The Missing Middle in American Politics

How Moderate Republicans Became Extinct


Michigan Governor George Romney and his son Mitt, New York, May 1964. (Associated Press)

After Lyndon Johnson’s victory over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 U.S. presidential election, the once-mighty Republican Party was reduced to a regional rump. The Democrats won overwhelming majorities in the House and the Senate, which they used to pass Johnson’s Great Society legislation. Republicans, meanwhile, were at one another’s throats, having endured the most divisive campaign in modern political history. Goldwater had managed to win the Republican presidential nomination over the impassioned opposition of moderate and progressive Republicans, who at the time may well have constituted a majority of the party’s members. Moderates blamed Goldwater’s right-wing views for the defection of millions of Republican voters. 

To rebuild the party, a number of moderate Republican governors banded together to form the Republican Governors Association, designed to serve as a counterweight to the Republican National Committee, which had been captured by Goldwater conservatives. Shortly after the election, the association issued a statement, sponsored by Michigan Governor George Romney and other leading moderates, calling for a more inclusive GOP and criticizing Goldwater’s campaign. Stung by the failure of many moderates to actively support or even formally endorse his candidacy, Goldwater retorted that he needed no lessons in maintaining unity, having urged party members in 1960 to look past philosophical differences and pull together to support Richard Nixon’s presidential candidacy. Goldwater wrote a letter to Romney dripping with contempt: “Now let’s get to 1964 and ask ourselves who it was in the Party who said, in effect, if I can’t have it my way I’m not going to play? One of those men happens to be you.”

Romney wrote a lengthy reply to Goldwater, warning against European-style polarization. “Dogmatic ideological parties tend to splinter the political and social fabric of a nation,” Romney wrote. Worse, he added, political parties with fixed ideological programs “lead to governmental crises and deadlocks, and stymie the compromises so often necessary to preserve freedom and achieve progress.” 

Romney’s words seem particularly prescient today, as polarized politics have caused the U.S. government to seize up. But what would the elder Romney, who died in 1995, have made of his own son’s embrace of a more orthodox conservatism -- the very kind of politics the elder Romney feared would damage the country? 

Mitt Romney began his political career very much in the moderate mold. In 1994, running for the U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts held by Ted Kennedy, the popular liberal Democratic incumbent, Romney forcefully maintained that he had been an independent during the Reagan years. On abortion, he was firmly pro-choice. While Republican candidates across the country were rallying around Representative Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America,” Romney distanced himself from it. “If you want to get something done in Washington,” he said in a debate during the campaign, “you don’t end up picking teams with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other.” 

Romney’s defeat that year did not quite cure him of his moderate impulses. During the battle for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, Romney, as a private citizen, purchased newspaper advertisements in New Hampshire criticizing the publisher and candidate Steve Forbes’ call for a flat tax, deriding it as “a tax cut for fat cats.” And as a 2002 gubernatorial candidate in Massachusetts, Romney defeated a weak Democratic opponent in large part by touting his moderate bona fides. 

Yet as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and now 2012, Romney has shifted decisively to the right, embracing the party’s anti-tax consensus, reversing his decades-long support for abortion rights, and taking a much harder line on entitlement spending. He has been careful to avoid being outflanked on his right by his various GOP rivals, attacking Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry for being insufficiently tough on immigration. And he has generally cheered on House Republicans in their fierce opposition to President Barack Obama’s domestic agenda. Departing from the more decorous tone of his previous campaigns, Romney has described the president as “a crony capitalist,” a “job killer” whose policies will “poison the very spirit of America and keep us from being one nation under God.” Like so many erstwhile moderates, Romney has survived in today’s more confrontational, ideological GOP by finally picking a team. 

COMMITMENT ISSUES

The dominant ideology and style of today’s Republican Party would have been utterly alien to Romney’s father. In Rule and Ruin, the historian Geoffrey Kabaservice’s vivid account of the pitched ideological battles that shaped the postwar Republican Party, George Romney is cast as the last hope of a moderate Republicanism that has all but vanished. Born into poverty in a Mormon colony in northern Mexico, Romney rose to become the chief executive of the American Motors Corporation. There, he succeeded in taking on the Big Three car companies, scoffing at their “gas-guzzling dinosaurs” and offering sleek, fuel-efficient compacts that anticipated the later triumphs of the Japanese automobile industry. Like many self-made business executives of the time, Romney felt a deep sense of moral obligation, which flowed in part from his devout religious faith. As poor African Americans from the Deep South settled in and around Detroit, Romney made it his mission to better their condition. Shortly after his election as governor in 1962, Romney pressed for a massive increase in spending on public education and on generous social welfare benefits for the poor and unemployed. During Romney’s first term alone, Michigan’s state government nearly doubled its spending, from $684 million in 1964 to $1.3 billion in 1968. To finance the increase, Romney fought for and won a new state income tax, which would become a thorn in the side of future Michigan Republicans. 

What separated Romney from liberal Democrats who were similarly eager to expand government was his conviction that he was doing God’s work on earth. Today, it is entirely common for Republican presidential candidates to describe the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as divinely inspired documents, as Romney did. But in the mid-1960s, as Kabaservice observes, such religiosity was unusual, at least for a moderate Republican. Kabaservice briefly speculates that Romney’s brand of moralistic progressivism might have resonated with many Christian voters who instead embraced a harder-edged form of conservatism infused with evangelical fervor. But Romney’s political program was badly undermined by the 1967 Detroit riots, which discredited the notion, fairly or not, that large-scale social spending was the most effective route to social uplift, at least among conservatives.

Disagreements on race and the Vietnam War fueled the split in the late 1960s between the radical New Left and the liberal Democratic establishment. But the upheaval of the late 1960s also divided the Republicans. Conservatives of that era saw themselves as defending the United States’ founding ideals against communism abroad and radicalism at home. Moderates, in contrast, sought to modernize the GOP: to keep up with the baby boomers’ shifting sensibilities on social issues and to share in their embrace of a more diverse and dynamic society. Some even praised what they saw, perhaps naively, as the freedom-loving spirit of the antiwar movement. 

Yet as Kabaservice relates, the moderates never coalesced into a movement with a coherent program and ideology, despite Dwight Eisenhower’s earlier attempts to build a modern party that embraced the New Deal and a vision of responsible American global leadership. This failure left moderate Republicans in an awkward position. Those who shared the Democratic faith in activist government, tempered by a desire for decentralization and fiscal rigor, found themselves gravitating to the left. Those who shared conservative skepticism of big government, tempered by a recognition that Social Security and Medicare were here to stay, found themselves gravitating to the right. There was no glue to hold the two sides together.

Ultimately, Kabaservice argues, it was this lack of coherence that doomed the centrists within the Republican Party. The absence of a rigid ideology freed them to embrace creative solutions to emerging social problems, which proved useful when they were in power. But precisely because they were so allergic to ideology, the moderates were disinclined to rally the troops or to wage scorched-earth campaigns against their political enemies. Even when they had the advantage of numbers, as they did after Goldwater’s 1964 defeat, they routinely failed to coordinate their efforts, never managing to build the kind of grass-roots fundraising network that fueled the rise of the political right.

Instead of offering a set of clear political commitments, moderate Republicans instead asked voters to trust their judgment, to have faith that intelligent, thoughtful, evenhanded leaders would govern well. After Vietnam and Watergate, however, Americans hungered for politicians with clear convictions, leaders who would never betray them. This was true on the left but even more so on the right. And the surest way to guard against betrayal was, and still is, to force politicians to commit themselves to a well-defined set of propositions. In the 1960s, that meant no recognition of communist China; today, it means no new taxes. 

There is no question that such commitments reduce a politician’s room for maneuver and make legislative compromise difficult, if not impossible. But political commitments also increase democratic accountability, which is prized by many voters, especially educated ones. Although today’s political landscape might frustrate those who are eager for pragmatism and bipartisanship, there is no question that the Democratic and Republican Parties represent distinctive priorities and visions. 

KEYNESIANS AND CONNALLYS

Kabaservice is searingly critical of the conservative movement that eventually triumphed within the GOP. His chief complaint is the distance between what conservatives have said and how they have governed. In a particularly vivid passage lamenting the failures of George W. Bush’s presidency, he writes that “a Republican Party without moderates was like a heavily muscled body without a head.” After Bush’s 2004 reelection, Republicans held majorities in the House and the Senate for the fifth straight election, but, Kabaservice observes, “conservatives proved unable to achieve their goals, largely because they lacked the ideas the moderates had once provided and the skill at reaching compromise with the opposition at which moderates had excelled.” The irony of the decline of the moderates is that it made the achievement of conservative goals all but impossible. 

Indeed, as conservative rhetoric has grown increasingly hostile to government since the mid-1960s, the size of government has continued to expand, even when conservatives have been in power. Bush himself, having promised to restrain the growth of the government, presided over an increase in federal spending as a share of GDP from 18.2 percent in 2000 to 20.7 percent in 2008, reversing the trend under his Democratic predecessor. And between 1950 and 2009, state and local spending increased as a share of GDP from 7.7 percent to 15.5 percent. Even in states where conservatives have dominated, such as Nevada and Texas, spending has increased at an alarming rate as conservatives have aped their liberal foils, responding to a growing appetite for public services by increasing spending rather than by improving the productivity and efficiency of existing institutions. And at the federal level, conservatives have generally acquiesced to increased spending while refusing to levy taxes high enough to pay for it. In effect, this has meant delivering big government while only charging for small government -- a politically attractive proposition that has proved fiscally ruinous. 

Moderate Republicans have been among those most attuned to the perils of such hypocrisy. During the late 1960s, a number of moderate Republicans -- such as those associated with the Ripon Society, a think tank that served as an incubator for centrist policies -- correctly predicted that a southernized GOP, shaped by a fusion of conservatism and populism, would “have an enormous appetite for federal subsidies in the form of defense spending, oil allowances, and agricultural supports,” Kabaservice writes. Indeed, the conservative appetite for federal spending grew ever more voracious in the decades that followed. Call it redistribution for me, but not for thee. 

As president, Nixon ratified the ascendance of big-government conservatism with his embrace of John Connally, a former Democratic governor of Texas whom Nixon appointed as treasury secretary in 1971. Whereas moderate and conservative Republicans alike tended to favor the decentralization of power, competitive markets, and private initiative, Connally was a different animal. He was a foreign policy hawk and a cultural conservative but also an avid defender of subsidies and tax breaks for the defense sector and energy interests, which fueled the Sunbelt boom and further enriched hundreds, if not thousands, of wealthy conservatives. Nixon saw Connally as his natural successor, a politician who could cement Nixon’s new Republican majority by bringing the southern white working class into the fold. Although Connally never lived up to Nixon’s high hopes, he did help usher into the GOP a generation of statist southern politicians keen to channel federal dollars to favored interests in their region. Connally still casts a long shadow on the party: one can see it, for example, when a conservative governor such as Perry eagerly spends millions of taxpayer dollars on Texas’ Emerging Technology Fund, a program that a more orthodox free-market advocate would reject as an unacceptable intrusion into the private sector. 

“We are all Keynesians now,” Nixon is sometimes reported to have said in 1971. (In fact, his remark was less sweeping: “I’m now a Keynesian in economics.”) But Nixon’s treasury secretary may have left a more lasting mark on the Republican Party than any economist. After decades of GOP support for subsidizing favored industries from defense to oil and gas to Sunbelt housing construction, a cynic might argue that Republicans are all Connallys now. 

WEAK TEA

The rise of the Tea Party movement briefly seemed like an intriguing exception to this general drift. The movement has often been interpreted as a brand of populist conservatism virtually indistinguishable from the supply-side conservatism of the Reagan era. But supply-side economics was an optimistic creed that rejected the idea of the market as a zero-sum game and celebrated a vision of a flourishing society in which everyone should, could, and would be richer, freer, and happier if taxes were low and GDP growth robust. The Tea Party movement offers a far less sunny worldview. Far from inheriting the optimism of the Reagan-era supply-siders, the Tea Party shares more with the Old Right, the earlier form of conservatism that Reaganite supply-siders derided as “root-canal economics” for its emphasis on spending cuts -- and, in some cases, tax increases -- as instruments of hard-nosed fiscal discipline. Like the Old Right, the Tea Party conceives of the United States as divided between those who work hard and play by the rules and those who game the system, whether by engaging in petty welfare fraud or by seeking government favors through lobbying and campaign contributions.

This sentiment has not led to a compelling critique of the country’s broken financial and political systems, however. The fierce opposition of the libertarian Republican congressman Ron Paul to the Federal Reserve has earned him considerable standing among some grass-roots conservative activists. But for the most part, more realistic proposals to constrain the power of big banks and reduce the implicit and explicit subsidies that flow to them have fallen on deaf ears. Indeed, the Tea Party movement, like the conservative movement of the 1960s and 1970s, seems deeply hostile to technocratic proposals of any kind, even those that could foster a more decentralized and market-oriented society. 

In The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, the political scientist Theda Skocpol and her co-author, Vanessa Williamson, draw on a wide range of sources to describe the movement’s origins and worldview. Although anchored by extended conversations with individual Tea Party activists, the book adds little to the thousands of newspaper and magazine articles that have been written about the Tea Party in the past few years, retracing an already familiar portrait. Skocpol and Williamson observe that Tea Party activists tend to be relatively affluent and middle-aged or older. The vast majority vote Republican, although some identify as conservative-leaning independents. They tend to be wary of claims of technocratic expertise and prefer citizen engagement over deference to elites. Reverence for the U.S. Constitution is an essential aspect of the Tea Party’s ideology, and members of the movement often invoke the founding documents. Skocpol and Williamson also anatomize the three main components of the Tea Party movement: grass-roots organizations; well-funded national advocacy groups, such as FreedomWorks; and a media nexus of Fox News and conservative talk radio. 

Skocpol and Williamson attempt to maintain a disinterested tone. But they often cannot conceal their hostility to the Tea Party, the GOP, and conservatism more generally, as when they warn that Republicans “will continue to talk about ‘America going broke’ and the ‘need to slash spending’ and ‘cut taxes,’ without getting overly specific until just before they seize the chance -- if one presents itself -- to push through major restructurings of Medicare and Social Security.” The reader is left to conclude that Skocpol and Williamson believe that there is something sinister about trying to reduce the national deficit and that efforts to restructure Medicare and Social Security are wholly unrelated to the federal government’s fiscal woes. 

Still, Skocpol and Williamson rightly diagnose a major weakness of contemporary Republican reform efforts. Because conservatives have so strenuously made the case against government and the welfare state, they have undermined their credibility as champions of reform. Scholars and voters alike are now skeptical when conservative Republican reformers, such as Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, promise that they intend to put the U.S. social safety net on a sounder footing, not to destroy it. 

There is no doubt that a reliance on antigovernment rhetoric has created a troubling vacuum at the heart of the conservative project. The Tea Party movement and its rejectionism now define public perceptions of the post-Bush Republican Party. And it is true that for years, congressional Republicans have been extremely reluctant to take on issues such as tax reform and health care -- the kind of issues that consumed moderate Republicans in an earlier era -- because conservatives see them as a political and intellectual dead end. Now, however, some Republicans, led primarily by Ryan, have advanced a number of significant proposals, including a sweeping Medicare reform and a base-broadening overhaul of the tax code. Ryan has shown an openness to the ideas of the avowedly moderate Bipartisan Policy Center and even to raising tax revenues, a move that has long been anathema to conservatives. Late last year, Ryan signaled a willingness to compromise by joining with Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democrat, to advance a Medicare reform proposal -- one that specifically addresses Democratic objections to an earlier plan Ryan had proposed. 

Around the same time, congressional Republicans experienced a sharp political reversal in a showdown with Obama over extending a temporary payroll tax cut. Republican brinkmanship, which had earlier threatened chaos during a battle over increasing the debt limit, was met with near-universal opprobrium from the voting public. After the Republicans gave in to Democratic and popular demands that the payroll tax cut be extended, Obama experienced an immediate surge in his approval ratings. 

Conservative Republicans and their Tea Party supporters were chastened by this defeat, and the Tea Party’s grip on the GOP shows some signs of loosening. But moderate Republicanism will not return as a bona fide movement anytime soon, despite the efforts of right-of-center public intellectuals such as David Frum and David Brooks. The social group that contributed so heavily to the moderate movement of yesteryear -- upper-middle-class social liberals who live in big cities and their suburbs -- has shifted overwhelmingly to the Democratic Party, and it seems unlikely that those voters will ever return to the GOP. Yet the moderates’ flexibility and pragmatism are experiencing a tentative renaissance, as younger conservatives, led by figures such as Ryan, face up to their movement’s shortcomings. Moderate Republicans may no longer exist, but their legacy persists, and conservative Republicans will need to recapture the moderates’ creativity and problem-solving impulses if they ever hope to take power, hold on to it, and govern effectively.