Political Hay

Karl Rove and the Cotton Conservatives

Modern Day Whigs and the rise of the Party of Lincoln and Reagan.

By 2.5.13

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Cotton, conscience, and Karl Rove.

It’s time for a family discussion within the Republican Party. A serious conversation intended to be respectful conversation, and yes perhaps at times a tough-love kind of conversation. A conversation among friends. A conversation about politics, history, the Republican Party and America.

Karl Rove, the former Bush 43 White House aide, has jump-started such a conversation with the announcement in the New York Times of the formation of something called “The Conservative Victory Project.” Described thusly in the Times:

The group, the Conservative Victory Project, is intended to counter other organizations that have helped defeat establishment Republican candidates over the last two election cycles.

More of this in a moment.

First, let’s deal with slavery.

Slavery?!

Yes. Let’s start with a little history. Because a look back is very instructional in terms of what Mr. Rove appears to be doing.

You know the saying.

If the Republican Party or conservatives don’t change “they’ll go the way of the Whigs.”

Meet Karl Rove.

One of America’s Whigs.

The original Whigs, of course, expired in the early 1850s. The proximate cause of their death was a disagreement over slavery. 

The annexation of Texas had been a huge controversy within the Whig Party. Why? The increasing Whig opposition to the slavery issue. As a rule, Whigs opposed slavery. Democrats were staunch supporters, the two men credited as founders of their party, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson both slave owners. The first Whig president had been William Henry Harrison -- elected in 1840 in a campaign that left the tender topic of annexing the new Texas Republic un-discussed. Famously, Harrison gave the longest inaugural address in history, caught pneumonia, and was dead within a month. His Vice President and successor, John Tyler, was a former Democrat but nominally a Whig -- and a lifelong slaveholder. Tyler believed Texas should be admitted to the Union as a slave state, and came close to getting congressional approval. He failed, with 28 of 29 Whig Senators opposing him. Having thus angered the Whigs over slavery he was not re-nominated. Texas finally was admitted as a slave state under the leadership of Tyler’s successor, the pro-slavery Democrat, President James K. Polk.

Came the 1848 election, and the Whig nominee was General Zachary Taylor, a hero of the Mexican War. If you will, the Dwight Eisenhower of the day.

Problem?

General Taylor, popular as he was with many Whigs, was a slave owner. This was a bridge too far for some Whigs after the Texas controversy and the trickle of dissent that would become a Whig political tsunami a few years later had begun flowing in earnest. A number of incensed anti-slavery Whigs defected to a third party in 1848-- the anti-slave Free Soil Party with anti-slavery Democrat, ex-President Martin Van Buren, at its head. Still, Taylor had enough Whig support to carry him over the finish line, becoming the second Whig president.

The victory was short-lived. Taylor died suddenly in 1850, leaving the White House to his Whig Vice President Millard Fillmore. Fillmore -- and he would be the last Whig in the White House -- signed onto the Compromise of 1850. The Compromise, its initial architect the legendary Whig Senator Henry Clay (who, dying, passed the baton of leadership to Illinois Democrat Stephen A. Douglas) exacerbated the split over slavery among Whigs. The Compromise admitted California to the Union as a “free state” -- but used a clever Douglas mechanism known in the day as “popular sovereignty” to get around the slavery issue in other new states. The Compromise also enabled passage of the notorious Fugitive Slave Law, forcing states to assist in capturing and returning runaway slaves.

The Whig divide over slavery was now widening. In 1852, furious that a Whig president had signed on to the Compromise, anti-slavery Whigs defeated Fillmore for re-nomination. The “solution” to the Whig divide was thought to be General Winfield Scott, like Taylor a hero of the Mexican War. Hero or no, the Scott nomination in fact did nothing to repair the rapidly growing breach among Whigs over slavery, and Scott and his remaining Whigs got clobbered in the 1852 election by Franklin Pierce and his pro-slavery Democrats.

Two years later in 1854, the pressure on the Whigs ratcheted up as the demands rose to admit Kansas and Nebraska to the Union. The pro-slavery Douglas cleverly decided to get rid of the prohibition on slavery in these areas written into the Missouri Compromise of 1820. So Douglas played his ploy of “popular sovereignty” once again -- trying to turn the issue on the right of Kansans and Nebraskans to decide for themselves whether they wanted to allow slavery in their prospective new states.

Once more -- for the last time -- the Whigs divided. The Kansas-Nebraska Act became law.

What does this have to do with Karl Rove? Stay with me.

In fact, there were two very precise descriptions of this division between Whigs.

• “Conscience Whigs” -- The popular label applied to those Whigs who opposed slavery on constitutional and moral grounds, seeing slavery as a life or death issue for America itself. In terms of the issues of the day, Conscience Whigs specifically opposed the extension of slavery into territories that were applying for statehood. Over time this took in would-be states like Texas, California, Utah, New Mexico, Kansas and Nebraska.

• “Cotton Whigs” -- The popular label applied to those Whigs who were not necessarily slavery supporters but were willing to make accommodations with both slavery itself as well as the idea of extending slavery into the territories and new states. The “cotton” in “Cotton Whigs” was symbolic of the fact that slaves were used to pick cotton -- and that some Northern Whigs in the cotton textile manufacturing business made money off the backs of slaves in the South.

A leading “Conscience Whig” -- Charles Francis Adams, the son and grandson of two presidents -- scorned the Cotton Whigs as “thinking more of sheep and cotton than of man….truckling in expediency in everything, for the sake of slaveholding gold.” Briskly remarked a young Charles Sumner, another Conscience Whig (whose defiant anti-Cotton Whig leadership would eventually make him a Republican U.S. Senator from Massachusetts) of the differences with Cotton Whigs: “Let the lines be drawn. The sooner the better.” Said Sumner: “Thank God! The Constitution of the United States does not recognize men as property,” adding at another point “I am willing to be in a minority in support of our principles.”

Among those appalled at the idea of Whigs siding with the extension of slavery, not to mention slavery itself, was a former Whig Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. In Lincoln’s view, the Whig-led Compromise of 1850 was an outright defeat for those who, like himself, opposed slavery. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was the last straw.

In short order, with Conscience Whigs and Free Soilers and others streaming into a brand new anti-slavery party called the Republicans, Cotton Whigs chose at last to formally join up with pro-slavery Democrats, revealing their true ideological beliefs. At that point the Whig Party simply imploded. It collapsed and died.

To use the now familiar phrase, the Whigs went the way of the Whigs.

Stop here.

NOW TO MR. ROVE and the recent announcement in the New York Times the “Conservative Victory Project.”

Can you say Todd Akin? The Missouri Senate GOP candidate who appallingly got into a discussion about rape? Or Richard Mourdock, the Indiana Senate GOP candidate who made a version of the same mistake?

What the Rove group says it is about is avoiding candidacies like these.

Most assuredly, that is not how the “Conservative Victory Project” is being received. By conservatives.

Within hours of the Times story, Rove and his new group found themselves under blistering attack from conservatives. Newsmax reported The Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund laughingly mocked Rove’s group for being neither conservative or dedicated to victory, tagging it “the Conservative Defeat Project.”

The Tea Party Patriots put out a statement headlining:

Rove’s Republicanism a Failure; Waste of Donors’ Money

Over at Redstate, the name chosen for the Rove group was called “Orwellian” -- and it was pointed out that Rove’s American Crossroads group had supported all manner of GOP moderates who, as with Akin and Mourdock, went down to defeat last year -- without causing any seeming concern on Rove’s part. Conservative writer Jen Kuznicki called for an outright rejection of what she called Rove’s “divisive tactics,” saying

We just want to win,” is a mantra repeated by political operatives, who then tell us what is needed to win. But they lose. It is time enough to look at results and reasons for those losses, and mostly, it is because the truth is secondary to political expedience.

There were constant reminders of anti-Establishment backed candidacies that succeeded -- Mike Lee in Utah, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Ted Cruz in Texas, Marco Rubio in Florida, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania.

Ouch.

Whether he realizes it or not, Mr. Rove and his donors are effectively morphing into the very symbol of what might be called the modern version of a Cotton Whig.

The Cotton Conservative. 

Cotton Conservatives who are about declaring political war on the GOP’s modern Conscience Conservatives.

Rove's project is seen here as nothing less than renewing the long ago battle over GOP principles between the moderate Ford/Bush Establishment GOP and Ronald Reagan.

The Republican base sided with Reagan. Re-opening this old fight would be distinctly unwise. In any contest between the principles of Ronald Reagan and the GOP Establishment, the outcome is not in doubt with the GOP base.

The slavery issue of the 21st century is effectively Big Government. As, once upon a time in the 20th century, it was the Cold War.

An issue seen as so all consuming, so fraught with devastating if not potentially fatal consequences for the country, that it must be engaged across the land. Directly and relentlessly opposed, with no object in mind other than victory. Big Government -- and all of its subsidiary issues from the size-of-government to spending to the almost $17 trillion debt to specifics such as Obamacare etc., etc. -- is to be opposed not just on good-government or economic grounds -- but quite specifically on moral and constitutional grounds. 

Driving America into bankruptcy -- making it Greece -- is not an option.

It is safe to say that this divide the Rove group has quickly personified has over time produced an image of modern day Cotton Conservatives as not only not on board with the GOP’s stated commitment to limited government and the Constitution but like the Cotton Whigs of the 1850’s really an ally of the Old Order. Or, as Ronald Reagan used to say, this is the “pale pastel” not the “bold colors” crowd. To quote Reagan precisely after he watched the Cotton Conservatives lead the GOP to another defeat in 1976: 

“We are simply saying, ‘What does our party stand for?’ If the great majority agrees with the philosophy, and some say it’s a philosophy they can’t go along with, that’s a decision for every individual to make. A political party is not a fraternal order. A party is something where people are bound together by a shared philosophy.”

In theory, the Republican Party’s “shared philosophy” stands for limited government. But, alas, is that really true? This is the heart of the problem that is causing the blunt attacks on Mr. Rove.

Just as the heated charge arose from Conscience Whigs back in the late 1840s and 1850s that in some fashion slavery and its extension were acceptable to Cotton Whigs -- so today do modern Conscience Conservatives suggest Cotton Conservatives really believe in Big Government. That their goal is to simply manage Big Government better than the other guy -- while not really opposing Big Government at all. Merely tinkering at its edges. Barry Goldwater used to call this sort of thing the “dime store New Deal” approach.

A case in point is mentioned in Rove’s own memoirs Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight as Rove discusses the Bush 43 education initiative called No Child Left Behind.

Writes Rove:

On education, Bush’s core insight was to use the federal government as a lever for reform while respecting that education is a state and local responsibility.

Rove then launches into a description that doesn’t hide the core fact: whatever President Bush’s intention, his “core insight” was getting the federal government even more involved in education than it already was when he took charge of the government. This was done -- working with Ted Kennedy and John Boehner -- by creating No Child Left Behind. And of course, money was soon on the way out the door -- leaving the framework for a more liberal successor to keep the framework and demand even more money. Rove himself admits this is exactly what Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been doing, with Duncan lamenting that NCLB is “desperately underfunded.” Rove disagrees -- saying “Bush increased outlays on elementary and secondary education by 34 percent.” While, of course “slowing the overall growth of discretionary nonsecurity spending.”

But this misses the point that whether Rove disagrees or not with Obama’s Education Secretary -- successor liberal presidents will inevitably seek to take Bush’s program and make more of it.

Everything in Rove’s stated rationale, including his note that the GOP share of the vote from those who count education as their “top issue” increased from 16% in 1996 to 44% in 2000 after Bush “talked about education endlessly” shows the mentality of the modern Cotton Conservative. 

And so the government grows.

In a microcosm, Rove’s tale of No Child Left Behind is precisely how Americans now find themselves almost $17 trillion in debt, headed down the road to Greece. There are very few areas of the massive federal leviathan that did not begin with some version of Rove’s tale: President X wanted to use the federal government to do Y. It was a wonderful cause, or even a lousy political cause. But whatever the original reason President X got his way and Y program…decades later…is still there. Now deemed essential. Untouchable. And oh so woefully underfunded.

The question is obvious. What kind of “conservative victory” is that?

Reagan’s idea? Abolish the Department of Education. Yes, he failed. The education lobby in Washington is extremely powerful. But he had the right idea. 

Rove depicts the idea of adding to the education bureaucracy as politically potent, specifically saying this helped Bush win in 2000. Let’s remember. In 2000 George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore and needed the Supreme Court to get him over the top. With Rove as “The Architect” Bush won by a mere 100,000 votes in Ohio against John Kerry four years later.

In fact, when Reagan campaigned in favor of abolishing the Department of Education? He carried 44 states in 1980. Even failing at the task, voters knew Reagan’s principles and re-elected him in a 49-state sweep. A far cry from Bush’s second term win.

The point? If one forgets the critical constitutional and moral flaws with Big Government and the Cotton Conservative argument and only focuses on the politics? The Reagan approach wins hands downs. As it were, “Cotton Conservatives” named Bush, Dole, Bush, Bush, McCain, and Romney were the GOP nominees from 1992-2012. While Bush 41 won big in 1988 -- he won running as Reagan’s heir. From 1992 forward? The Cotton Conservative view lost the popular vote five out of six elections.

Politically speaking, Cotton Conservatism is a dead duck. And major GOP donors want to fund this?

The Big Government issue is viewed by Conscience Conservatives as a fight for liberty and freedom, the principles at the core of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution itself. And that's before the issue of becoming another Greece.

The divide between Conscience Conservatives and Cotton Conservatives is growing rapidly. 

Not for nothing was Barry Goldwater and Brent Bozell’s 1960’s bestselling classic titled The Conscience of a Conservative. (Note: Yes, that Brent Bozell was the father of the Brent Bozell of today’s Media Research Center and Hannity Media Mash appearances.)

No small thing.

In this February season, two men remind America of the values of the original Conscience Whig and today’s Conscience Conservative.

Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.

Reagan’s birthday is February 6th. Lincoln’s , February 12th -- although now mixed in with the generic “President’s Day” later in the month.

There is an interesting phenomenon abroad in the land that testifies to the intuitive understanding millions of Americans have about the two men. A phenomenon that should serve as a warning flag to Mr. Rove.

That would be the rise of the “Lincoln-Reagan Dinner.”

What used to be the staple of a century-plus worth of GOP tradition -- the “Lincoln Day Dinner” -- has in recent years, each event quite independent of the other -- been named anew as a “Lincoln-Reagan” event. 

As seen here in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Texas, and California.

From one end of America to another Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan are jointly celebrated in countless “Lincoln-Reagan” events as the GOP’s two favorite presidents -- an exact, eerily instinctive match to their presidential greatness ratings by the American people in poll after poll.

Notice.

These dinners were spontaneously named for Lincoln and Reagan. Of the 18 men who have served as Republican presidents of the United States, many popular in their day, these events were named for Lincoln, the first GOP president, and Reagan, the sixteenth GOP president. Not for Lincoln and Ulysses Grant or McKinley or Teddy Roosevelt, not for Taft or Eisenhower or Nixon or Ford or either of the Bushes. The GOP grass roots across the country gravitated like iron filings to a magnet -- for Lincoln and Reagan.

There is a serious reason for this.

Both Lincoln and Reagan came to viscerally understand the preeminent American challenge of their time -- slavery and the Cold War. Both, to immense disfavor, took on the status quo. As a result, each found himself in political conflict with friends and one-time allies. Yet both doggedly persevered. And triumphed.

They championed a vision linked directly to conservative principles -- the principles of America's founding. They saw the wave of history coming -- and they knew what to do. Lincoln and Reagan were the Conscience Conservatives of their time. They changed America -- and the world. Which is exactly why they are so popular with the grassroots.

What Mr. Rove is proposing here is to turn over the Lincoln-Reagan legacy to Establishment Republicans -- Cotton Conservatives -- who love to pay lip service to Ronald Reagan while quietly working against the conservative principles Reagan so boldly stood for. Principles that won election victories no Republican since has come close to matching.

Suffice to say? 

Karl Rove and his major donors are making a big mistake. 

Really big.

Photo: UPI

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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.