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S.E. Cupp and the Freezing of the Conservative Mind

Columnist disses Rush while misreading Reagan and Lee Atwater.

By 2.21.13

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One reads S.E. Cupp on Rush Limbaugh and the late Lee Atwater and has to wonder.

One reads her compatriot young conservative friends in the New York Times and has to wonder.

Do these conservatives even listen to themselves?

Are they really conservatives -- or just the latest, newest incarnation of that age old 20th century invention: the GOP moderate? The newest sparkling edition of a wannabe Ruling Class? Making the rounds of the bar scene in Manhattan and New York and longing to be hip?

Or are we witnessing something else? Something simpler yet more troubling?

A lack of historical awareness of conservatism. Are we seeing young conservatives who seem not to have grasped conservatism whole? Who do not understand the seamless thread that binds conservative values as a way of life, from the Constitution to gay marriage and abortion to free market economics and dealing with Al Qaeda?

Young conservatives who have a lack of perspective of both conservatism’s intellectual foundation and in this case the ferocious politics that swirl constantly around its most prominent champions? With apologies to the late Allan Bloom and his 1987 bestseller (The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students), are we witnessing a freezing of the conservative mind? (Note: Ex-Bush aide Pete Wehner has conjured the freezing metaphor in a slightly different way over at Commentary.)

First, let’s deal with the Rush business.

As mentioned earlier this week, the New York Times Magazine cover story on a group of young GOP techies and commentators -- of which Ms. Cupp is a leading member -- was discussed in this space.

In which we went through chapter and verse to document in detail how incredibly old and dated were the criticisms made by the gaggle of young techie and media conservatives once they strayed from tech -- a subject, I might add, on which they are both incredibly well versed and understandably frustrated. We specifically cited, at length, the eerily identical nature of their criticisms to a book by liberal journalist Robert J. Donovan some 49 years ago, ominously titled “The Future of the Republican Party.” Written in the immediate aftermath of the Goldwater defeat in 1964, Donovan’s conclusion after detailed conversations with voters, pollsters, and both Republican and Democrat party elites around the country was that unless the GOP gave up conservatism and became a me-too moderate party with socially liberal candidates like then-New York Congressman and soon-to-be Mayor John Lindsay, the GOP was doomed.

The Times article was nothing more than an updating of the same-old, same-old complaint from 1964. Which in fact was nothing more than a book-length version of the twice-losing GOP moderate presidential nominee Thomas E. Dewey’s Princeton lectures warning that conservatism was a dead-end for the GOP -- lectures delivered in 1950, a full fourteen years before Donovan’s book.

It appears in reading the Times article that Cupp and her friends were literally clueless about all of this.

But there is more to that Times article -- and an update caused by columnist (and MSNBC co-host of The Cycle) Cupp’s swipe in the Times piece at Rush Limbaugh. The Cupp quote as written by the Times was this: 

“And we can’t be afraid to call out Rush Limbaugh…. If we can get three Republicans on three different networks saying, ‘What Rush Limbaugh said is crazy and stupid and dangerous,’ maybe that’ll give other Republicans cover” to denounce the talk-show host as well.”

So let’s get back into the Times article and pick up where we left off on Tuesday.

And let’s begin with S.E. Cupp’s Rush comments. Comments that she has now amplified in her New York Daily News column titled “I Won’t Be Rushed: For the sake of conservatism, Limbaugh’s defenders need to get his fallibility through their heads.”

Cupp, according to her column, is “spearheading” a project the Times reports as being called “Proximus” -- Latin for “next.” In which, says the Times, Proximus members -- “youthful conservative dissidents” -- “huddle in taverns and homes and — among friends, in the manner of early-20th-century Bolsheviks — proceed to speak the unspeakable about the ruling elite.”

Gee.

After reading both the Times story and Cupp’s own column it sounds like this group should be more accurately named “Pridianus” -- Latin for “yesterday.”

As in, to speak 21st century English, this group is “so yesterday.” As documented by Robert J. Donovan 49 years ago. And Thomas E. Dewey 14 years before that.

Here’s Cupp in her column:

If calling Sandra Fluke a “slut” last year for her position on contraception wasn’t the epitome of “crazy and stupid and dangerous,” allow me to explain the obvious.

It was crazy because it invented an irrational connection between her private sex life and her political position. It was stupid because calling someone a name is intellectually lazy. Make an actual argument. And it was dangerous because it trafficked in the same kind of misogyny that liberals use when they blast conservative women for being sluts, prudes or sexually repressed. And that fell right into the well-crafted but dishonest “war on women” narrative that liberals had set up to (successfully) get President Obama re-elected. 

Wow.

First, let’s stipulate the obvious. Rush apologized. In fact, Ms. Cupp herself said at the time (as here in Newsmax) that: 

“While no one should excuse what Rush Limbaugh said, the apology is sufficient.”

Now, however, Cupp is saying something else altogether. Again, she says of the Fluke episode: “It was crazy because it invented an irrational connection between her private sex life and her political position.”

This is a glistening example of a frozen conservative mind. Frozen solid, impervious to history.

Has Cupp never heard of the famous radical leftist feminist line that “the personal is political”? A line that took off in feminist lore when Carol Hanisch, known in the day (the late 1960s) as a founder of New York Radical Women, wrote a 1970 essay in Notes From the Second Year: Women's Liberation titled “The Personal Is the Political”?

This is bedrock to radical feminists like -- yes indeed, today’s Sandra Fluke. Which is exactly why Ms. Fluke went before a Pelosi-picked congressional panel of true-believer liberal female members of Congress -- and proceeded to link her personal sex life to the hot-button political issue of Obamacare. Drawing a direct and quite public line between her personal sex life and forcing a religious institution -- the Catholic Georgetown University in her case -- to pay for her birth control pills. Specifically Fluke said this, and I have highlighted in bold the point: 

“Without insurance coverage, contraception can cost a woman over $3,000 during law school. For a lot of students who, like me, are on public interest scholarships, that’s practically an entire summer’s salary.”

In full glare of the television lights, Ms. Fluke made her personal -- her own sex life -- the political. Three thousand bucks worth of her sex life, to be specific. And Rush Limbaugh, who possesses a decidedly thinking mind, instantly picked up on it. There was nothing “crazy” much less “irrational” about Rush doing this. Yes, he overstepped in his attempt to illustrate the absurdity of it all with another absurdity.

But the fact is that Rush understood in a blink that this was just one more example of the radical left doing an ideological hit job on the Constitution -- in this case the First Amendment that protected the Catholic Church’s Constitutional right to not be funding something that is in total violation of the Catholic faith. The central idea of Fluke’s was that the rest of us, defined here as Georgetown, pay for her sex life. Contrary to what Cupp seeks to leave as an impression, Rush spent considerable time illuminating what Cupp calls for -- “an actual argument” -- about exactly what we had heard from Fluke and why.

The fact that Ms. Cupp doesn’t get this -- even now, almost a full year after this controversy -- startles. It means, apparently, one of two things. Either Cupp herself is a moderate on the issue (can a “conservative columnist,” as conservatives mock of elected officials, “grow in office” -- i.e., become moderate?), or she is simply unaware of the history.

Either way Cupp vividly illustrates that she -- and presumably her Proximus compadres -- are advocating nothing newer than yesterday’s moderate Republicanism. The fact that the Obama campaign made much of this as “the war on women” proves another side of the same point exactly.

To wit: when moderate Republicans (a Romney, McCain, Bush 2004, Bush 2000, Dole, Bush 1992) are carrying the Republican banner -- and are managed by people like Stuart Stevens and Steve Schmidt and Karl Rove -- there is a perpetual inability to fight the necessary ideological campaign. The charge of a “war on women” in the 2012 campaign-- and all the rest from Romney the murderer of a steel worker’s wife to Romney the Bain Capital felon -- was met by the Romney and RNC response that President Obama was a nice guy but just over his head.

It was the typical Establishment response.

This was Rush Limbaugh’s fault?

Oh my.

In her own way, if unintended, S.E. Cupp’s remark in the Times -- not to mention her “I Won’t be Rushed” column -- is a pluperfect example of being so “yesterday.” One more example either of a conservative gone moderate to be cool in the Manhattan precincts or, worse, a conservative who simply isn’t thinking and in that frozen-mind-zone doing the all-too-convenient and -- yes, socially acceptable in Manhattan thing -- of whacking Rush.

Why did she get such a harsh blowback from Rush fans as Cupp recounts in her column?

Because Rush’s audience understands -- obviously better than Cupp -- what is really going on here.

Let’s use another example to illustrate the point, using a name Cupp and her friends cite specifically.

The late RNC Chairman Lee Atwater is mentioned in the Times piece -- and as someone who was a friend and colleague of Lee’s I can only be amazed at the perception of the man the Times now calls “the legendary” Atwater.

Says the Times (my bold for emphasis):

Instead, Cupp and her fellow travelers hope to revive Lee Atwater’s bygone “big tent,” under which gay people and Tea Party members and isolationists and neocons would coexist without rancor. But Atwater, the legendary R.N.C. chairman, did not have to worry about freelance voices like Limbaugh and Todd Akin offending whole swaths of emerging demographic groups. Nor during the Atwater era, when Ronald Reagan was president, did the party’s most extreme wing intimidate other Republicans into legislating like extremists themselves, thereby further tarnishing the party’s image. When I mentioned this to the Proximus gathering, [one of the group’s founders John] Goodwin explained the dilemma faced by Republicans in Congress. “What forces them to vote that way, 9 times out of 10, is a fear of a primary challenge,” he said. “What we hope to accomplish is to bring more voters into Republican primaries, so that it isn’t just the far right that shows up at the polls.”

Are you kidding me?

This is more of the usual liberal hokum that demonizes prominent conservatives in life -- then when they’re gone they are summoned forth from the speechless grave and hailed as “legendary” (Atwater) or a great president (Reagan) for the purpose of somehow shaming the newest conservative leader to not be so conservative.

When Lee Atwater was working for Ronald Reagan and later running George H.W. Bush’s 1988 winning campaign -- in which Atwater tied Bush as tight as a tic to Reagan -- it was Atwater himself who was accused of being a key leader of what the Times calls “the party’s most extreme wing.” Never would Atwater allow anyone in the GOP to get to his right, Reagan’s right or, in 1988, Bush’s right. He was pummeled as a racist, as an anti-Semite, a right-wing extremist being the least of the furious charges hurled at him regularly by the liberals of the day and lovingly printed in the Times. Despite this fact, I can say with personal knowledge that there was zero truth to charges Lee was a racist or anti-Semite. The charges were disgraceful -- but entirely typical of liberal politics at work.

Did Lee Atwater believe in litmus tests? No. “We are an umbrella party,” he once remarked, seeing this as being part of a majority party. But other than Louisiana Klansman and just-departed Democrat David Duke (whom Atwater publicly called to be “disenfranchised from our party” and summoning a resolution of censure from the RNC when Duke made a run for the governorship), he would never have read somebody out of the party.

Without doubt Lee Atwater would have loved Rush Limbaugh. The two never met, Lee dying shortly after Rush began his national radio show. Not for a moment would Lee have sat down with the New York Times and taken a shot at Rush, not for a second would he have called Rush “crazy,” “stupid,” or “dangerous.” And there’s a reason -- a reason that, again, Cupp’s conservative mind and those of her friends seem not to grasp.

Lee Atwater of all people understood that conservative stars like Rush Limbaugh -- as with a Ronald Reagan or a William F. Buckley Jr. and, of course, eventually Lee himself -- were irresistible targets for the left. The left didn’t want to debate these people -- they wanted to demonize them and then destroy them.

Rush and the Fluke controversy a case in point. When the controversy arose the goal of the left wasn’t to debate the issue of feminism or the Constitution or birth control or anything else.

The goal was to take Rush off the air. Period.

To deliberately, with malice aforethought , ruin and end his career.

As I documented in this story, “The Plot to Get Rush.” In which the saga of one Angelo Carusone was detailed. Carusone, the “Director of Online Strategy for Media Matters for America” had been running, as I noted, “a quite specific, quite detailed plot to get Rush Limbaugh, ruin his career, and drive him off the air” -- long, long before Sandra Fluke. Bad enough for Cupp not to get this, but to not understand that this is how the left works -- not to mention the fact she piled on and contributed to all of this in the Times -- is yet another example of a conservative mind that seems not to grasp conservative history.

Does she not realize that Ronald Reagan as television host for General Electric was fired from his job because of his speeches criticizing the Kennedy Administration? That, according to Michael Reagan, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy himself told GE if they wished to get government contracts they would have to fire Reagan? So they did.

Whether Lee knew that particular story about our mutual boss or not, he more than understood the point. By the time he was chairman of the RNC it was Lee’s turn to be demonized. When an RNC staff member had made a sharp attack on then-House Speaker Tom Foley, the Washington state Democrat, furious calls went up for Lee’s head. President Bush 41 made a point of showing up at a Washington fundraiser to defend, in the words of the Times in the day, his “beleaguered” RNC chief. Bush publicly backed him, saying “Lee’s doing a great job.” Liberals fumed. They wanted Lee Atwater fired -- ruined -- reputation destroyed and out of politics for good.

Only death solved their problem.

Most assuredly, were Lee Atwater here today and sidling into the bar to chat with Cupp and her friends, he would not be saying, as Cupp has, what a great idea it would be if, in Cupp’s words:

“…we can get three Republicans on three different networks saying, ‘What Rush Limbaugh said is crazy and stupid and dangerous,’ maybe that’ll give other Republicans cover.”

Again. Are they kidding? That is no way to run a revolution -- by becoming part of the very Establishment that wanted to ruin Rush as they tried to ruin Lee. To become part of the crowd that spent decades attacking Ronald Reagan as an extremist simpleton.

To use a description from Allan Bloom’s book, what Cupp and her colleagues in the Times story seem to be demonstrating is “…young people who, lacking an understanding of the past and a vision of the future, live in an impoverished present.”

In this case, an understanding of the past that specifically means not that conservatives can’t legitimately disagree with Rush or any other prominent conservative on issue X. An understanding of the past means, as I use it here, that one should not be so intellectually impoverished enough as to not know that how you disagree -- and most importantly in today’s world, where you do it -- is critical. Because the other side is not looking for a debate -- they are looking to destroy. Ronald Reagan and Lee Atwater yesterday, Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or Mark Levin or Fox News or Sarah Palin today or, inevitably, a Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz tomorrow.

Now.

This said, there was a serious bright spot in the Times article -- although it seemed the participants are not even aware of it.

Yes, they are right about the GOP Establishment. And there is infinitely more going on there than just a problem of what was politely called “corporate rigidity.” We have been… ahhhh… not shy about discussing this in this space.

When outsider consultant Erik Telford talks about “a very incestuous community of consultants who profit off certain tactics, and that creates bias and inhibits innovation,” he is dead on correct. We have been Karl Rove critics in this corner (here and here) -- precisely because he is seen here as part of an “old guard” that is the GOP Establishment. Older than even Mr. Telford and the rest may realize.

Specifically meaning, whether discussed or not, Mr. Rove from this space is seen as a representative of one half of what I call here the “Reagan-Bush” divide. Or, if you will, the divide between the GOP’s Reagan Revolutionaries and the Bush/Moderate GOP Establishment. 

It disturbs to read of young, highly talented techies like Vincent Harris (he the “24-year-old social-media consultant whose efforts in Texas helped catapult Ted Cruz to an upset victory” over the GOP Establishment candidate in the Texas Senate primary) being left out of something like a presidential campaign. That kind of thing is obviously as typical as it is stupid and self-defeating -- if inevitable in an Establishment campaign.

But Harris is wrong to say in referring to Rove: “We’re the second rung. The first tier isn’t going away for another 20 years.”

Respectfully, this is because Harris is allowing himself to be mesmerized by the Bush side of this situation.

He should pay closer attention to the Reagan side.

The fact of the matter is that what won Ronald Reagan the presidential nomination in 1980 -- and fueled his campaign in 1976 against Gerald Ford plus his first run for the GOP nomination as governor of California -- were the Vincent Harris’s of the day. Some young, some old, but almost all well outside the sitting and powerful GOP Establishment of the day.

This is perhaps best summed up by the tale of a baffled Senator Howard Baker who, having lost the 1980 GOP nomination to Reagan (along with such other Establishment favorites as Ambassador George H.W. Bush, Senator Bob Dole, ex-Nixon Treasury Secretary and Texas Governor John Connally, and Congressman John Anderson), stood on the perimeter of the Convention floor in Detroit looking at the delegates and murmuring, baffled: “These aren’t my people.”

As indeed, they were not. Nor were they “the people” of any of the other losing candidates. As someone present on the floor of the Convention in both 1976 and 1980, I can say the Reagan people were easy to pick out. The Reagan men wore double-knits, the Establishment guys the expensive navy pin stripes. The Reagan women were similarly less expensively dressed -- JC Penney as opposed to Saks and nowhere near as polished as their female, frequently country club counterparts. The Establishment people would wear small tasteful political buttons, Reaganites were spotted wearing gigantic buttons pinned to the middle of their backs. Not to mention cowboy hats. You could almost see the Establishment people physically flinching at the sight.

All of which is to say, the Reagan people -- or as they would later be known in their government incarnation -- the Reagan Revolutionaries -- were The Outsiders.

But by 1980 they were the winners in a brutal struggle for control of the GOP.

So to Mr. Harris and his young friends -- yes, it can be done. You don’t have to wait those 20 years until Karl Rove and others hang it up. (Or in Karl’s case, presumably lowered into the grave at 125 with some Democrat and a conservative standing by just to make sure!)

The very essence of the Reagan movement politically within the GOP was a keen sense of guerrilla warfare. An utter unwillingness to sit still and be quiet, a complete willingness to challenge the status quo.

What Cupp and her Proximus friends should be doing is marrying the “digerati” to Ronald Reagan. Digitize Reagan. Don’t run from Rush -- Digitize Rush. Understand the political fault lines within the Republican Party and find the candidates like Ted Cruz who are more than willing to exploit them, Atwater-style. Reagan-style.

The moment one shrinks from this -- which is what Ms. Cupp has done in that Times story and in her column -- is exactly the moment you are on the road to becoming, to pick names not at random, Mitt Romney. Or Stuart Stevens. Or Karl Rove. The Establishment in waiting. In which case, Vincent, you will be waiting 20 years or more to ascend to leadership.

Can the Republicans be saved from obsolescence?

Of course.

If they pay attention to Ronald Reagan and Lee Atwater. 

Not the myths. Not the legends.

The real, flesh and blood president and party chairman.

Two serious anti-Establishment politicians to their core. Men outside the Ruling Class who changed their party, their country, and the world. Men whose minds were never frozen to conservative principle -- or history.

In the words of the old Chinese strategist that Lee loved to quote, Reagan and Atwater understood that:

The Way means inducing the people to have the same aim as the leadership, so that they will share death and share life, without fear of danger.

Amen.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.