Should any political party attempt to abolish social security … and eliminate labor laws, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.
-Dwight D. Eisenhower (1954)
Chuck Percy died last week. He was 91 and had been suffering with Alzheimer’s disease for some time. The New York Times obituary described the former senator from Illinois (he served from 1966 to 1984) as a “Rockefeller Republican,” which it identified as the “liberal wing of the party.”
That wing was sizeable in the years following World War II, comprising a significant minority of the party’s rank and file until the early 1980s. It followed the proud tradition of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt and influenced the more conservative members of the party in keeping them from going too far to the right.
Indeed, when the far right of the party, that “stupid” splinter group, rallied behind a presidential candidate named Barry Goldwater in 1964, members of the liberal wing walked out of the nominating convention and then sat on their hands as Goldwater took his party to the largest defeat it had ever experienced. The Great Society, featuring Medicare, the Civil Rights Act and the War on Poverty, followed in the remaining years of the decade.
Those years also featured the Viet Nam War, which allowed Richard Nixon to win a narrow presidential election in 1968. But Nixon, while no liberal, was also not a far-right conservative. He was a moderate Republican, as his endorsement of several liberal initiatives (the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts; wage and price controls to combat inflation, and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) substantiated.
Nixon’s criminal complicity in the Watergate scandal allowed Gerald Ford, also a mainstream Republican, to assume the presidency, and he beat back an attempt by the far-right (in the person of Ronald Reagan) to secure the presidential nomination in 1976 (only to lose a squeaker to Jimmy Carter in the general election).
But Reagan had built a political following that would not be denied in 1980. In that campaign he defeated another moderate (George H.W. Bush) for the nomination and then swamped Jimmy Carter (plagued by a weak economy and the Iran-hostage crisis) in the general election.
Reagan made far-right conservatism acceptable. Where Goldwater had been scary, Reagan was reassuring.
Yes, he would condemn communism, but he would also talk to the Soviets and seek mutual disarmament treaties (“negotiate but verify”); he would seek to reduce government “handouts” but would maintain “the safety net” for those who faced insurmountable hurdles; he would seek a more conservative Republican Party but would welcome all political viewpoints (in the “big tent,” where no Republican was ever to speak ill of another).
As the country’s president, Reagan was a great actor. He had a winning personality, the kind that had even the likes of Tip O’Neill, the crusty liberal Speaker of the House, enjoying his company. And, by his second term, when he had lost control of his administration (Iran-Contra was as close as the country has probably ever come to having a rogue underground government) and may well have been suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s, his legacy was secure.
He succeeded in emboldening his base, although his successor, the first Bush, was far less conservative than he had been, and that base coalesced in its antagonism to Bill Clinton in the 1990s. The anti-Clinton hysteria from the growing majority of far right Republicans was tempered only by the robust economy that Clinton enjoyed during his presidency. The Reagan disciples argued vehemently that Clinton was enjoying the fruits of Reagan’s laissez-faire policies, but most Americans credit or charge a sitting president with the economy that exists during that president’s tenure in office, as Barack Obama will probably discover in next year’s presidential election.
In any event, by 2000, the far right wing of the party had gained power. When it found its candidate in the person of the Texas governor who also happened to be the son of Reagan’s successor, it pushed hard against the remnants of a liberal wing (in the form of the “maverick” John McCain) and secured the nomination for George W. Bush. When Bush was finally declared the victor by the Supreme Court, after a prolonged six-week recount period, whatever was left of the liberal wing of the party was pretty much demoralized into non-existence.
Shortly after Bush announced his first gigantic tax cut (thereby depleting the budget surpluses Clinton had left him with), Senator Jim Jeffords, one of the few remaining moderate Republicans in the Senate, switched his allegiance, declaring himself an independent and caucusing with the Democrats. Six years later, Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania’s senior senator, followed suit.
Their defections essentially marked the end of the “liberal wing” of the party. By then it was hardly liberal in any event. Jeffords and Specter (like Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, the two Maine Republican Senators who remain in office) were hardly true liberals. They were more properly characterized as moderate conservatives (maybe around a 4.5 on a scale of one to ten, with one being far right and ten being far left).
The last factor to complete the move of the party to the far right was the election of Barack Obama. Obama was a black man who had been raised out of the country, who had a background in community organizing, with ties to radicals like Bill Ayres (a former domestic terrorist) and Jeremiah Wright (the “damn America” preacher from Obama’s home church), and who just sounded radical with his “change” campaign theme.
When Obama then pushed universal medical care as the cornerstone of his first term and added trillions in debt to save the country from an economic calamity, he gave the far right (now represented by the Fox News-created Tea Party) all it needed to gain control of the party of Lincoln.
Their number is no longer negligible, but Eisenhower was half right. They are still stupid.