Is the GOP Washed Up? Hardly.

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Mr. Stebenne, Associate Professor of History and Adjunct Professor of Law at Ohio State University, is the author of Modern Republican: Arthur Larson and the Eisenhower Years (2006).

As scholars and politicos debate the Republican party’s future, everyone involved ought to keep in mind that history does offer some useful lessons. The closest historical analogy to the GOP’s present dilemma was the party’s experience in the 1930’s and ‘40’s, when the Republicans as a national party also had real trouble appealing to the broad middle of the electorate at a time when moderation was increasingly popular. By the late 1940’s (having lost five consecutive presidential elections), the GOP seemed, at least superficially, to be a party on a road to permanent second-class status in the American political system. That didn’t happen, in part because moderately conservative Republicans in the 1950’s rescued their party from a bind similar to the one it is in today. Under the leadership of Dwight Eisenhower, the Republicans rebounded then. More specifically, Eisenhower reoriented the GOP at the national level in a more moderate direction, won two landslide electoral victories over an attractive, eloquent Democratic opponent, and more generally rehabilitated the Republicans in the eyes of millions of centrist voters. The Eisenhower experience suggests several important lessons for the Republicans today:

First, repeated, severe failure can be very helpful to a party’s eventual revival. Moderately conservative Republicans were able to help the party make a comeback in the 1950’s precisely because the GOP did so poorly earlier by usually backing more strongly conservative policies and more strongly partisan candidates. All of those defeats in the presidential races held during the 1930’s and ‘40’s gave moderately conservative Republicans greater leverage by the time the 1950’s opened. So, too, did the GOP’s inability to win control of Congress more than once during the '30s and '40s.

Second, concluding that moderating the GOP is hopeless because most Republicans in Congress today are strongly conservative overstates the problem. Members of Congress by definition do not have the kind of executive responsibilities that require compromise and moderation. If one had looked to GOP leaders in Congress alone during the 1940’s to revive the party then, the task would have seemed even more difficult than it does now. Most GOP “stars” in Congress during the '40s, such as Robert Taft and Richard Nixon, appealed greatly to partisan Republicans and strongly conservative people only, who did not then (and do not now) make up anything like a majority of the national electorate.

Third, drawing the conclusion that the GOP cannot be reoriented in a more moderate direction today because most conservative pundits and prognosticators are opposed to such a course is similarly misguided. Such people live even less in the world of day-to-day governing than GOP members of Congress. The chattering classes often do better in attracting an audience by taking more extreme positions because these make for the liveliest debates. This was as true for Republican-oriented syndicated columnists and radio pundits in the 1940’s such as Westbrook Pegler and Walter Winchell as it is for Republican talk-radio types today. Provoking heated arguments and building electoral majorities are usually different undertakings, however, as the national moderately conservative rebound of the 1950’s made clear.

Fourth, the most important sources of moderate conservatism then as now were GOP gubernatorial administrations (in big industrial states especially), the corporate elite headquartered in New York investment banks and major law firms, and major newspaper and magazine publishers. Unlike conservative congressmen and pundits, big-state GOP governors, leaders of big business, finance, and corporate law, and heads of major media organizations are obliged to live and work on a daily basis in the world as it is rather than in some idealized, strongly conservative vision of it.

Fifth, in terms of electoral politics, efforts to revive the GOP by reorienting it in a more moderate direction tend to begin at the gubernatorial level. So successful was this trend during the supposed heyday of the New Deal that by 1944 there were Republican governors in 26 of the then 48 states. Even more telling, the 26 states with GOP governors together possessed approximately 70 percent of the country’s population. In a similar vein, the most promising sign for the Republicans’ future today is the little discussed fact that the governor of the most populous state (Arnold Schwarzenegger of California) is a moderately conservative Republican.

Sixth, GOP moderates tend to succeed in expanding to the federal executive (i.e., presidential) level by recruiting a broadly popular presidential candidate who comes from the outside. Moderately conservative Republicans first tried this tactic in 1940, when they astonished seasoned political observers by wresting the party’s presidential nomination away from more strongly conservative and/or partisan candidates in favor of newcomer Wendell Willkie. But for the unprecedented circumstances of that election, when the GOP faced a two-term Democratic incumbent seeking re-election during a growing national security crisis, Willkie would likely have won. In 1952, that same “look for someone from the outside” approach paid off brilliantly, as Dwight Eisenhower and his supporters took the nomination away from Ohio senator Robert Taft, who never appealed much to moderates and independents. In contrast, Eisenhower owed his nomination more than anything else to his demonstrated ability to attract such supporters to the GOP. The clearest sign of that came during the 1952 Republican primaries, where overall turnout tripled over what it had been four years earlier. Another sign came on general election day November 1952, when the percentage of registered voters casting ballots was the highest since 1908.

Seventh, the great virtue of picking someone truly new to politics as the GOP moderates’ presidential candidate is that such a person has not been involved in earlier, deeply divisive intra-party debates over what its future direction ought to be. That kind of moderate conservative, one “without much of a paper trail” to use today’s political language, is usually much less objectionable to more strongly conservative and partisan Republicans. While most of them never loved Eisenhower or his policies, so-called “rock-ribbed Republicans” could at least bring themselves to vote for him. More recently, the Schwarzenegger experience at the state level in California reflects much the same pattern: a newcomer who, while not popular with strongly conservative people and the most partisan Republicans, nonetheless manages to gain their grudging support for an administration that pursues more moderately conservative policies.

All of this suggests that today’s Republican Party is not necessarily fated to become a strongly conservative, second-tier player in American politics. And so, while one cannot be certain that moderates will regain control of the GOP nationally and pave the way for its revival, don’t be surprised if they do.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 6/1/2009

After 20 years?

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/28/2009

Much of the large turnout in 1952 is explained by the upset victory of Truman in 1948. A good many people stayed home in '48, assuming the almost unanimous predictions of a Dewey victory would come true. They awoke to the horror of another four years of Harry Truman. It wasn't just Harry Truman, of course, it was also Ed Flynn in the Bronx, Jake Arvey in Chicago, Boss Crump in Memphis, Boss Hague in Jersey City, Pendergast in Kansas City, and all the other regional Democratic sewers, plus power brokers like Phil Murray, Walter Reuther and Sidney Hillman, and a few snakes like Alger Hiss. By 1952 there was a tremendous feeling in the country that 20 years of FDR/Truman style government was quite enough demagogy. The feeling will be similar when we come to the end of Obama's reign.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/27/2009

I've thought the "death of the Reupblican party" stuff has been overdone. The current rules of the game make starting third parties very difficult; therefore, opposition to the Democrats will eventually shape a new and strong Republican coalition.

This won't be easy though. Dr. Stebenne rightly points out that Republican governors tend to be more moderate. However, I think that he may underestimate the current influence of Congressional and media conservatism. Some of these folks really would prefer a purer minority party, and they have a lot of clout when it comes to fundraising and fund distribution.

Also the exmaple of George Bush, who portrayed himself as a moderate in the 2000 election, may make it easier in the short run for Democrats to claim that one of these new moderates is simply a pyscho-conservative in moderate attire.

Still, the Reupblican party isn't going anywhere. To the extent that Obama and the Dems either are not successful in righting the economy or face a foreign policy crisis that makes them appear weak, the Republicans could bounce back quickly.

Their biggest impediment to bouncing back? That in a time requiring economic policy action they have not coalesced around an alternative. They probably can't do so until the success and failures of Obama's policies become clearer.