Political Hay

Dear Dr. Krauthammer

O'Reilly, Roger Ailes, and the GOP Civil War.

By 11.19.13

November 12th. As the O’Reilly Factor begins, host Bill O’Reilly gets the ball rolling with a talking points discussion about the divide in the Republican Party, saying that politics are getting “even more bitter ” and that “Tea Party conservatives, as well as the hard right, continue to reject the moderate wing of the party.” O’Reilly segues to a clip of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin praising Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee and saying among other things that the two were asking for debate and that “when you stand in the middle of the road you’re going to get hit on both sides of the road.”

O’Reilly divides GOP party leaders as moderates, represented, he said, by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Senators John McCain and Marco Rubio as well as Congressman Paul Ryan. He calls conservatives the “hard right,” pegging the leadership as Senators Cruz, Lee, and Rand Paul as well as Governor Palin. O’Reilly notes that “at this point there’s no détente, both sides are far apart” and refers to the frequent labeling of “RINOs” (Republicans in Name Only) by “talk radio and some on cable news stoke the fire.”

There is a reference to the previous night’s appearance by commentator Bernard Goldberg in which Goldberg accuses the GOP “hard right” of ideological rigidity and need for ideological purity. Also mentioned: “thousands” of letters/e-mails to O’Reilly from conservatives upset with not only O’Reilly and Goldberg but Karl Rove and Brit Hume as well, accusing O’Reilly of being a “traitor” and the others as RINOs. Krauthammer acknowledged that he too had received such missives.

What was striking in all of this was Krauthammer’s insistence that the differences between conservatives and moderates are all about tactics, not goals. Among other things, Sir Charles said that:

I think this whole thing is very much blown up in the liberal media…. The difference between the hard right and moderates is really one over tactics rather than over ideology and objectives…. On objectives you tell me what is the fundamental difference between the so-called moderates and radicals. I don’t see it. We all agree on limited government, we all agree on restoration of individual rights, we all agree on liberty being the central ideal, we all agree on the restoration of individual responsibility and initiative… where’s the big difference?... This is ginned up by a lot of players for a lot of self-interested reasons…. Cool this a little bit by looking rationally at what are the real differences… and they are tactical.

Respectfully, I disagree.

So perhaps it’s best to discuss in letter form to the good doctor, who in fact is highly respected not just here but in many solidly conservative quarters.  (And for the record, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Charles Krauthammer has also been honored by many conservative organizations including both The American Spectator and, just this fall, the conservative Media Research Center. It should also, of course, be mentioned that Dr. K. has a bestseller now on his hands, Things That Matter: Three Decades of Pastimes, Passions and Politics)  and he was the subject of this recent Fox special hosted by Bret Baier.

So, a letter.

Dear Dr. Krauthammer:

The other night on the O’Reilly Factor, you made the case that the differences within the Republican Party were “really one over tactics rather than over ideology and objectives…. On objectives you tell me what is the fundamental difference between the so-called moderates and radicals. I don’t see it.”

With respect, I do see that fundamental difference. And it is certainly safe to say I am not alone in seeing some moderates as having long ago abandoned the GOP’s core beliefs  — and that is in fact a fundamental difference.

The reason there was such heat in the debate between the Cruz-Lee supporters and others over shutting down the government in order to defund Obamacare — or, at a minimum, to delay it a year — was precisely because this was seen on the conservative side of this divide as merely the latest example of moderation at work. And when I say the “latest example” I specifically mean “latest” in the sense that the moderation displayed has been going on now for decades. This was not some one-shot, one-time stand-alone difference.

There is a reason conservatives believe so-called moderates do not, in fact, share the same goals.

To use a central point at issue, just as you correctly say, at the core of the Republican Party is a belief in limited government.

Is that really the case for so-called “moderates”?

In 1980 Ronald Reagan ran for the presidency on a platform that read, in part, this on the subject of education:

… the Republican Party supports deregulation by the federal government of public education, and encourages the elimination of the federal Department of Education.

President Reagan failed to eliminate the Education Department. Why? As his OMB Director David Stockman noted in his baleful memoirs, there were Republicans who “could not and would not disown… the ‘me-too’ statism that had guided it” for the decades leading up to the Reagan presidency. Indeed, Stockman’s point was that there were so many statist Republicans in Congress at the time that there was “no political home” for the idea of limited government in the GOP.

The next Republican to serve two-terms, President Bush 43, flatly refused to abolish the Education Department. His goal, according to Karl Rove, was to “use the federal government as a lever for reform” — which is to say, increase the federal role in education. Thus the Bush contribution of  No Child Left Behind (NCLB), an expansion of the federal role in education that was the fulfillment of a campaign promise Rove thought particularly politically clever. Indeed, Rove boasting in his memoirs that after campaigning extensively on education Bush received “44 percent of the vote from those for whom education was their top issue.” Lost in this particular political calculus is that Reagan, who campaigned on outright abolition of the Department of Education in 1980, won in a 44 state landslide, while Bush, promising to add to the federal government role in education, needed the Supreme Court to get him in the White House door and in fact famously lost the popular vote to Al Gore.

The Obama Education Department budget for 2013 says:

The 2013 budget request for Salaries and Expenses (S&E) will pay the costs of staff, overhead, contracts, and other activities needed to administer and monitor the Department’s educational assistance programs.… The Department is requesting $1.767 billion for its discretionary S&E budget in 2013, an increase of $105 million over the 2012 level.

According to the New America Foundation in this reference to the Bush NCLB:   

In fiscal year 2013 over $13 billion was dedicated to Title I Grants to Local Educational Agencies, the largest NCLB program.

And the Heritage Foundation reports:

President Obama urged Congress in 2011 to quickly reauthorize the 600-plus-page No Child Left Behind legislation. The law, which has been up for reauthorization since 2007, is considered flawed by federal policymakers across the ideological spectrum. Liberals and conservatives alike seem to agree that No Child Left Behind is broken; that the law’s many unintended consequences, considerable red tape, and bureaucratic compliance burden have not served teachers or students well. There is disagreement, however, about NCLB’s future—and indeed, whether there should be a future for the Johnson-era law at all.

The Obama Administration and many on the Left believe that a ninth reauthorization of ESEA, coupled with changes in funding, adding and consolidating programs, or otherwise tweaking the law, will enable federal policymakers to “get it right” this time. Conservatives in Congress disagree and can point to a half-century of federal failure to improve educational outcomes. As a result, conservatives in Congress have offered proposals to significantly limit the federal role in education, along with proposals to allow states to opt out of No Child Left Behind completely.

How many federal employees work for this one program? What about pension costs for those employees? How many joined a federal union, their dues headed out the door to union contributions for pro-statist, anti-limited government conservative candidates? In other words, just in this one area, the conservative attempt to abolish an entire Cabinet department, one that, as a Jimmy Carter creation, is relatively new at that — was both sabotaged by statist Republicans in the Reagan era, then abandoned wholesale by the Bush 43 Administration.

Which is to say, when it came to the “goal” — the core belief of limited government — the GOP moderates in the Reagan-era Congress balked. Not to mention those moderates later running the Bush 43 Administration, beginning with the President himself and aides like Mr. Rove who not only abandoned ship on abolishing the Education Department but went over to the other side completely. Increasing both the federal role in education not to mention the size and cost of the federal government. Recall, President Bush’s prime ally in creating No Child Left Behind was the late Senator Ted Kennedy — whose nickname was famously based on his reputation as the liberal “lion of the Senate.”    

As if to underscore the difference with Reagan and conservatives, on March 23, 2007, President Bush signed a bill naming the Department of Education headquarters in Washington as the “Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building.” In its own way, a perfect symbol of the problem with Republican moderates: Not only did they abandon the core belief in limited government by turning their backs on Reagan’s goal of abolishing the Department, they went out of their way to grow the government role in education and name the Department they refused to abolish for LBJ, the father of the Great Society, the failed 1960s liberal attempt at utopia.

But it would be wrong to limit this discussion to President Bush 43 and Karl Rove.

In 2012 the GOP Establishment nominated the father of Romneycare — the inspiration for Obamacare.

In 2008 the GOP Establishment nominated the author of the McCain-Kennedy “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act” and McCain-Feingold, a law that used the federal government to suppress free speech.

In 1996 the GOP Establishment nominated Bob Dole, who spent an entire Senate career acceding to the idea of getting the federal government involved in one program after another — food stamps, Meals on Wheels, women and children’s nutrition programs being but a handful of examples. So involved was Dole in raising taxes to meet these and other perceived governmental obligations that Newt Gingrich once set-off a mini-firestorm in the Reagan era by referring to then-Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dole as “the tax collector for the welfare state.”

The Bush 41 era is always the prime example. The Bush “read my lips” pledge — low taxes a GOP goal — was quickly abandoned by Bush after his election as supposedly Reagan’s “heir” in 1988.  

None of these policies promoted by Messrs: Bush 41, Dole, Bush 43, McCain, and Romney — respectively the last five GOP presidential nominees were about the supposed Republican goal of limiting government. Not one.  

In fact, in the wake of the Bush 41 tax increase, long before the political advent of Sarah Palin Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul, a GOP civil war was already in the news.

It is instructive to note that way back there in the Bush 41 era, to be specific December 18, 1990, the idea of a GOP “civil war” surfaced in the New York Times. Longtime conservative activist Richard Viguerie wrote a piece titled: "Bush Loses the Right Wing."

Wrote Mr. Viguerie:

Not since Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Gerald Ford has the Republican Party been as bitterly divided as it is today. George Bush and his minions are heading into a civil war with GOP conservatives that will leave the political fields covered with blood.

President Bush has lost all his credibility with conservatives... 

Conservatives believe that the GOP’s gains of the 1980’s largely resulted from the strategy of drawing a more definite ideological line between the Republicans and Democrats. The (Bush) Administration has assaulted that strategy and has offended ordinary voters.…

What America had in the White House, said Viguerie, was “more like another Nixon-Ford Administration.”

Tellingly, in light of today’s argument that you cite about tactics and goals, Viguerie concluded:

George Bush spent the Reagan era telling conservatives: Trust me I am one of you, I will continue the Reagan revolution. His agreement to raise taxes was not just a bad tactical maneuver, it was a breach of faith. Mr. Bush has revived the image that haunted Republicans for 50 years: the little man in the top hat in the Monopoly game….

Members of the Establishment — the folks who have sent our sons to die in no-win wars, who have bused kids across town to schools where prayer was almost the only activity not allowed — have now raised our taxes to pay for an increase in an already bloated budget. As their agent, Mr. Bush has done more harm to the GOP than any Democrat in decades.

The Rockefeller-Ford and Goldwater-Reagan wings long struggled for control of the party. Ronald Reagan’s election was supposed to have settled the issue, but only delayed the day of reckoning. The matters of principle dividing the wings are too great to be decided by negotiation and mediation. The shelling of Fort Sumter has begun.

Just as Viguerie predicted, the Bush popularity nose-dived and, after insistently pursuing the moderate GOP agenda for four years the result was a humiliating 37% in the 1992 electiony — handing the White House to the Clintons.

The reason for the intensity of conservative feeling that Bill O’Reilly cited and the two of you discussed is without doubt that at this point in history — as was already true back when Viguerie was making his all-too-accurate prediction about a GOP civil war in 1990 — the decades are littered with moderate Republicans exhibiting not simply a difference over tactics, but over the very goals of the Republican Party.   

As far back as the post-New Deal candidacy of Thomas E. Dewey in 1944 and 1948, candidate Dewey was demanding that the GOP be “a liberal and progressive party.” In one form or another, boldly acknowledged as with Dewey or disguised as the Bush 43 “compassionate conservative” gambit, it is crystal clear that the goals of some Republicans are decidedly not about, as you say, “limited government… restoration of individual rights… liberty being the central ideal… the restoration of individual responsibility and initiative.”  When you ask “where’s the big difference?” I would suggest it is right there with moderates whose view of the federal government and its role is entirely different from that of the party’s the conservative base.

As has been discussed here before this difference was well expressed by Margaret Thatcher’s longtime adviser, the late Sir Keith Joseph. Joseph believed that the internal dynamics of politics continually ratcheted left — and that British Conservatives had simply acceded to what was called socialist  ratcheting. To be a Conservative Prime Minister was to simply manage the leftward, socialist ratchets of the last Labour government, never to change course. The reason for Thatcher’s success — and Reagan’s in America — was precisely because they did not go along with the leftward socialist ratcheting and sought to ratchet rightward. To go completely in the other direction.

When today’s conservatives listen to any GOP moderate — what they hear is a stubborn refusal to break from the rigid ideology of moderation. Terms like “rigid” and “purity test” are frequently applied to conservatives, when in fact it is moderates who demand adherence to the American version of the socialist ratchet. Moderate Republicans are determined… make that obsessed… about turning that socialist ratchet leftward, just not as fast and hopefully better managed.

Look again at that list of favorite programs revered by those five moderate GOP nominees. Tax increases (Bush 41), increases in federal programs on nutrition, food stamps, Meals on Wheels plus tax increases (Dole), No Child Left Behind (Bush 43), McCain-Kennedy and McCain-Feingold (McCain), Romneycare (Romney).

In an America where the nation now has a $17 trillion deficit and $90 trillion in unfunded liabilities, in no small part because of the role of GOP moderates, with the ship of state seen as heading directly for a financial Niagara Falls — the patience of conservatives has run out.

Charles, you work at Fox as a commentator. Years ago before there was a Fox News, your friend and boss Roger Ailes wrote a book called You Are the Message

Ailes spent time in the book telling the tale of coaching my old boss Ronald Reagan for Reagan’s second debate against your old boss Walter Mondale.  After a terrible first debate for Reagan, Ailes knew that the real issue for Americans was whether Reagan was too old to be president. Reagan needed to communicate in the second debate that he was completely at ease and in charge, something that had to be done not just in word but with inflexion, body language, and facial expressions. Reagan himself, in other words, had to be the message. When the moment came with a reporter’s question about his age, Reagan’s eyes twinkled, there was a bare hint of a smile, the familiar assured nod of his head, then the line Reagan had come up with himself: Yes, he was up for the job, “and I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign.  I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The audience burst into laughter, the camera catching Mondale laughing in spite of himself.  You know the rest. (As I believe you recently revealed in your special with Fox’s Bret Baier – Reagan even won a very telling vote in 1984: yours!)

Ailes’ point:

 …words themselves are meaningless unless the rest of you is in synchronization. 

When moderate Republicans say they are conservatives, when they salt their speeches with references to Ronald Reagan, they are not believed precisely because so many conservatives, to borrow from Roger Ailes, understand instinctively that the words of moderates are meaningless because the rest of what they do is not in synch with what they say.

Mitt Romney proclaimed himself a “severe conservative,” his awkward phraseology telegraphing that this was the father of RomneyCare, which Obama liberals repeatedly proclaimed as their role model for Obamacare. John McCain telegraphed his real views with his actual stance on immigration and McCain-Feingold. The message of Bush 41 on taxes was received and seen instantly as confirmation of what many conservatives suspected all along — Reagan’s vice president was in fact not “one of us.”

Governor Christie is sailing into this exact and entirely predictable storm. Unaware that the phrase “getting things done” is a euphemism for “I am a liberal, Establishment Republican.”  Shimmying on Meet the Press by dismissing the very idea of calling himself a conservative or moderate by saying he doesn’t “get into these labels” and calling the whole idea “a Washington, D.C. game.” A far cry from Reagan’s repeated declarations of his conservative convictions and just why he held them. No conservative in America is fooled by someone new to the scene who is in fact playing the tired game with the “no labels” business that is in fact as old as it is instantly recognizable.

As Roger Ailes might have it, the words of moderates never match the message of their actions. Moderates are perpetually out of synch.  Which is why the popularity with the conservative base of people like Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Sarah Palin — whose actions are in perfect synch with their words.   

This current series of GOP internal disputes, then, is not about tactics. It is in fact about shared goals. And when moderate Republicans repeatedly try and talk the conservative talk while their programmatic body language says exactly to the contrary — they compound the problem by undermining their own credibility.

Leading to the much validated concern of conservatives that when moderate Republicans run for president or any other office they lose outright. Or, worse, when they win by the skin of their political teeth  or even the rare landslide they immediately set about the task of continuing, in Thatcherite language, to manage the goals of the socialist ratchet rather than pulling the country forward in another direction entirely — to core conservative goals.

If the moderate-conservative issue in the GOP were a marriage, the issue under discussion would be repeated, serial infidelity.

So, respectfully, Dr. K?

This is a problem. It’s a big problem. It’s not about a passing quibble over tactics, it’s about the end goals.  

Can this marriage be saved?

You’re a psychiatrist.You tell me!

Best wishes on your book, and thanks for your time.

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About the Author

 Jeffrey Lord, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is a former aide to Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan. An author and CNN commentator, he writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com and @JeffJlpa1. His new book, What America Needs: The Case for Trump, is now out from Regnery Publishing.