Sunday’s New York Times ran this top of the fold, front-page headline (left column, meaning the number two story of the day), “Before Battling Democrats, GOP is Fighting Itself.”
To some extent The Times was trying to stoke the flames of Republican division. Even so, the Tea Party v. the Establishment is all the buzz in Washington just now. Will the Republicans rip themselves apart before Mitch McConnell even takes up the reins of the Senate majority leader? Inquiring minds want to know.
To be sure, GOP division is only one of a number of capital-city cocktail-party and Starbuck’s conversation obsessions in the aftermath of last Tuesday’s blow out. On the Left in particular (and this town is mainly Left) there is talk of the president’s failures as a communicator and a leader, of his disengagement even from allies in his own party and, beyond the transience of personalities, of the shortcomings of the U.S. Constitution.
Of course, the American Left has been fighting an underground war against the Constitution for several decades. But the Democrats’ left wing is more out in the open about their opposition to our constitutional system now than ever before. They were fine with the Senate until they lost it. Now we hear hints of abolishing it. The House with its gerrymandering is not much better, they say. They have been for doing away with the Electoral College at least since Bush v. Gore, despite the chaos that national direct elections would inevitably produce (for more on that question, please go here: http://bit.ly/1GHk0wK).
Still, this weekend, such Left-generated issues were on the back burner. The big story was the supposedly impending GOP civil war. But is it civil war, or is it reverting a mean?
With the exception of recent times, the history of the GOP has been of ongoing tension between reformers and establishments.
The party began as an alliance of Northern Whigs (establishment) and Abolitionists (reformers), not groups that easily got along but that in alliance proved enormously consequential. They won the Civil War, ended slavery and set the stage for the nation’s emergence as the world’s preeminent industrial power. Consider what the global history of the 20th Century would have been like had they not united and prevailed in 1860 and numerous elections after that.
By the 1880s, the reformers of an earlier time had become mainstream and joined the establishment of the era. New anti-corruption reform elements led by a young Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge among others began contending for party position. Their ultimate legacy became an executive branch that was – thanks to reforms like establishing a merit-based civil service — far more honest and capable of commanding public confidence than what had preceded it.
By 1900, anti-corruption had extended beyond issues like replacing the spoils systems to Progressivism’s emphasis on regulating large corporations. The McKinley-TR ticket of that year represented an establishment-reform rapprochement. Roosevelt’s emphasis as president on anti-trust and the passage of the Food and Drug Act in 1906 were fruits of that era’s reform movement.
The Coolidge-Hoover division of the late 1920s might have been the initial sign of a fresh reformer-establishment split, but, if so, the successive crises of the Depression, followed by World War II, followed by the Cold War changed national and Republican politics for nearly two generations. Not until William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan came forward in the late 1950s and early 1960s did a new reform movement emerge in the party, this time seeing the machinery of excessive government rather than the major corporations of the Progressive Era as the new corruption.
And not until Ronald Reagan’s election did the party’s reformers and establishment unite, producing the most fruitful GOP alliance since Lincoln’s. The economy roared into the strongest and most sustained peacetime growth in American history. Constitutionalism was at least partially restored to the courts. The Cold War was won.
Today, as so often in the past, the establishment includes many who were reformers during GOP reform’s last wave – the new Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, for example. And as often in the past, pace is the real issue, not direction. All Republicans are reformers now.
Looking to 2016, here is the lesson I take from all this history. It is not just that we have been this way before. It is that the most successful GOP presidents, while coming from the reform wing of the party, have consistently been figures who could make peace with the establishment, bringing it into the reform fold. Lincoln did that. So did TR – and Reagan.
Creating a reform-establishment alliance and preparing it to win the White House – this is the great political task of the next two years.