The argument that the GOP can rebuild an electoral majority by shrugging off its anti-government mentality and strategically accepting key elements of the New Deal/Great Society legacy is not new, though it hasn't been heard in a while ... Indeed, this was the animating idea of the "moderate" or even "liberal" Republicans of yore, who struggled with the conservative movement for control of the GOP for decades, and didn't completely succumb until 1976, 1980, or even 1994, depending on how you measure these things.
... To conservatives, [Nelson] Rockefeller was the perfect embodiment of an elite, anti-grass-roots tradition of Eastern Seabord Republicanism, and popular support for him was no more genuine than the manufactured "We Want Willkie!" demonstrations in 1940 that representated an earlier form of the same "betrayal" ... But looked at from another angle, Rocky (along with other prominent Republicans of the 1960s and 1970s, such as George Romney, Chuck Percy, and Bill Scranton, in a tradition that went back through Ike and Tom Dewey, all the way to Alf Landon) was a Republican "modernizer" who believed, like Douthat and Salam, that the anti-government habits of GOP conservatives bred during the long era of opposition to the New Deal were keeping Republicans from harvesting a vast number of middle-class votes.
Teddy White wasn't alone in viewing pols like Rockefeller as representing a vibrant future-oriented option for the GOP, and not the elitist symbol of surrender to Big Government so familiar in conservative polemics. In the 1960s and much of the 1970s, the Ripon Society, promoting a distinctive blend of social liberalism and market-oriented public-sector activism, was a happenin' place within the Republican Party ... And while Richard Nixon's Disraeli-style experiments in public-sector activism may have been motivated by sheer political opportunism, they were as legitimate an expression of a certain brand of Republican philosophy at the time as his better-known pioneering of a harsh and divisive cultural conservatism, and did contribute to his 1972 landslide victory.
I think the Rockefeller Republican tradition is a useful one for today's GOP to look back on, but I tend to think that it's useful primarily as a cautionary tale. Republicans in this tradition did achieve some real successes, in policy as well as politics, but in hindsight they often look like prisoners of me-tooism: They became so convinced that the only way the GOP could win was to accept the post-Roosevelt consensus that they missed the opportunity afforded by the post-Sixties crack-up to actually offer real reforms to that consensus. As a result they lost the GOP, and eventually the country, to the once-unlikely alliance of Goldwaterites and neoconservatives - by which I mean not only the Podhoretzes and Kirkpatricks, but all the ex-liberal voters, from blue-collar Catholics to Sunbelt evangelicals, who joined the GOP in the '70s and '80s, and eventually formed the heart of the new Republican majority. This is why Grand New Party spends a lot more time on the neoconservative tradition, broadly understood, than on the Rockefeller-Republican tradition. The Rockefeller types were too often content to imitate what the Democrats were offering; the neoconservatives were bold enough to offer something different. Liberal Republicanism gave us John Lindsay's mayoralty; neoconservatism gave us Rudy Giuliani's. Liberal Republicanism gave us Richard Nixon's wage and price controls; neoconservatism gave us Ronald Reagan's economic boom. Liberal Republicanism gave us affirmative action; neoconservatism gave us welfare reform. And so on.
I spend a lot of time talking about the dangers of the retrenchment mentality on the Right - by which I mean the assumption that all the GOP needs is to go back to conservative basics, to promise to bust pork and drill in ANWR, and its majority will magically reappear. But me-tooism is a major danger as well. Talking like a Democrat may be a matter of political survival for, say, Gordon Smith, but you can't build a successful national party without finding a way to draw distinctions, and having a GOP that reacts to the Democrats' success simply by offering similar policies with minor modifications (as John McCain has done on cap-and-trade, for instance) is bad for the party in the short term - the Rockefeller Republicans won their share of elections, but they never managed to break the Roosevelt majority's hold on Congress - and bad for the country in the long term. If there's anything I've taken away from the experience of writing this book, it's that we need a wider-ranging conversation about domestic policy, not a narrower one - and for that to happen, tomorrow's reformist Republicans need to be more creative about looking for reforms that the Democrats can't (or won't) champion than the Rockefeller Republicans were before them.
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