There was a convention of the central committee this summer, as usual. But it was largely a routine affair at which members dutifully applauded at all the proper times and dutifully endorsed all the decisions, which had been made in prior secret session by members of the party secretariat‚ the small, powerful inside group which really runs things.
Yet it would be inaccurate to state that there was no dissent at this year’s central committee meeting. In fact, a small but vocal and insistent group of revisionists vainly attempted to persuade the committee to adopt a softer line in diplomatic negotiations with the enemy. Some of the sessions were rather stormy. But it is accurate to say that these so-called coexistence disciples were decisively defeated in their attempt . . .
Thus it was that at its national convention in Omaha this summer, the Young Republican National Federation openly defied, and in effect proclaimed‚ its independence from the Republican National Committee. They demonstrated once again that the Young Republicans in no way represent a majority of the nation’s young Republican voters.
And they proved to anyone who has eyes to see that the spirit of Barry Goldwater Republicanism is not dead; it is only asleep, and it is going to wake up with a surprisingly loud, insistent‚ and demanding roar sometime in the months ahead.
Young Republican defiance
It has been a political rule of thumb that the Young Republican convention usually provides a clear indication of what will happen a year later when the Republican Party convenes to choose a presidential candidate. For example, the 1963 YR convention provided the first dramatic evidence of Goldwater’s strength. In this regard‚ it is well to remember that the Young Republicans aren’t all that young; the maximum age limit is thirty-six, and many of them are delegates to the National Convention.
The smoke signals that went up this year in Omaha are not so distinct. They are harder to read, but studied carefully‚ tell their own, interesting tale. The first, unmistakable fact is that the ultraconservatives who managed to gain control of the Republican Party four years ago are not about to surrender control of the party apparatus voluntarily to moderates and liberals.
The humiliating 1964 election results decreed that the conservatives give up their control of the Republican National Committee. Thus, Dean Burch was replaced by Ray Bliss, and subsequently Bliss’s authority was reinforced by the good showing the GOP made in the offyear elections last November. But that authority still is restricted largely to the national level, and national committee power over its local and its affiliate organizations exists for the most part in name only. The events which occurred at Omaha demonstrate this important fact of life.
Since the national committee subsidizes the Young Republican National Federation to the tune of about $90,000 a year, Bliss concluded it should have a little something to say about YR activity. His principal demand was that the rules be changed so that the national committee chairman henceforth would appoint the YR executive director.
The Young Republicans turned him down cold. There was a hot session at headquarters with YR national chairman Tom Van Sickle, and as a result a compromise was reached: Van Sickle himself would sponsor a move at Omaha to give Bliss the right to “advise and consent” on the appointment. True to his word, Van Sickle sponsored the amendment, then presided over the convention session when it was disdainfully rejected. As a sop, the YR’s did vote to allow two members of the national committee to sit ex officio on the YR executive committee.
The most interesting aspect of this defiant show, however‚ was not that the Young Republicans did it‚ but how they went about it. First the rules committee met and considered all the organizational changes Van Sickle recommended — and rejected them all. The committee’s report then was presented to the full convention, which did the same thing. Throughout all of this, Chairman Van Sickle maintained a Brer Rabbit pose; the convention rejected all of his recommended changes, but it was patently obvious that he had constructed the brier patch and had given detailed instructions as to how he was to be thrown into it.
There was immediate speculation that the national committee would take harsh disciplinary measures in retaliation. But so far this hasn’t happened, and one young lady who was a delegate from Georgia was no doubt correct when she dismissed such a possibility, saying, “They won’t do anything. There’s an election coming up, and they need us more than we need them.”
The Young Republicans claim to represent a nationwide membership of about a half million young political activists who can be counted on at election time to man the phones, lick the stamps, and address the envelopes.
Others dispute this. The Young Republicans, they say, really are mostly a social organization in which young men and women of similar political persuasion meet to drink and party. In addition, the orthodox, on-the-rocks conservatism of the YR’s has caused more and more politically active young Republicans of more moderate philosophy to shun the organization and operate independently. Sam Jensen, a personable young Omaha lawyer who served as the news director of the 1967 convention, is not a member of the YR’s. “I did the job as a favor for a friend because I used to be a newspaper reporter,” he said. And, he added, his position is the rule, not the exception, in Nebraska.
Chairman Bliss fully realizes the limited appeal of the YR’s. Already he is organizing independent youth activity at national committee headquarters, in an effort to interest young moderates who feel the party gives them no outlet for their energy. But Bliss needs a unified Republican Party to win in 1968 and does not believe that a frontal assault on the YR’s would contribute to that unity.
“Unity” was, in fact, the prevailing theme at the Young Republicans convention. One heard it all week long: the YR’s will support whomever the party nominates next year. The important thing is for the Republicans to win in 1968. It’s the party that counts. We’ve all got to stick together this time. The enemy is Lyndon Johnson, not Nelson Rockefeller. But they suffer from that old failing of the man who protests too much. Unity‚ yes — but Nelson Rockefeller? It is almost impossible to believe that the YR’s could find it in their hearts to unite behind such a man; after all, they were the people who led the jeering Rockefeller received at San Francisco in 1964. And to them‚ George Romney is even worse.
The fact is that the Young Republicans are trying to lie low, as most full-sized GOP conservatives are just now. They truly do want a winner more than anything, but their fancy — which rapidly is becoming firm conviction — is that the one Republican who can defeat Johnson next year is Ronald Reagan. Which stands as proof that people believe what they want to believe.
The Young Republicans are perhaps the best disciplined political organization in America. Their ruling secretariat is called “The Syndicate,” and its control is absolute— so much so that many rankand-file YR’s take as much pride in their undeviating obedience to it as does the most fiercely dedicated young Chinese Red Guard to Mao. The Syndicate’s candidate for national chairman this year was Jack McDonald, a conservative management consultant from Nashville. He was challenged by James Betts, a former All-American basketball player from Ohio‚ who was considered Bliss’s handpicked candidate.
However, an even more interesting challenge was laid down by Ray Cooper, an ex-Democrat from Arkansas who now is on the statehouse staff of Governor Winthrop Rockefeller. Cooper is an old Jaycee‚ and in Omaha he campaigned that way‚ with pretty girls in white straw hats, plenty of posters and free drinks‚ and a hefty pep leader with a portable loudspeaker who worked hard to drum up enthusiasm for the candidate from the Razorback State. “Let’s call the hawgs for good old Ray Cooper! Soueeeeeeee, pig‚ souee!” The exhortation was sounded constantly in hotel lobby and convention hall.
Cooper threw a big free friedchicken dinner, and Governor Rockefeller appeared before the convention briefly to endorse his man. (“All right, folks‚ let’s call the hogs for the governor of the great state of Arkansas,” the cheerleader suggested. But the result was only a halfhearted‚ polite response which may or may not be indicative of things to come next year.)
Despite all this outlay of energy‚ Cooper received exactly fourteen votes for chairman — those from his own state delegation. And afterward one delegate said of him, “He was foolish. He ran as if he were running for national Jaycee chairman. That’s not the way we do things in the YR’s. You don’t buck the organization.”
This year the Syndicate (which still is largely directed by Cliff White, the man who won the nomination for Goldwater) was anxious to display the flag of unity and to avoid giving the impression that the YR’s had settled on their candidate for President before the Republican Party had a chance to do so. So they tried to walk on their tippy-toes in Omaha. The word was out: no special hoopla for any presidential candidate.
The rule could not be totally enforced, of course, so there were a few exceptions. The Michigan delegation wore white straw boaters with “Romney” bands. A young entrepreneur who set up a button table in the lobby featured “Reagan for President” buttons (25 cents), along with buttons which showed a drawing of a hydrogen bomb and, under it‚ the words “Drop It!” (50 cents). And the big California delegation tied a picture of Reagan to a cluster of balloons, floated it, and moored it with string to the state delegation aisle sign.
But all the careful planning by the Syndicate was undone by accident along about midweek of the convention. The string which moored the Reagan picture came undone, and the balloons carried the picture up slowly just over the main speaker’s platform to the top of the auditorium. The effect was electrifying: except for the few moderate delegations from the East‚ the convention delegates jumped to their feet and began to cheer, then to chant, “Reagan, Reagan.” “Up, up, and away,” Chairman Van Sickle remarked over the microphone‚ and that drew another cheer.
After that there was no holding back. Groups of Reagan supporters began producing spirited cheering sessions whenever a television camera came into view. “Reagan for President” signs went up in all the hotel lobbies. And by the time the California governor flew into Omaha to address the closing night banquet, the YR’s were ready for him. He was greeted wildly‚ the once and future hero at last recognized.
As for all that talk about unity‚ it just sort of stopped, and when Chairman Van Sickle tried to get the convention to approve a unanimous resolution in support of the policies and the programs of National Republican Chairman Bliss, the noes of those opposed nearly equaled the ayes of those in favor.
One can accuse the Young Republicans of almost any political devilment and be accurate about it. They held their convention in Omaha in a deliberate attempt to discourage Eastern moderates from attending. They charged $45 a person just to sit in the gallery and watch the proceedings. They were arbitrary in everything they did. What was intriguing was the goodnatured way they went about all this.
The makeup of the Republican Party is such that with careful advance work and planning, delegates representing a minority of the nation’s Republican voters can nominate a candidate for President. The makeup of the Young Republicans is such that delegates representing a minority of young Republican voters have firm control over the National Federation. They are cheerfully but totally committed to their conservative beliefs, to such a degree that they really find it a waste of time to talk about it.
Time after time at Omaha, leaders of the few moderate delegations there rose to protest some pending action, only to be put down. When one such delegate tried to suggest that passage of a resolution urging repeal of the new Soviet-American consular treaty would, in effect, constitute a repudiation of practically every Republican member of the U.S. Senate, others shouted, “Oh, sit down. Let’s vote.” But after overwhelmingly passing the resolution, they were perfectly willing to get together with the moderates at the New York delegation’s champagne party that night.
Since about 70 percent of the delegates who will attend the 1968 Republican convention will be the same delegates who nominated Goldwater in 1964, perhaps there is an advance lesson to be learned from Omaha.
If the Young Republicans provide any clue to the future, it means that Republican conservatives are keeping quiet, biding their time, listening to all the talk, reading all the polls, but are just as cheerfully and completely committed. It means that, in the end, no rational argument by party moderates can reach them. And it means that Ronald Reagan of California is going to be the single most powerful figure at the convention. That may not get him nominated, but he will have a mighty lot to say about who is.
— Douglas Kiker