“Ford Declares Reagan Can’t Win” — Headline in The New York Times, March 1, 1980
Yet still more mush from the wimps.
To borrow a famous Reagan phrase: “Well, there they go again.”
Somewhere an exasperated Gipper is doubtless shaking his head.
The war between conservatives and the Republican Establishment — and make no mistake, this is a war — is on once more.
The people who brought the GOP losing candidates from Dewey to Dole are at it again.
Last week’s assault on Newt Gingrich — with various Romney supporters seriously and deceptively trying to tell unwitting voters that Gingrich was never really a real Reagan ally — in reality has nothing to do with Newt Gingrich at all.
The attack on Gingrich’s Reagan credentials, by the way, which I discussed here, backfired badly on the Romney forces. They were quickly dropped when:
• Reagan’s White House political director and campaign manager Ed Rollins crisply dismissed them, Rollins saying that Gingrich in the Reagan-era was “one of the most important players and most loyal to Ronald Reagan.”
• Another video surfaced of Nancy Reagan saying, “Ronnie turned that torch over to Newt”
• Last but certainly not least, Michael Reagan spoke up, pointedly ending the entire idiotic line of attack. Said Ronald Reagan’s son:
I am deeply disturbed that supporters of Mitt Romney are claiming that Newt Gingrich is not a true Reaganite and are even claiming that Newt was a strong critic of my father.
Recently I endorsed Newt Gingrich for president because I believe that Newt is the only Republican candidate who has both consistently backed the conservative policies that my father championed and the only Republican that will continue to implement his vision.
Game. Set. Match.
But the real question here is: Why? Why do this kind of politically senseless, totally tone-deaf thing?
There is an answer. An answer directly related to that headline above quoting former President Gerald Ford as insisting Reagan couldn’t win the general election in 1980. The same charge, by the way, that Ford made against Reagan in 1976 when the two tangled over that year’s presidential nomination.
Sarah Palin knows the answer. Governor Palin gets it.
And the former Alaska Governor, with characteristic courage, was not shy about taking the conservative fight directly to the GOP Establishment with this statement on Facebook titled “Cannibals in GOP Establishment Employ Tactics of the Left.” Starting off this way, Palin said:
The Republican establishment which fought Ronald Reagan in the 1970s and which continues to fight the grassroots Tea Party movement today….
Palin continued in this vein, adding:
But this whole thing isn’t really about Newt Gingrich vs. Mitt Romney. It is about the GOP establishment vs. the Tea Party grassroots and independent Americans who are sick of the politics of personal destruction used now by both parties’ operatives with a complicit media egging it on.
Sarah Palin is dead-on right.
If Newt Gingrich disappeared from the planet today and in his place stood only Rick Santorum — or Sarah Palin herself or some other conservative — you can be certain the Establishment GOP would have their sights trained on that conservative, running some version of precisely the same multi-gazillion dollar campaign they are running against Newt Gingrich right now. As a matter of fact, they did exactly this to Governor Palin from the very moment she stepped on the national stage in 2008. If by chance Rick Santorum emerges as the sole conservative left in this race — look out Rick.
Why is this?
The hard fact of the political matter, to give the short version, is that with the advent of the American progressive movement at the beginning of the 20th century, there were many in the Republican Party who in their own fashion went over the side, abandoning the good ship of conservative principles. It’s not that they necessarily left the GOP — although some, most prominently Theodore Roosevelt — did so. No, what happened is that they simply folded like a cheap suit, caving to what they were certain would be the eternal popularity of the progressive movement. Becoming what was eventually known as the “me-too” Republican. Or, in the tart summation of Barry Goldwater, supporters of “the dime store New Deal.” Today, the name is RINO — Republican in Name Only.
The real problem on display with the Romney-Gingrich duel is that since the advent of the GOP moderate, moderation has become the default position of the Republican Establishment. In the day, to decry the New Deal or the Great Society or, today, abortion or gay marriage or any number of other liberal favorites, is to open oneself up to social approbation from this or that set of self-anointed elites. Elites who put a premium on being seen as “moderate,” “nice,” and “smart” as opposed to “extreme,” “mean,” or — God forbid — “not very bright.” Sniff, sniff and all of that.
As someone who grew up for all but two years in the Northeastern United States (Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania, with considerable professional time afterwards in Washington) this is something one learns quickly. In truth, for some, to be perceived as somehow challenging these so-called values is so much of a psychological freak-out (invitations to the right parties dwindle, the right friends shy away, business possibilities — income — can be negatively affected) that it is simply easier to just shut up and join the herd.
Politically speaking, for many in the GOP Establishment this is a terrifying set of thoughts. In an electoral sense, to not be suitably “moderate” equates to losing elections. After all, if voters (read: “Independents”) don’t want to have you at their parties or even be friends with you or do business –much less if they think you’re not very smart — why would they ever vote for you or your candidates?
Perhaps the best expression of this moderate GOP world view came over half a century ago — 63 years, to be exact — from the premiere moderate Republican of the day. That would be New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey.
Here’s a sampling of Dewey from a speech in Washington delivered in February 1949 — months after he had managed to lose the presidency. For the second time. Said the moderate Dewey:
The Republican Party is split wide open. It has been split wide open for years, but we have tried to gloss it over….We have in our party some fine, high-minded patriotic people who honestly oppose… social programs (as) horrendous departures into paternalism…
Some 63 years and $15 trillion in debt later, with the country teetering on financial disaster and the tidal wave of un-payable entitlements looming, the reason so many of those early conservatives were horrified at what Dewey proposed has come all too vividly clear. If Thomas E. Dewey had lived long enough to read Mark Levin’s Ameritopia, even Dewey might finally understand what this feckless, wimpy moderation of conservatism has wrought.
And how did Dewey think the Republican Party would fare if it failed to nominate moderate candidates who did not view the GOP as …and you’ll love this Dewey quote…a “liberal and progressive party”? What would happen politically were the GOP to return to its origins and nominate a conservative? Said Dewey: “You can bury the Republican Party as the deadest pigeon in the country.”
In short, the man who had just finished losing the White House for the second time in a row as a moderate — following a string of losing moderate GOP presidential campaigns featuring names like Hoover, Landon, and Willkie — had all by himself raised the moderate losing streak to five in a row. Yet Dewey had the gall to insist that nominating a conservative would result in: losing the White House.
Can we talk chutzpah?
THIS HYMN TO MODERATION-as-an-election-winner was the same song being sung by Gerald Ford some 31 years later when Ford was insisting that Ronald Reagan would be a loser as well if nominated in 1980. The fact that Ford had made the same argument successfully about Reagan in 1976 — and then lost to Jimmy Carter as Dewey himself had lost — twice — never even caused Ford to blink. Ford went on at length in this March 1980 Times interview, digging moderate Republicans an even deeper political hole in 1980 than the one they were already in thanks to Dewey and the GOP Establishment. Assured the latest moderate GOP icon of the day:
“Every place I go and everything I hear, there is growing, growing sentiment that Governor Reagan cannot win the election…. I hear more and more often that we don’t want, can’t afford to have a replay of 1964 [the Goldwater defeat by LBJ].”
The Times reporter wrote the rest of the Ford interview story this way:
Asked if he shared the view that Mr. Reagan could not win, Mr. Ford said “it would be an impossible situation” because Mr. Reagan is “perceived as a most conservative Republican.”
“A very conservative Republican,” he said, “can’t win in a national election.”
Meaning [asked the reporter] that Mr. Reagan can’t win?
“That’s right,” replied Mr. Ford.
You might call this an electoral learning disability. Ronald Reagan carried 44 states in his 1980 landslide over Jimmy Carter, the man who had defeated Gerald Ford in 1976. In 1984, Reagan was re-elected, carrying 49 states and coming within a few thousand votes of carrying the 50th — opponent Walter Mondale’s home state of Minnesota.
Years later, after both Reagan and Ford had died, Ford biographer and Newsweek‘s White House correspondent during the Ford era, Thomas DeFrank, wrote a book based on his long off-the-record conversations with his friend Jerry Ford. The book, Write It When I’m Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conservations with Gerald R. Ford, sums up the moderate Ford’s thoughts on the conservative Reagan in March of 1980 in a more potent, decidedly then-unprintable fashion.
Writes DeFrank of what Ford really thought:
Translation: The thought of Ronald Reagan becoming my party’s nominee makes me want to puke.
THIS, OF COURSE, IS PRECISELY the kind of stuff now being said of Newt Gingrich by Mitt Romney’s Establishment supporters right this minute. It is exactly the kind of sentiment Governor Palin was addressing when she said that this argument was really about the GOP Establishment versus the Tea Party. To wit: “cannibalism.”
Palin has also put her finger on the problem when she said that the Establishment GOP had “adopted the tactics of the left in using the media and the politics of personal destruction to attack an opponent.”
This is correct. And there is a reason for it. The very “moderation” sought by the Establishment is designed to nudge America’s conservative party ever so appropriately and socially acceptably — left. Thus there is no mystery why the leftist tactics Palin cites surface inside the GOP Establishment.
William F. Buckley once noted that liberals, the very premise of their ideology challenged, morph quickly into beings of what Buckley termed “hurtling irrationality.” Since one of the joint underpinnings of liberals and Republican moderates is an always amusing sense of intellectual superiority that is amusing primarily because of its hilarious untruth, one could easily say that the Establishment GOP is possessed, adapting from Buckley, of “moderate mania.”
But I wonder when else, in the history of controversy, there has been such consistent intemperance, insularity and irascibility as the custodians of the liberal orthodoxy have shown toward conservatives who question some of the orthodoxy’s premises?
Substitute for Buckley’s word “liberal” the words “GOP moderates” or “the Republican Establishment” and the reality of the attacks against Newt Gingrich are instantly clear.
Attack the moderates’ core belief that they are somehow electable — in spite of their long record as political losers — and they come at you, as Buckley also noted with amusement, with lances cocked. And that’s before you challenge them on the perpetual squishiness of their views on issues of the day. This, in short form, is precisely how an alarmed Romney campaign and GOP Establishment is responding to Newt — and would respond to Santorum if need be.
PERHAPS A SHADE MORE indelicately put, and borrowing from a once-famous headline about Jimmy Carter, conservatives see the central theme of the moderate Romney campaign and the GOP Establishment — as it was from the Dewey campaigns, the Ford campaign, or for that matter any moderate campaign anywhere being pushed by the GOP Establishment — as amounting to nothing other than yet more “mush from the wimps.”
Since this business centers in Florida at the moment, can you say “Charlie Crist”?
But what happens if a moderate Republican actually manages to win?
It happens. Blind pigs and acorns and all of that.
Reagan biographer Stephen F. Hayward (The Age of Reagan) captured the results precisely in this description of the difference between the Reagan presidency and that of Reagan’s moderate GOP successor, his own vice president — George H.W. Bush.
Wrote Hayward: “It was said of Bush appointees that, unlike Reaganites, they had mortgages rather than ideologies.”
Another way of saying, perhaps, that the difference between a Romney/Establishment Republican presidency of moderation or liberal Republicanism, and a conservative (Gingrich or Santorum or Palin or other) Reagan-style presidency is that Romney’s would be a mortgage presidency — filled with people who simply want to pay their own mortgage by having a nice job working for a president. Versus a conservative presidency like Reagan’s, specifically filled with people focusing on the use of ideology and imagination to move America forward.
This hostility to conservative ideas and imagination under the guise of intellectual superiority is precisely illustrated in recent episodes.
A case in point would be the sneering directed at Newt Gingrich’s thoughts about moving the country deeper into the 21st century of science and technology by setting a goal of having colonies on the moon by the end of his second term.
Once upon a time in America, John F. Kennedy had an earlier version of the same Gingrich thought. On a visit to Rice University in Houston, Texas in 1962, JFK said this about precisely the kind of vision and imagination Newt Gingrich is talking about:
The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space.
But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
And what was Mitt Romney’s positively disdainful response the other night in one of those debates when the subject of going to the moon came up? Here’s the exact quote:
I spent 25 years in business. If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I’d say, “You’re fired!”
The idea that corporate America wants to go off to the moon and build a colony there, it may be a big idea, but it’s not a good idea.
This appallingly timid and backward response is a decided signal of another GOP Establishment mortgage presidency. It is a flashing red light that signals a complete and utter failure in possessing the conservative ideology and imagination that drives conservatism and drove the Reagan White House. Indeed, it was Reagan’s ability to visualize the Strategic Defense Initiative — Star Wars as his critics quickly tried to derogate it — that resulted in the end of the Cold War.
Had Mitt Romney been president in that day and someone walked in the door to suggest a speech to the nation on SDI we now know exactly what Romney would have said: “You’re fired.”
Recently, there was a bit of a fuss over my revelation that National Review had published a piece from ex-Reagan State Department aide Elliott Abrams cherry-picking a Newt Gingrich speech on American-Soviet relations back in 1986. What’s interesting are two remarks made in response by Romney supporters.
In his still-further cherry picking response to me, NR‘s editor Rich Lowry had this to say of the Gingrich speech:
I suspect Newt’s fans will find it unerringly brilliant, while others will roll their eyes.
Meanwhile, in her Washington Post blog on Sunday, Establishment Romneyite Jennifer Rubin, by way of reprimanding me, displayed her elitism by unleashing her inner Tina Fey, recycling Fey’s bit about Sarah Palin. Said Rubin:
From her house she might see Russia, but her understanding of Stalin is nonexistent….
When one adds the Lowry eye-rolling comment about Gingrich to Rubin’s snarky from-her-house comment on Palin — not to mention Romney’s “You’re fired” comment about space exploration — one gets the pluperfect illustration of the Establishment mindset that launched Dewey and Ford and all manner of moderate-inspired political disasters.
Newt Gingrich’s old friend Jack Kemp — loyal Reagan lieutenants both — would breezily call this kind of thinking “elitist and patronizing.” Buckley, the founder of Lowry’s magazine, called this kind of attitude an example of “consistent intemperance, insularity and irascibility.” Add the absence of Romney’s conservative ideology to his thus far disturbing pride in his utter lack of vision and imagination and the same old dreary picture painted by Thomas E. Dewey and Gerald Ford comes clear yet again.
To wit: yet another losing presidential campaign or a disastrously weak “mortgage presidency”– filled with intellectual and programmatic mush staffed by wimps afraid of their political shadow.
AS NIGHT FOLLOWS DAY, if Romney is nominated the hard-edged bashing of Gingrich will vanish when the opponent becomes President Obama. Why? Because, Romney and the Establishment GOP will run the updated version of the Dewey-Ford mortgage driven campaign. After all. A presidential campaign, to quote Romney, isn’t talk radio. One can’t attack Barack Obama in this fashion. One can’t say the reason this presidency is an utter failure is because of an Alinsky-ite, far left philosophy. Nooooooooo. One must say simply and politely that Obama is, to quote Romney directly, just “over his head.” And at Romney’s side (aside from all those Washington lobbyists there now) will be mortgaged aides like ex-GOP Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman. In the finest tradition of Establishment wimpiness assuring that Romney really doesn’t mean it when he talks about undoing Obamacare. Oh no. After all, in Coleman’s words:
“We’re not going to do repeal. You’re not going to repeal Obamacare… It’s not a total repeal… You will not repeal the act in its entirety, but you will see major changes, particularly if there is a Republican president.… You can’t whole-cloth throw it out. But you can substantially change what’s been done.”
From Establishment spokesman Senator Coleman — still more mush.
And you know who understands exactly the message that’s being sent by Romney?
Hold on to your conservative hat. That would be no less than uber-leftist George Soros, who recently said this:
“Well, look, either you’ll have an extremist conservative, be it Gingrich or Santorum, in which case I think it will make a big difference which of the two comes in,” Soros told Reuters in a videotaped interview.
“If it’s between Obama and Romney, there isn’t all that much difference except for the crowd that they bring with them.”
Thanks George. One hates to say it, but George Soros is right. Note well: It is conservatives Gingrich and Santorum that Soros fears — not Romney. No less than the Wall Street Journal editorial page — no admirer of Soros — picked up on this problem long ago, writing up Romney as “Obama’s Running Mate.”
But here in Reagan-land?
As it happens, Ronald Reagan himself — but of course — long ago addressed just this issue. On December 16, 1976, barely over a month after Gerald Ford rang up yet another loss by a moderate Republican presidential candidate, Reagan — not happy — was interviewed by the New York Times.
“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 by a shared philosophy.”
Reagan’s message was plain. It was the same as it was when he said this at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 1975: “And if there are those who cannot subscribe to these principles, then let them go their way.”
So what do we have here?
The very same problem Thomas E. Dewey was discussing 63 years ago and that Gerald Ford was talking about 32 years ago. The difference is that neither man, running on an Establishment GOP platform, ever won the presidency.
Ronald Reagan, running flat out as a conservative, won it twice. In two landslides that changed America and changed world history.
The attacks on Newt Gingrich by the Establishment Romneyites are not about Newt Gingrich at all. They are attacks on conservatives. By the Republican Party Establishment.
Or, as the saying might go after all these years: still more mush from the wimps.
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