Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of history at Boston College and the author of “To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party.”
As the long-anticipated state primaries bring us closer to the nomination of a Republican presidential candidate whom experts agree is unfit for the White House, political pundits are scrambling to find a fix for the party’s spectacular meltdown. The Republican old guard resurrects a plea for tax cuts, welfare reform and religious faith. By contrast, liberals insist that those policies created today’s crisis and that voters must toss Republicans overboard. E.J. Dionne’s “Why the Right Went Wrong” tries to bridge these opposites by offering advice to conservatives from a liberal who wishes them well.
Dionne is right that America needs an intelligent conservative party, and the insights of this decent man who, as an award-winning journalist for The Washington Post, has unique access to politicians make wonderful reading. But his attempt to find common ground with establishment Republican leaders means he overlooks the elephant in the room: that it was the Republicans’ own narrative that created today’s crisis.
Dionne courts conservatives by noting that he and conservative blogger Erick Erickson agree that the Republican Party’s problem is a lack of sincerity: Elected conservatives have repeatedly broken promises made to voters. As campaigners, they have pledged to slash government spending and regulations, establish a Christian nation, bring back prosperity and restore American supremacy and credibility abroad. Once elected, however, they haven’t delivered. This recurring cycle of disappointment and betrayal has made voters support political insurgents.
Ideological conservatives would bridge the chasm between promises and actions by making the promises come true. They want legislators who really will shrink the government until it can be drowned in a bathtub. Dionne warns that this solution is not viable and offers an excellent alternative. He points out that Americans like clean water, Social Security and disaster relief, and they rely on the government to provide them. To break the cycle of disappointment, he suggests, conservatives must admit that they cannot deliver a small-government utopia. Instead, they should reclaim the moderate Eisenhower Republicanism that the party long ago abandoned. Eisenhower, Dionne points out, was a fiscal conservative who shunned corruption while promoting individualism, religion and family values, principles modern-day conservatives claim.
To bring conservatives back to a path they left two generations ago, Dionne punctures the popular idea that Republican problems arrived in 2010 with the tea party. He recounts a well-known story: that today’s crisis began as opposition to the New Deal. He explains that the Republican Party split in two in the 1930s, with one part following Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio into intransigent opposition to business regulation and social welfare legislation. The other part, which Eisenhower spokesman Arthur Larson termed “modern Republicanism,” created a version of conservatism that looked much like the New Deal, with slightly more weight on business and God.
Dionne details the gradual domination of the Republican Party by the reactionaries. He traces their ideological line of descent through William F. Buckley and the National Review, to Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, to today’s extremist presidential candidates. Unlike most historians, though, Dionne finds persistent threads of moderate conservatism throughout this rightward shift. He notes that Ronald Reagan governed far more pragmatically than his 1964 “A Time for Choosing” speech foreshadowed; claims that George W. Bush favored “compassionate conservatism”; and lauds recent “reformicons” such as Bruce Bartlett, David Frum, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, who have urged GOP leaders to address poverty and social decay. Goldwater conservatism has dominated the party recently, Dionne argues, only because voters feel betrayed. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Dionne warns the Republican Party that it must “do more than offer a few tax credits and speak warmly about civil society.” He urges its leaders to move toward progressive positions on prison reform, for example, and on shoring up families in the midst of economic decline. He calls for a return to Eisenhower’s balance and moderation in governance, and away from the radicalism inherent in the attempt to overturn the New Deal.
Dionne’s prescription for the Republican Party is a good one. Indeed, it has always been astonishing that any party that could claim Eisenhower — the man who won World War II and then presided over the nation’s greatest economic boom — would not make him central to its identity. But Dionne’s discussion of the party’s history leaves out the role of political rhetoric in the construction of today’s political crisis.
Conservatives who set out to destroy the New Deal took taxation as their wedge issue. Dionne plays it down, but taxation is the issue on which Reagan won election in 1980, and it remains the litmus test for discovering RINOs (Republicans in Name Only). Grover Norquist’s tax pledge — designed to protect Reagan’s 1986 tax cuts — became as central to Republican policy as Ralph Reed’s 1989 Christian Coalition became to translating that policy into votes. It was his endorsement of the 1990 tax increase that sank moderate President George H.W. Bush. George W. Bush began his administration with a proposed $1.6 billion tax cut, and all of today’s Republican candidates have offered plans to slash taxes further.
This anti-tax history is crucial to understanding the political crisis. Dionne makes the Republican Party’s rightward shift seem bloodless; voters are aggregate numbers that move to the right for no apparent reason, and ultimately, the party’s rightward swing has made little difference. Central to Dionne’s argument is the key conservative observation that, as he stresses, “Reagan changed the terms of the American political debate without changing the underlying structure of American government.” But while these points are interesting and accurate, they ignore the crucial role of political rhetoric in voter behavior.
Voters have moved right as conservatives have convinced them that government regulations and social welfare legislation take tax dollars from hardworking white people and redistribute them to lazy minorities. Dionne notes the racism inherent in Goldwater conservatism and points out that Nixon made Goldwater’s ideology a central Republican tactic with the Southern Strategy in 1968, but he avoids the reality that conservative media has saturated the country with racist and sexist rhetoric to attack government activism. Reagan’s culture-changing “welfare queen” — one of the most incendiary racist images in recent American history — is missing in Dionne’s account, and he tempers even the infamous Willie Horton ad with operative Lee Atwater’s insistence that his linking of a black rapist to Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis was not about race. Dionne’s note that Donald Trump’s appeal has a “racial tinge” is a remarkable understatement.
These tactics have alienated the women and minorities the Republicans desperately need to attract, while creating a conservative population that has slipped beyond the control of party leaders to follow candidates who stoke visceral rage. The first step to reclaiming Eisenhower’s moderation is, as Dionne suggests, to acknowledge that government has an important role to play in society. The second, though, is to translate that acknowledgement to voters by reclaiming Eisenhower’s rhetoric. America is not a story of makers and takers, it a story in which every American can be equal.
By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Simon & Schuster.
531 pp. $30