Today’s column on Joe Scarborough was written before I saw his piece this morning in Politico.
It is stunning to see such muddled cluelessness in print.
Joe begins by comparing the GOP’s current woes to the collapse of the Whigs in the 1850s, then moves on to Herbert Hoover and the “20 years in the wilderness” that followed. Mentioning the Democrats losing five out of six elections after the 1968 “radicalization of their base” he ends his beginning by noting the “GOP lost the popular vote in five of their last six runs for the White House in part because they couldn’t keep pace with the rapid change in demographic realities.”
Where to begin?
The Whigs collapsed indeed precisely as Scarborough notes — because they didn’t have the spine to stand against slavery. They were the “moderates” of the day and they deserved to lose and fade away.
Herbert Hoover, inheriting the conservative legacy of Calvin Coolidge immediately moved the GOP left. A Progressive Republican with a capital PR, Hoover was so popular with liberals of the day that Franklin Roosevelt had hoped the Democrats would nominate him in 1920 — with a young FDR as Hoover’s running mate. Hoover instead announced he was a Republican. While FDR did make it onto the Democratic ticket as the vice-presidential candidate, Harding and Coolidge won the day and Hoover went into the GOP Cabinet as Secretary of Commerce.
Where, eight years later, Coolidge noted that Hoover had spent his time giving Coolidge advice — “all of it bad.” Be that as it may, in an election that presaged the Reagan-Bush transfer in 1988, the popular Hoover was chosen as Coolidge’s successor and carrying Coolidge’s conservative flag into the election won in a landslide.
Four years later, having run the country in his Progressive Republican way replete with a tax increase from the mid-20s rate to 63 percent and a host of new regulations, plus signing on to the Smoot-Hawley tariff, he gave us the Great Depression. Hoover lost in a landslide to FDR, the conservative legacy of Coolidge lost. For the next 20 years the GOP turned incessantly to progressive — or as they came to be called “moderate” Republicans. From Hoover they went to Alf Landon to Wendell Willkie to Tom Dewey twice, each and all “moderates” of the Colin Powell variety. They struck gold in 1952 — only because the great hero of World War II, Eisenhower, was a moderate. The Eisenhower victories were personal, embodied in his slogan: everybody “liked Ike.” Trying the same schtick with Nixon in 1960 — Nixon opening the first and most famous of his debates with John F. Kennedy by saying that he and JFK agreed on many things — Nixon lost.
The move to bring the party back to its Lincoln conservative roots was on. In a massive struggle, the moderates lost control of the GOP to Goldwater.
Did Goldwater lose in a landslide? Yes. For all manner of reasons, not the least that the country was still horrified by JFK’s brutal assassination and had no intention of having a fourth president in four years. Moderate Republicans, sulking as moderates do, simply refused to support Goldwater.
But one Republican famously went all out for Goldwater — Ronald Reagan. He understood the message — and he knew how to communicate it. And as was noted by no less than the New York Times at the time of Reagan’s televised October speech, “A Time For Choosing,” it was Reagan who emerged as the best communicator of conservative principles. It might do Morning Joe well to spend some time going back to watch Reagan’s speech again — here’s the link for it.
The rest — the great, the good and the bad is known. But not, apparently, understood by Joe Scarborough. The “dreadful collapse” he mentions in his Politico piece this morning didn’t come about because the GOP was faithful to conservatism. To the contrary. These abysmal defeats came about because conservatism was abandoned. Specifically, first by President George H.W.Bush — a great and wonderful man but a moderate first, last, and always. Like Hoover with Coolidge, Bush ran on the record of his predecessor, won a third GOP landslide in a row — and immediately abandoned conservatism on taking the White House. Like Hoover, Bush raised taxes, infamously breaking his “read my lips” pledge. Like Hoover, he got clobbered as a result.
Ever since the GOP has nominated one moderate Republican after another — Dole, Bush 43 twice, McCain, Romney. In each and every case these nominees ran as the next Hoover, the next Bush 41 — chanting Reagan’s name as if it were some sort of necessary but painful ritual. But conservative policies? Nah. From tax increases (Dole) to “compassionate conservatism” and Medicare Part B (Bush 43) to McCain-Feingold to RomneyCare the resulting fraternity Republicanism has indeed either gotten clobbered or won by the skin of its teeth.
It is precisely this Hoover-Bush school of moderation to which Colin Powell belongs. That was my impression in the day when I introduced General Powell to our White House briefings for Reagan supporters. My former colleague Peter Robinson, a speechwriter for Reagan who wrote the famous “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” Berlin speech, recalls how Powell made it a point to repeatedly oppose keeping that line in Reagan’s speech — overruled finally only by Reagan himself. A typical moderate was — and is — Powell.
In short, what Scarborough and Colin Powell are saying is that if only the GOP would be more like — pick your favorite loser — the GOP would win. Sure.
Ronald Reagan himself never believed that — as I certainly can say. He himself was called an “extremist” by all manner of GOP moderates from the moment he appeared on the political scene. California moderate Republicans couldn’t stand him. Notably then-former President Ford went to the Times with the “Reagan is an extremist” line in 1980. Ford insisted a conservative couldn’t win — this, like all the other moderate nominees, after losing himself. To Jimmy Carter.
The problem, Joe, is that moderates have been running this party for too long — straight into the ground.
Once again, it’s a Time for Choosing.