Sunday, October 20, 2013

The long war.

A week after Government reopened, the focus of attention has turned to the war for control over the direction of the Republican Party. Earlier this year, Sarah Palin voiced her grievances with the subordination of true Republican principles by establishment Republicans, and, flashing her inimitable disdain toward the GOP establishment, she suggested it might be time for the Tea Party to split off from the GOP.

For as long as I can remember, the Republican Party has been riven between conservatives and moderates. Growing up in New England, the iconic profile of political courage was not that of the young JFK serving as commander of PT-109, but rather Joseph Nye Welsh standing up to Joe McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954.

Welsh, a partner at a white shoe Boston law firm, was serving as counsel to the Army when he berated McCarthy for persisting in attacking an associate at his firm. His words--"You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir?"--publicly embarrassed McCarthy, and marked the end of his crusade to expose Communist sympathizers within the State Department and the Army itself. It was not a Democrat who took on McCarthy, but rather a high brow Boston Republican. It was not a cabal of Democrats in the Senate that led the ensuing campaign to censure McCarthy, but rather a small group of Republican Senators, led by Maine's Margaret Chase Smith and Vermont's Ralph Flanders, that brought him down.

Today's simmering civil war within the Republican Party reflects sectarian animosities with deep roots. The image of Joe McCarthy, a Catholic farm boy from the upper mid-west, being humiliated by the Episcopalian, Phi Beta Kappa, Harvard lawyer is an enduring one that reflects the historic animosities between Main Street and Wall Street Republicanism. For many on the right in the GOP today, Welsh is no hero. It is McCarthy who is owed an apology, whose reputation in history has been been treated indecently. Evidence uncovered in the Kremlin archives, they argue, has proven the bulk of McCarthy's claims to be accurate. The State Department was in fact riddled with Soviet agents of influence. At best, in their view, McCarthy's tactics were ill-conceived. At worst, he was an American hero pilloried by the liberal left, but ultimately betrayed by moderates in his own party.

The demise of McCarthy at the hands of Republican moderates was just one moment in a recurring history of internecine warfare. Ten years after McCarthy's humiliation, the conservative wing of the party would find vindication with the victory of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater over New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Notably, it was in response to Rockefeller's speech at the Republican National Convention accusing Goldwater of being an extremist--rather than against some Democrat attacks--that Goldwater uttered his famous words, "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

Goldwater's words would become the defining defense of conservative Republicanism, just as the ensuing decades of success by conservatives in dominating the Republican Party politics and moving the GOP to the right ultimately began with the Goldwater campaign.

Growing up in famously Democratic Massachusetts, voters as often as not turned to Republicans for steady, mature leadership. John Volpe, Frank Sargent and Bill Weld--and later Mitt Romney--were moderate Republicans who became successful Governors of that deep blue state. Liberal Democratic Massachusetts--the world of academia and the professional classes--was a side show in Boston. Once you got past the liberal bastions of Cambridge, Newton and Brookline, the Democratic Party in Massachusetts was the captive domain of Billy Bulger--the powerful brother of recently convicted mobster Whitey Bulger--who as State Senate President dominated Massachusetts' well-honed patronage machine. It was the party of Billy Bulger and Joe Kennedy, the party of ethnic passions and Kennedy money. It was against that background that the Republican Party was rewarded for being the party of prudence and reason, and entrusted with the responsibilities of governing. "If you were not a Democrat in your 20's, you had no heart. If you were not a Republican in your 40's, you had no brain," the saying went. Republicans were supposed to be the grown-ups.

Sarah Palin--and her Tea Party compatriots--inherited a different Republican Party, one that was profoundly changed by Nixon's Southern Strategy that leveraged the passions of the Goldwater faction with the new realities on the ground that grew out of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The modern GOP has been more overtly divided between the northeastern elites that date back to the founding of the GOP, and its increasingly southern and western base. No events up until the formation of the Tea Party highlighted the regional and class resentments within the GOP more than Patrick Buchanan's presidential campaigns of "peasants with pitchforks" challenging the incumbent George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole four years later. As Buchanan said at the time, "If the country wants to go in a liberal direction... it doesn't bother me as long as I've made the best case I can. What I can't stand are the back-room deals. They're all in on it, the insider game, the establishment game--this is what we're running against."

Only time will tell if the events of the past week rise to the historic significance of the McCarthy-Welsh standoff or the 1964 convention. But the capitulation of Ted Cruz and House Republicans in the recent debt ceiling battle is already being viewed in the eyes of Cruz and his supporters less as a defeat at the hands of President Obama and Senate Democrats than a product of abject betrayal from within the Republican ranks.

And this is an honest portrayal. Ted Cruz and his followers in the House indeed had victory within their grasp--many of them salivated at the prospect of going over the cliff--before they prostrated themselves before Mitch McConnell and other Senate Republicans, who, in the name of bipartisanship, yielded to the unholy alliance of Wall Street elites and Republican elders. The humiliation was complete, as summed up in the New York Times headlineAt 11th Hour, G.O.P. Blinks in Standoff.

The battle within Republican ranks will only intensify in the weeks and months ahead. While the conventional wisdom is that Ted Cruz is leading the GOP down a path toward electoral suicide, conservative loyalists within the party reject that formulation. They argue instead that theirs is the only strategy that offers the GOP a path to success. Bipartisanship--the mantra of party leaders who have been vocal in berating Cruz and his followers--is itself what must be resisted. Bipartisanship--as FreedomWorks co-founder and former Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey famously said--is another name for date rape.

Conservative Republicans--harkening back to the Goldwater campaign--make the simple argument that the most committed wins. Goldwater might have lost--and lost badly--but that loss laid the groundwork for the decades of success that followed. Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, solidified the modern Republican Party electoral strategy around a coalition of single issue, litmus test voting groups--non-negotiable pro-gun, anti-tax, pro-life, home-schoolers, property tax rights and other principles--that produced conservative success for decades.

For moderate Republicans, the absolutism inherent in Norquist's formulation is anathema to the notion of politics as the art of the possible, the politics that have enabled Republicans to win and govern successfully in blue states from Massachusetts to California. But conservatives push back and argue instead that GOP success at the national level over the four decades since Lyndon Johnson's second term in office was built around the strength of those convictions. Other than the loss to Jimmy Carter in the wake of the Watergate scandal, they argue, the Republican Party did not lose a straight up election to the Democrats for forty years from 1968 to 2008. Conservatives attribute Bill Clinton's victory in 1992 to Ross Perot taking 19% of the vote--largely from the Republican column--as Clinton beat Bush 43-38%.

While Republican strategists looking at demographic changes argue that it is imperative to broaden the GOP coalition from its aging, white base, conservatives are loath to abandon the absolutism of the Norquist strategy that has served the GOP well. People of faith within the GOP coalition point to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's overwhelming popularity as a pro-life Republican governor of a traditionally blue state as evidence that there is no need to give ground on their core values. Similarly, second amendment voters point to the rapid fading of the gun issue nationally, even in the wake of repeated tragic events. They argue not only that ceding the gun issue is not critical to electoral success at that national level, but that to do so would cost the GOP the proven passions of the pro-gun voters.

Establishment Republicans and traditional large contributors who are urging the GOP to turn back from the trail that Ted Cruz is blazing, will be hard pressed to counter the passion and energy that the debt ceiling battle has unleashed. The argument that moderation is important to winning back public support that has turned against the GOP will once again be countered by those on the right who will argue that on election day, it is passion and core principles that brings out voters. The animosities voiced by Ted Cruz and his followers toward establishment Republicans mirror similar grievances dating back decades. They believe that they have been wronged by the establishment urge to bipartisanship and they will be loath to let it happen again.

Faced with the logic of the world according to Ted Cruz, a friend who is a national GOP strategist suggested that it was the Democrats who would ultimately benefit in elections to come from the rise of Ted Cruz. "My humble opinion is that they over estimate the Tea Party / social conservative base. Watch the Texas Governor's race. The Dem's will win... So called moderates will vote the Dem's in... Cruz strategy hurts Republicans in the long term. Hope you are well."