The death of George P. Shultz at 100 should remind us of that. He was a throwback to an earlier age when the Republican Party routinely produced competent and moderate administrators. In the quarter-century from 1968 to 1992, the GOP was seen as the “natural” party of governance because the national Democratic Party was said to have gone too far to the left.
Shultz is, of course, primarily remembered as one of the greatest secretaries of state. But he was so much more than that. A Marine veteran of World War II and an economics Ph.D., he got his start in the government as an economist in the Eisenhower White House. As President Richard M. Nixon’s labor secretary, he developed one of the first affirmative action initiatives — the Philadelphia Plan, which required government contractors to hire minorities. Later, as Nixon’s treasury secretary, he resisted the president’s pressure to employ the Internal Revenue Service against his political opponents, leading Nixon to call him a “candy ass.” Because of his probity and progressivism, Shultz was one of the few senior members of Nixon’s administration who was not tarred by the sleaze of Watergate.
Nixon paid him back by sabotaging Shultz’s chances of becoming President Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of state. But when Nixon’s choice — Al Haig — flamed out, Shultz got the job in 1982. He immediately set about reestablishing relations with the Soviet Union, which, he recalled, “were almost nonexistent.” In 1985, Shultz recognized that the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was “a different kind of man than any Soviet leader we have ever dealt with. … With Gorbachev you can engage.” Administration hardliners were not sold, but Shultz convinced Reagan that they could do business with Gorbachev.
The process Shultz set in motion resulted in a reduction of superpower tensions and the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987 banning a whole class of nuclear weapons. Much of the conservative movement remained fiercely opposed to this opening to Moscow. (The extremists have always been prominent in the ranks.) A 1988 New York Times article was headlined “The Right Against Reagan.” It quoted conservative activist Howard Phillips calling Reagan “a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.”
But neither Reagan nor Shultz was deterred. By ignoring the hard right, they set in motion the end of the Cold War. Much like Nixon going to China or launching affirmative action, Reagan bonding with Gorbachev was the kind of thing that could happen when Republican presidents put governance over ideology.
Shultz’s biographer Philip Taubman said on Sunday: “He was a consummate problem-solver, and that’s what he did in all of those Cabinet jobs.” Republican administrations were once full of problem-solvers like Shultz who gained experience and expertise from serving one GOP president after another. Think of, among others, Elliott Richardson (the only person other than Shultz to hold four Cabinet jobs), Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, James Schlesinger, Frank Carlucci, Howard Baker, Ken Duberstein, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley.
In their brilliant recent biography of James A. Baker III, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser wrote that this three-time Cabinet member (White House chief of staff, treasury secretary and secretary of state) was animated not by “ideological fervor” but by a passion for “deal-making” and “getting things done.”
What happened to that GOP establishment? Republicans such as Cheney and Rumsfeld, once seen as sensible conservatives, were radicalized by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and sent the United States blundering into “forever wars” that discredited the Republican elite much as the Vietnam War had discredited the “best and brightest” Democrats. Along with the 2008 financial crash, that opened the way for the populists to take over the party — with little pushback from those who knew better. (Shultz, Baker et al. were so loyal to the Republican Party that they failed to speak out forcefully against its hijacking by Donald Trump.) But now we see the consequences of far-right rule — and they are far worse than any disaster of the George W. Bush administration.
The problem is that the Republican Party has lost the habit of governance. It’s all about performing on TV and Twitter now. There are no storied officials who come out of the wreckage of the Trump administration the way Shultz and Caspar Weinberger, among others, emerged from the wreckage of the Nixon administration. That will be a big problem the next time a Republican wins the White House. Where will the officials to staff the administration come from? There is no cadre of skilled “problem-solvers” left in the loudmouth party of Trump.