Reagan’s December Declaration: GOP “Not a Fraternal Order”

Ronald Reagan would have loved Marco Rubio.

Not to mention Pat Toomey.

Rubio, the current State House Speaker is the conservative challenger to liberal Republican Governor Charlie Crist’s U.S. Senate bid in next year’s Florida GOP primary. Toomey, famously, came within a whisker of beating Republican U.S. Senator Arlen Specter in the 2004 Pennsylvania primary when Toomey was serving as a Republican Congressman from Allentown. The challenge was renewed for 2010. Taking a look at polls that showed Pennsylvania Republicans finally fed up with his liberal views, the final straw being a vote in favor of the Obama stimulus package, Specter chose to switch to the Democrats — guaranteeing Toomey the GOP Senate nomination.

The challenge to GOP liberals by GOP conservatives has set off the usual teeth-grinding about demands for party “purity.” Snapped Michigan Republican Congressman Thaddeus McCotter to The American Spectator‘s Jim Antle recently: “I’ve seen the game of trying to purge Republicans of those who are ‘RINOs’ or not pure enough…I have one question: How’d that work out for us?”

Well, now that you mention it, pretty well, actually.

But let’s go back to if not to the beginning but the middle of the beginning on this old chestnut of an argument.

The time? December, 1976. As the story opens on this fifteenth day of the month, ten days before Christmas, the Republican Party is at a crossroads. The dominant force in American politics for generations since its beginning in the 1850’s when it came into being around the premiere social issue of the day, the “right” to own another human being — slavery — the GOP of 1976 is in trouble.

How did it get here?

Up until 1932, as the late Jack Kemp loved to note, the Republican Party was “the home of black Americans, the party of Lincoln, of economic growth, of equal opportunity.” The so-called “progressive movement” — really a rallying cry for economic redistribution and the politics of envy — swept through the nation in the form of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. While liberal historians love to ignore the fact, Republican Herbert Hoover was enamored of progressives and, unlike his conservative predecessor Calvin Coolidge, considered himself to be one of them. Coolidge took a dim view of Hoover, whom he had kept on as Commerce Secretary in order to preserve a sense of stability following the sudden death of President Harding. Later, Coolidge would gripe that Hoover had spent their entire time together in government giving Coolidge advice “all of it bad.”

In fact, Hoover was one of the first of what would become known as the “me-too” Republicans, picking up on progressive movement ideas of the late 1920s and early 1930s and saying “me too” — only a little less so. Whether the issue was the historic Lincoln beliefs in economic growth and equal opportunity, best expressed in the 1920s by Coolidge’s Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, or the idea of a permanent “gift tax” — Hoover was as one with progressives, believing that there was only so much wealth to go around and a bigger government had a distinct and ever growing role in managing this wealth. In what would become a familiar pattern with Republican liberals, he was Franklin Roosevelt only less so.

As Amity Shlaes records in The Forgotten Man:

Both preferred to control events and people. Both underestimated the strength of the American economy. Both doubted its ability to right itself in a storm. Hoover mistrusted the stock market. Roosevelt mistrusted it more. Roosevelt offered rhetorical optimism, but pessimism underlay his policies. Though Americans associated Roosevelt with bounty, his insistent emphasis on sharing — rationing, almost — betrayed a conviction that the country had entered a permanent era of scarcity. Both presidents overestimated the value of government planning. Hoover, the Quaker, favored the community over the individual. Roosevelt, the Episcopalian, found laissez-faire economics immoral and disturbingly un-Christian.

In one fashion or another, through Hoover’s election in 1928 on through to the mid-December of 1976, some variation of this argument had gripped the Republican Party. A string of me-too GOP presidential nominees had faced off against Democrats using this argument to persuade the electorate — and failed repeatedly. From Hoover himself in 1932 to Wendell Willkie in 1940, Thomas E. Dewey in 1944 and 1948, on through Eisenhower and the Richard Nixon of 1960, only Eisenhower the World War II hero had managed a win — a win for heroism, not moderation. Scores of self-described “moderate Republicans” had won state and congressional elections in this period, managing with a liberal national press to give the impression that “me-tooism” was the wave of the future in terms of building the GOP.

The argument finally sundered the GOP in 1964, with Arizona conservative Barry Goldwater’s victory over GOP liberal New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Reagan himself was launched politically during this particular battle, his October, 1964 speech for nominee Goldwater electrifying the blossoming conservative movement.

Nixon appeared to momentarily bridge the gap in 1968 — presenting himself as a middle road between the views of now Governor Reagan and Governor Rockefeller. Governing as a moderate, Nixon still campaigned relentlessly as a red-meat conservative, the Nixon campaign winning a landslide over liberal Senator George McGovern in 1972 in part on charges the Democrat was representing the party of “acid, abortion and amnesty.”

With the resignations of both Nixon and Vice President Agnew as the 1976 campaign season loomed, Reagan, newly retired after two successful terms as Governor of California, watched, appalled, as the new GOP President Gerald Ford nominated Rockefeller as his vice president and started marching the GOP along the same weary and worn-out road to me-tooism. The gauntlet had been thrown, and Reagan picked it up.

On one side in this showdown of the 1976 primary and convention season were Ford and the moderates — epitomized by Rockefeller and his fellow New Yorker, liberal Republican Senator Jacob Javits — versus the conservatives as led by Reagan. Once again the “conservatives can’t win” argument was trotted out. Once again — although this time narrowly — the moderate candidate (Ford, in this case) triumphed. And once again, the moderate Republican nominee lost, this time to Democrat and liberal Jimmy Carter.

By December 15, Reagan had more than had enough. Ford had summoned Reagan, Rockefeller and Democrat-turned Republican John Connally — the ex-Texas governor who had served Nixon as Treasury Secretary — to the White House for a chat on the future of the GOP. As liberals were gleefully planning the Carter administration inaugural for the following month, President Ford was trying his best to mend the internal fences of the GOP in true moderate style. Who should be the new GOP chair, he wanted to know? What changes in the party structure should be made.

Reagan quietly seethed. To him, the problem was not party structure. It wasn’t this or that person sitting in the chairman’s job. It was something else altogether. A handful of days later, sitting in his Los Angeles office, Reagan sat down with a reporter from the New York Times and gave his answer to Ford, Rockefeller, and the party moderates who had by now produced one losing presidential campaign after another for 44 years.

The headline the next day was stark:

REAGAN URGES HIS PARTY TO SAVE ITSELF BY DECLARING ITS CONSERVATIVE BELIEFS

With an accompanying picture of a relaxed and smiling Reagan, the former governor made plain his answer to the question most recently posed in The American Spectator article featuring Congressman McCotter. He answered by rejecting the McCotter premise entirely, in fact turning it around. The way to the future was not by catering to what we now call RINOs — “Republicans in Name Only” like a Charlie Crist or Arlen Specter today — or a Jacob Javits of yesterday. Reagan proposed something else.

Instead of appealing to Democrats by becoming more liberal, Reagan saw the answer as “courting conservatives who now call themselves Democrats and independents.” Said Reagan, in words that surely astonished the Times reporter:

“The former California Governor said that Republicans could be saved from extinction only by acting quickly to assert the party’s ideological identity. A declaration of conservative beliefs, he said in an interview in his Los Angeles office, might drive a number of Northern liberals out of the party, but that loss would be more than offset by potential gains in the South and West.”

Did this mean Reagan would support a third party, the reporter asked?

“No!” was Reagan’s emphatic answer:

“The largest grouping of a common philosophy is to be found in the Republican Party. Now, if that’s true, why do you risk breaking it up to start all over again, because if a third party is started, you know there are people who have a sense of loyalty to the party who would not leave it.”

“The Republican Party would not say 100 percent we are going to move over to the new party. You would then break the single biggest grouping of people with the common philosophy that you have in the country. So we should take that as our starting point and build upon it.”

So what would this Reagan-approach mean for RINOs? In December of 1976 that specifically meant New York’s liberal Republican Senator and Rockefeller ally Jacob Javits, a leading “RINO” of the day — the Arlen Specter or Charlie Crist, if you will.

Reagan was clear — and firm:

Senator Javits might have some problems staying within the party. Again, however, we are not ushering anyone out of the party. 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.

On January 20, 1977, Jimmy Carter took the oath of office as the 39th president, settling down to the nitty-gritty of a liberal administration whose guiding lights were economic scarcity, cutting defense spending and a belief that Americans and the world had an “inordinate fear” of Communism that could best be resolved by accepting the permanent presence of the Soviet Union and a Communist Eastern Europe.

Eleven days after Carter’s swearing-in, Reagan announced the formation of what the Times called a “permanent political group to back conservative Republican causes and candidates.” Citizens for the Republic — which in 1976 had been Citizens for Reagan — was an early precursor of the idea that is now personified by groups like the Club for Growth.

Five days after that, Reagan appeared in person to give the main address to a fledgling group of activists called the Conservative Political Action Committee. Said the former Governor:

Our task now is not to sell a philosophy but to make the majority of Americans, who already share that philosophy, see that modern conservatism offers them a political home. We are not a cult. We are members of a majority. Let’s act and talk like it.

Ronald Reagan’s December declaration in 1976 is as relevant today as it was then.

Reagan was not about “purging” anyone. He was about inclusivity — understanding that conservatism was not a cult but rather the majority philosophy of the American people. It was a philosophy that, boldly identified and presented, was more than capable of both winning elections and governing the country.

As it turned out, of course, Reagan was right. In 1980 Senator Javits was defeated in the New York Republican primary by a little-known conservative named Alfonse D’Amato. Stung, Javits clung to the ballot as the Liberal Party nominee. He lost his seat to D’Amato in the Reagan landslide — the same conservative landslide that brought an end to some of liberalism’s most celebrated names like McGovern, Birch Bayh of Indiana and Frank Church of Idaho.

Reagan didn’t have to “purge” RINOs, as Congressman McCotter’s remark might suggest. He simply brought the party back to its philosophical roots of economic growth, equal opportunity, colorblindness, and support for social issues that had begun the party and led it to repeated victories up until 1932. Those who turned their backs on this historically rooted party philosophy, like Javits, not only left the party in defeat but had their careers ended for good. In doing this Reagan ushered in another era of conservative philosophical inclusiveness and clarity, which in turn led to revolutionary changes in the modern world.

How’d that work out for us?

Again, contrary to the McCotter thought, it worked out pretty well. Scratch that. Very well. And having cast that Reagan approach aside in 2008, and in 2006 before that, the results of RINOism — the approach of Willkie and Dewey and Dole and McCain — should say something to Republicans if they are willing to listen.

Ronald Reagan was right all those many Decembers ago. A recent Gallup poll demonstrates yet again that he would still be right today.

Today’s RINOs, today’s Javits, are free to go, like Arlen Specter — or free to stay, like Charlie Crist. But conservatism is not a fraternal order. As Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey understand along with Ronald Reagan, it’s a political philosophy. And a winning one.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize President Reagan would know exactly what conservatives should be doing today in the Obama era. Actually, he already said it.

“We are members of a majority. Let’s act and talk like it.”

Which is exactly what Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey are doing.

Jeffrey Lord
Jeffrey Lord
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 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.
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