The New York Times and veteran conservative rabble-rouser Richard Viguerie are happily predicting a “Republican Civil War” between “establishment” Republicans and populist conservatives that could make the Goldwater-Rockefeller struggle of the 1960s and the Reagan-Ford battle of the ‘70s look like child’s play.
In politics, ambition, ego and profound political differences can lead to internal struggles within a party as new faces appear on the scene or when party elites lose touch with the party members and the voters they supposedly represent. That’s what happened in the ‘60s as a newly emerging conservative movement clashed with a GOP establishment that was clearly out of touch.
The Republican Party of the ‘50s and ‘60s wasn’t much interested in fighting the increasingly collectivist trend of the age, but in better managing it. The GOP criticism of the Democrats running the New Deal programs bequeathed to the nation by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman was not that there was anything wrong with the programs themselves, but that the American public would be better served if level-headed Republican managers were running them.
The modern conservative movement emerged with William F. Buckley Jr.’s founding of National Review in 1955 and his taking on the mission of standing “athwart history, yelling ‘stop,’ at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” The new conservatives were men and women with little interest in running a more efficient welfare state or learning to get along with the Soviet Union, but in fundamentally changing the nation’s thinking on these vital issues.
Barry Goldwater’s 1964 candidacy was the first truly national manifestation of this emerging movement, and while Goldwater failed to unseat President Lyndon Johnson, his followers found themselves in virtual control of the GOP, but without a follow-on candidate. That candidate, however, was in the wings. Ronald Reagan’s political career took off during the 1964 campaign and eventually gave conservative control of the White House.
This intraparty revolution was incredibly messy. Political blood was spilled on both sides, and careers were both made and destroyed as two essentially incompatible strains of Republicanism battled it out over more than a decade in an intraparty civil war, the outcome of which was far from certain at the time.
In the mid-‘70s, Bill Rusher, who was National Review’s publisher and as important to the growth of the new movement as Buckley, thought the battle within the GOP was unwinnable and urged conservative to go their own way and form a third “new majority” party. He said at the time that it was hard to imagine the GOP nominating “someone like, say, Ronald Reagan” for president.
Today, the philosophical differences between the establishment and populist wings of the GOP are much different than they were back then. There are few “Rockefeller Republicans” about these days, and virtually no Republican officeholder buys into the idea that the government knows better than the individual how people should lead their lives. In this regard, the battle over President Obama’s health care law is instructive. It passed without a single Republican vote. Even as Sen. Ted Cruz began attacking fellow Republicans as part of a “surrender caucus” or hinting that some of his colleagues really, secretly supported Obamacare, most objective observers sensed that what he was really doing was condemning those with whom he had tactical disagreements to the outer darkness.
It turned out that both factions were right. Experienced insiders who argued that Mr. Cruz and his allies neither had an endgame nor the votes to accomplish their goals were proven right, but the Texas senator’s focus on an obnoxious and unwieldy law may end up helping his party in the long run.
The danger is that because of the essentially personal attacks from both sides that characterized the debate over essentially tactical differences, the situation could get quickly out of hand. Karl Rove and others are threatening to raise funds to “take out” Tea Party-backed candidates in next year’s primaries lest a few more Ted Cruzes show up in the next Congress. Moderate Republicans are signing on to the crusade because they see a chance to finally win something, somewhere. Thus, former Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio (who would be a Rockefeller Republican if the species wasn’t extinct) promises to “beat the snot” out of Tea Party types. Even outside conservative functionaries, who questioned the tactical wisdom of what Mr. Cruz tried to do, have been caught up in all this, with an official of Americans for Tax Reform tweeting that the Tea Party is “freaking retarded.”
This has to stop if Republicans are to capture the seats they’ll need to win legislative battles over the final two years of the Obama presidency. Cruz allies are primarying Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and are threatening other establishment Republicans just as Mr. Rove and others are gearing up for what could amount to a shooting war with Tea Party-backed candidates. In Virginia, moderate or liberal Republicans unhappy with their gubernatorial candidate have jumped ship and are in some cases actually backing an incredibly liberal Democrat.
No good can come of this. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus ought to get as many of these people together as possible, knock heads and get them to at least pretend to get along until November 2014.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.