Political Hay

Why Not Victory?

Moderation, seven-time losers, and National Review's call for a truce with McCainiacs.

By 2.18.08

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OK. Let's put the conservative principles aside for a moment. Let's just focus on winning.

Our friends over at National Review, who pushed hard for Romney, have issued a call for truce in the battle between conservatives and McCain supporters. Fair enough. They are probably right that the best solution here is to let McCain be McCain and conservatives be conservatives, joining hands when in agreement and going our separate ways when not. Rush Limbaugh has given an interview to Time magazine's Jay Carney in which he essentially suggests the first. Surely he is correct in saying the worst possible thing McCain could do is pander.

Unfortunately, the Republican Party has been in this place before. Seven times before, to be specific. Long before Rush, long before talk radio. The results have been uniformly bad.

The core problem is this notion of "reaching out" (as McCain likes to say) to Democrats and Independents. This is code for saying "hey...I'm really not a bad guy. Yes, I'm a conservative/Republican, but really, I'm not a right-wing wacko. Take a look at my positions on issues X,Y or Z." This is nothing new. It has in fact been gospel with so-called "moderate" Republicans since at least the days of FDR. The problem, principles aside, is that it doesn't work at the presidential level. It is, in its own fashion, a pander to the left. It turns the nominee of the day into a sort of political Rodney King asking -- pleading -- "can't we all get along?"

Politically speaking, the answer should always be "no." Preferably, "hell no!" And it should be the job of the nominee to say why. But this seems to relentlessly escape Republicans running for president as moderates, who have made it their declared purpose to "reach out" to the other side.

A GREAT PLACE TO CAPTURE the flavor behind the McCain approach is the first Kennedy-Nixon debate of the 1960 presidential campaign. You might call it Exhibit A in how Republicans, with the unerring instinct of political lemmings, lose the presidency by playing the moderate.

The setting: the very first televised presidential debate in American history. The candidates: Massachusetts Senator and Democrat John F. Kennedy, 43, and Vice President Richard Nixon, Republican, 47. Both young, the first of what we now call "the Greatest Generation," who had emerged as presidential nominees, the two dueling for the right to succeed the grandfatherly hero-general Dwight Eisenhower.

It's ancient history now, recalled if at all by political science professors to teach students the importance of looking good on TV. The legend always plays out as the tanned and fit but underdog JFK, immaculate in a dark suit, well made up, dueling the front-running yet unfortunate Richard Nixon. He of the bad television makeup, the one with the pale face and five o'clock shadow, the guy in the gray suit and too-big shirt collar. Never to be forgotten were the Nixonian sweaty, eye-darting glances. JFK, so history records, won the day, launching the myth of JFK and what would become Camelot. This legend is so ingrained that it has erased almost entirely the memory of exactly what Richard Nixon was communicating that night in what became a televised political classic. And kept right on communicating throughout the entire 1960 campaign. His approach was such a searing disaster that Nixon himself would never again use it in his later, successful second and third campaigns for the White House in 1968 and 1972. What did he say in 1960? More to the point, why did he say it? And what were the results?

The debate was held on September 26, with both candidates in the same Chicago studio.

JFK won the right to make the opening statement. After listening to Kennedy make his ideological pitch, when it was his turn, Nixon looked into the camera and set the tone for his campaign by saying this right off the bat:

"The things that Senator Kennedy has said, many of us can agree with."

This is the 1960-version of McCain-speak. Translation? "Hey, I'm not one of those conservative wing nuts, no matter what they say. I'm every bit as reasonable as JFK. Honest. We have a lot in common. Really. Please believe me. Please."

It was downhill from there. Going back through his remarks that evening in what would be the most-watched of the four debates, we see Nixon time and again go out of his way to imply that he has almost no disagreement with the underlying premise of Kennedy's positions, that more government is indeed at least OK government if not better government. Hence lines like these from Nixon are salted throughout the entire debate:

* "Here again, may I indicate that Senator Kennedy and I are not in disagreement..."
* "We both want to help..."
* "Because it isn't a question of how much the government spends.."
* "I know Senator Kennedy feels as strongly...as I do..."
* "We (both) want to see..."
* "Now, the Republican platform will cost more too..."
* "Let us understand throughout this campaign that his motives and mine are sincere."
* "I know Senator Kennedy feels as deeply about these problems as I do."
* "...our disagreement is not about the goals for America..."
* "I agree with Senator Kennedy's appraisal..."

There are conservatives aplenty who are wondering if they won't hear some version of these comments in a 2008 debate between Senator McCain and either Obama or Clinton.

AS IF THESE TYPE OF QUOTES were not revealing enough of Nixon's "me too" strategy in 1960, he even managed to muff the following. JFK turned one answer into a sharp definition of what the differences were between himself and Nixon. What follows is the last sentence in Kennedy's answer, and Nixon's "response."

MR. KENNEDY: The question before us is: which point of view and which party do we want to lead the United States?

MR. SMITH (moderator): Mr. Nixon, would you like to comment on that statement?

MR. NIXON: I have no comment.

No comment. Can you imagine Ronald Reagan saying he had no comment about which party -- which philosophy, liberal or conservative -- should lead the United States? If this moment arrived in 2008, in a statement by Obama or Clinton, would McCain say "no comment"?

In defense of Nixon, he was not the first Republican since the advent of FDR's New Deal to try this approach. As time moved on, he would prove not to be the last, either. For whatever reason, it seems the McCain strategy is the same as Nixon's in 1960. Let's call the roll of other moderate Republican presidential campaigns, their strategies and their results.

* 1940 -- Wendell Willkie. As recorded by one biographer, his nomination was "acclaimed by the press as...revolutionary." The mainstream media of the day just loved the guy. Why? Again, in the words of a biographer of the day, Willkie was bent on "a reinterpretation by the Republican Party of the meaning of free enterprise." Instead of drawing a sharp distinction between himself and FDR, Willkie endorsed a litany of New Deal programs outright. "Reaching out" to the Independents and Democrats of the day just as McCain is trying to do now, he supported everything from FDR's Wagner Labor Relations Act to expanding the federal role in social security to soil conservation programs, commodity loans, crop insurance etc. Deliberately he set out to embrace FDR's New Deal -- just a little less so. Results? Willkie lost to FDR, carrying ten states and 44% of the vote.

* 1944 -- Thomas E. Dewey. The Governor of New York, Dewey had not much more than contempt for the whole idea of conservatism. His version of "reaching out" meant accepting the philosophy behind the New Deal programs, but criticizing various programs for inefficiency or corruption or even Communist influence. The leading light of the Republican liberal Eastern Establishment, Dewey lost to FDR, 53% to 45%.

* 1948 -- Thomas E. Dewey. Re-nominated, Dewey famously campaigned a second time as a liberal Republican. He was overwhelmingly favored to win. He didn't. In a classic example of moderate GOP thinking, Dewey made it plain that he wanted to "reach out" by showing a willingness to accommodate the New Deal. One Dewey biographer says FDR's longtime aide Samuel Rosenman "had taken one look at Dewey's platform and pronounced it fit for any New Dealer to run on." Conservative leader Senator Robert Taft of Ohio was convinced this was a mistake. Dewey insisted, and quite famously lost a race every poll said he had in the bag. Said an angry Taft afterwards: "The only way to handle Truman was to hit him every time he opened his mouth. The result of the election was a tragedy, largely because it was entirely unnecessary. Dewey could have won, and we could have elected a Republican Congress if the right kind of campaign had been put on." As for Dewey, his version of "reaching out" is perhaps best captured in this anecdote from his days as governor. Dewey confessed he couldn't understand why his support of a particular big government program had not profited him politically. "Why, I supported a big housing project out on Long Island and when I ran for governor all the tenants voted against me." Dewey lost to Truman 49% to 45%.

* 1960 -- Richard Nixon. Campaigning on the theme that he and JFK really weren't that different except in the experience department, Nixon lost, 49.7% to 49.5%

* 1976 -- Gerald Ford. Succeeding Nixon on Nixon's resignation, Ford's first signal to the country was making liberal GOP icon, Dewey protege and ex-New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller vice president. Running to the left of primary challenger Ronald Reagan, Ford grudgingly replaced Rocky, albeit with the moderate Bob Dole. He continued his "reaching out" by running a campaign designed to appeal to moderates. Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, 50% to 48%. (Later, the two ex-presidents Ford and Carter would become fast friends, sharing a common disdain for Reagan.)

* 1992 -- George H.W. Bush. Elected in 1988 by aggressively presenting himself as Ronald Reagan's vice president and heir, sharply attacking liberal Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis for everything from his ACLU membership to support for flag burning and paroling convicted murderer Willie Horton. Promising Americans "read my lips: no new taxes," from the moment of his inaugural speech Bush concentrated not on governing as a conservative but on "reaching out" to liberal Democrats. Specifically, in McCain fashion, he said this: "To my friends -- and yes, I do mean friends -- in the loyal opposition -- and yes, I mean loyal: I put out my hand. I am putting out my hand to you, Mr. Speaker. I am putting out my hand to you, Mr. Majority Leader. For this is the thing: This is the age of the offered hand." The age of the offered hand turned out to mean breaking his tax pledge, deserting his conservative principles and thus his conservative base. Bush lost to Bill Clinton, 43% to 37%, with Ross Perot running as an independent conservative getting 18%.

* 1996 -- Bob Dole. Dole, like McCain a revered war hero, had a long record as a moderate. Once accused by Newt Gingrich of being the "tax collector for the welfare state," he campaigned as a moderate Republican. Even putting one-time ideological nemesis Jack Kemp on his ticket could not help overcome his decades-long reputation. He lost to Clinton 49% to 40%, with just over 8% going to Perot.

IN 1952 AND 1956, AFTER two-plus decades of FDR and Truman, GOP moderates hid behind the smile of Eisenhower, the famously successful general-hero of the day who had defeated Hitler and won World War II. Otherwise, left on their own to "reach out" the moderates lost. Seven times. From Willkie to Dewey to Dole, from 1940 to 1996, the moderate GOP formula for "reaching out" to win the presidency has been tried. It failed.

After the Goldwater realignment, moderates or conservatives who ran for president as conservatives won. Nixon never made his 1960 mistake again. Running on a sharply drawn "law and order" platform in 1968, Nixon won. Repeating this approach he charged McGovern in 1972 with supporting "acid, abortion and amnesty" (the latter for Vietnam War deserters), drew a stark line between himself and his opponent and won in a 49-state landslide. Reagan won twice, landslides both. Bush 41 triumphed once as a conservative, and, learning from Dad's 1992 mistake, Bush 43 won twice, albeit by the grace of those chads the first time.) Of the eight elections involved -- 1964, 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984,1988, 2000, 2004 -- nominees running flat out as a conservative won the White House seven times.

This isn't hard to understand.

Truce with the McCainiacs based on the National Review prescription? Sure. Winning with the McCain "reach out" approach? Doubtful.

Why not a conservative campaign?

Why not victory?

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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.