it doesn’t draw people toward your cause,” Mr. Bush said.

And I beat that horse in December of 2007:

Reagan stands a silent sentinel over the modern GOP, still evoking powerful emotions and loyalty among conservatives. Perhaps it is time to carefully place his legacy and memory in our national treasure chest, taking them out on occasion to examine them for the lessons we can learn rather than pushing that legacy front and center in a futile attempt to recapture the power and the glory of days long gone and a time that will never come again.

Ultimately, perhaps the greatest lesson we can take away from the Reagan legacy was his expansive view of conservatism and how it should be as loosely defined as is consistent with the broad principles he espoused his entire life.

After all, if moderates in the Republican Party was good enough for Reagan, why shouldn’t they be good enough for his ideological descendants?