“We've got to get the Rockefeller Republicans out of the party,” a fellow told me in Minnesota recently. Or was it Arizona? Or Wilkes-Barre, Pa.? Actually, I think it was all three. I hear it all the time as I travel around the country speaking to conservative groups.
For those of you who don't know, the Rockefeller Republicans — named after the former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller — were the liberal, mostly Northeastern wing of the Republican Party.
Liberal Republican sounds like a contradiction in terms today, particularly for young people who grew up in the age of strictly ideological parties. But for most of American history, the parties weren't strongly ideological institutions so much as coalitions of interests. There were very liberal Republicans and very conservative Democrats.
The Rockefeller Republicans were authentic liberals well to the left of Richard Nixon, who would today be considered to be left of the GOP on most issues. And guess what? The Rockefeller Republicans are basically extinct, at least among GOP officeholders. And yet there's this idea that they control the party.
There are certainly are familiar contours to every battle for control of a party. But the differences are far more relevant and profound. Pick any three defining issues of conservatism — say, smaller government, low taxes and opposition to abortion, or a strong national defense, entitlement reform and gun rights — and you'll be hard-pressed to find the supposedly liberal Republican “establishment” on one side and the Tea Party faithful on the other.
Even on the policies that are splitting Republicans these days — say, foreign policy or immigration — the rift does not neatly divide the establishment and the “real conservatives.”
Such a statement will no doubt infuriate many conservatives who believe that the establishment is insufficiently committed to conservative principles. And that is an entirely fair complaint. But that criticism is about efficacy and passion, not policy or philosophy.
The inconvenient truth for these groups is that the current GOP establishment is more conservative than it has ever been.
In the recent internecine conservative donnybrook over the government shutdown, the insurgents insisted they were in an ideological struggle with the establishment. But there was precious little ideology involved. Instead, it was a fight over tactics and power.
The Republican Party almost unanimously opposed Obamacare, and the Republicans who've been in office far longer than Cruz & Co. have voted more than three dozen times to get rid of the disastrous program.
And yet, the latecomers to the battle talk as if the veterans in the trenches were collaborators the whole time.
I have enormous sympathy for their frustration, because I share it. But the real source of that frustration is not the insufficient conservatism of the establishment; it's the insufficient power and popularity of conservatism coupled with the very real failures of the GOP to reverse conservatism's fortunes over the last two decades.
That's certainly reason enough to be mad at the establishment. But replacing the current leadership with even more ardent, passionate and uncompromising conservatives is far from a guaranteed formula for making the Republican Party more popular or powerful.
To do that, the GOP needs to persuade voters to become a little more conservative, not to hector already-conservative politicians to become even more pure as they go snipe-hunting for Rockefeller Republicans.
Contact the writer: