Sam Tanenhaus discusses the trajectory of the republican party over the past half century.
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GUEST: Sam Tanenhaus
AIR DATE: 06/23/2012
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest once again today is Sam Tanenhaus, distinguished Editor of the Sunday New York Times Book Review, and historian/biographer of American Conservatism … particularly much so in the persons of Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley.
Now last time, Mr. Tanenhaus and I discussed “Will the Tea Get Cold?”, that’s the title the New York Review of Books had just given to a collective review he had written for it of several recent volumes about today’s archconservative Tea Party.
Now my guest has followed up in the New York Review with comments about Geoffrey Kabaservice’s Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party.
And, of course, everyone’s talking or writing about Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann’s new book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With The New Politics of Extremism … which these generally moderate commentators summed up in the Washington Post the other week in a piece titled “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem”.
Also, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman writes in the New York Times about “Plutocracy, Paralysis, Perplexity”…to which he might have added “Partisanship” as he concludes that America’s ” … real structural problem is in our political system, which has been warped and paralyzed by the power of a small, wealthy minority…”.
So that one just might apocalyptically conclude, “The End Is Here”. Indeed, I wonder if my guest Sam Tanenhaus thinks that about our political system.
TANENHAUS: Well, I don’t if we’re touching apocalypse, Dick, as one of my teachers Harold Bloom might say. But now, these are, these are … very, very difficult times. I think it’s … these are all very smart people … you’re invoking, including my colleague Paul Krugman, who’s a brilliant economist. But I do think there’s a tendency, sometimes, to overstate the, the dangers, the perils of, of politics in a given moment.
Really I can look at many times in recent history where things seem pretty much as bad as they do now. The, the problem, of course, is that the economy is in such sluggish condition. It’s not … desperate as it was before … and it looks as if, if the system were not so deadlocked, we could do a lot more about it. And I sympathize with all these critics who point to that, I think they’re right.
HEFFNER: Well, I’m glad to hear my friend, Sam Tanenhaus, is sort of saying “take it easy, take it easy”.
TANENHAUS: Well, here, here’s the thing that concerns me a little bit, Dick, about some of the discussions of politics and somewhat implicate me … I’m writing about the Conservative Movement as well … is, I think, when you’re in a big complex, diverse democracy like ours … it’s a mistake to try to either input motives to voters or assume they’re not voting for the people they mean to vote for, or that they don’t understand what’s really going on or that they’re being hoodwinked and deceived. I think there’s a little bit of that in some of the, the conversation.
I think you get in a difficult position when you talk about a, a democratic nation, like ours, in that way because then you’re really asking a different set of questions … that have … really go to the basis of democracy itself and how it works. And I think if we dial back a little bit, as they say … and, you know, take a more measured view, it might not look so desperate.
For instance, whatever his weakness is and I think we, we’ve seen many of them exhibited … Mitt Romney, by far the most moderate figure in the Republican field, easily got the nomination.
And, you know, you have to ask why that is. If it’s a time … just extremists and of intense partisans and ideologues, why on earth is someone, who if you just look at his record … forget about the rhetoric of the campaign, which always tends to be exaggerated … look at his record … his four years in Massachusetts … this could be the most moderate Republican nominated in, in forty years or more.
HEFFNER: Are you prophesying?
TANENHAUS: (Laugh) No.
HEFFNER: Shall I mark that down to your saying “Wait until he’s President and you’ll see that he’s a moderate?”
TANENHAUS: I don’t know. That’s the big question with him, of course. And it’s, it’s an interesting debate. You know one side of the argument says he will inescapably be captive to the hard ideologues in his party. And I agree, by the way, with the commentators you mentioned before who say, “We’ve, we’ve reached a point where one of the parties, the Republican Party … in particular, the House of Representatives does really seem to be dominated by a core of, of people whose beliefs are kind of outside the mainstream.
And we know because of the way our system was created with its checks and balances and all the brakes you can put on legislation and the rest … that, that can really slow things down.
So is Mitt Romney going to be captive for them? Yeah, it’s a possibility he would be.
HEFFNER: Well, you, you raise … you make me think of an important question to put to you. This question of structure. You’ve looked at … you’re an historian, you are the biographer of men who were very important in terms of understanding … analyzing and understanding our political structure. Do you think it holds up now, today, as you look around the world and as you look at us … government that can be … can be deadlocked as severely as ours has been?
TANENHAUS: Yeah, that’s a really, really big question. I don’t know if I’m smart enough to answer it. Here’s the thing …
HEFFNER: Come on, Sam.
TANENHAUS: … somebody comes along with an inventive piece of legislation and is able to sell it in the way that a Lyndon Johnson could and early on, Barack Obama could. You know, we forget those, you know, comparisons in his first months to Franklin Roosevelt … when Obama took office and it does seem that, you know, and then it seems to work.
I think what ..l the big change and I’ve written about this … others have, too, is the use of the filibuster. The filibuster has served many nefarious purposes over the years, I mean the most notorious being its use by Conservative Southern Democrats to … just to stop any kind of humane Civil Rights legislation … even to eliminate lynching … you know, to pass anti-lynching legislation in Roosevelt’s day … there’s no question.
But a, a change happened with Bill Clinton … you know I’ve written about this … where the filibuster was actually … actually became just a standard form of legislative gridlock, you know. And it happened under someone people kind of respected … Bob Dole, when, when he was the Senate Minority Leader under Bill Clinton … and Clinton had a fairly small stimulus in mind … 1993 … and Dole used a filibuster to stop it. And that wasn’t something that had happened before, where you just stopped a President from enacting his normal legislative agenda by gathering up these numbers. And that happened again … it almost happened to Obama in the very first months of his Administration. He was only able to get the legislation through because he had so-called “super majorities” in both Houses, which he now no longer has.
I mean the curiosity, for instance, of the Supreme Court debate, you know, their hearing … the hearing the case on the affordable health care plan … it was … it’s a law that was passed by a majority of, right, of legislators.
It’s, it’s not as if this was some radical measure that was forced down the throats of, of Congress. On the contrary. And yet it has been politicized in an extreme way through a kind of rhetoric and partisanship that does feel new in our politics.
HEFFNER: But then that comes back to the main question that I really do want to put to you and make you (laugh) answer …
HEFFNER: … and that is … have the events of the last two decades … you go back to Bill Clinton and Bob Dole … but we’ve seen this continuing. We’ve seen this developing. We’ve seen what you shrug your shoulders at or look askance at and say, “How could this be … bills passed by a majority, etc., etc.”
We are where we are now. That doesn’t seem to be much of a chance that we’re going to move back, does there? Even if the parties change parties in the little dance they do?
TANENHAUS: Move back to what, Dick?
HEFFNER: Move back to a more civilized …
HEFFNER: … kind of governmental structure … no … we’ve always had this structure. But to governmental process.
TANENHAUS: Well, what we’ve lost and you know this very well … we’ve talked about it … is the idea of political consensus …
TANENHAUS: … and consensus is a term that’s sometimes misunderstood. It doesn’t mean that everybody agrees about everything. It does mean they agree about what the big questions are. And I think this is one of the surprises or one of the really dismaying changes in our politics … that a very good political thinker Michael Lind pointed out … I think as long ago as 1994 or 1995 … that many on the Right, including intellectuals seem to think that there were no serious problems, at all, that should be addressed by government.
And yet if you go back a generation earlier, a period I write about in the second New York Review of Book piece …
TANENHAUS: … you mentioned … if you look a the period when Daniel Patrick Moynihan, lifelong Democrat … worked in the Cabinet of Richard Nixon, was recruited by Nixon to be his Urban Czar, to solve the problems of, of poverty. And they came up with a hugely ambitious program, that was defeated … now I have to be very clear about this … Democrats and Republicans for different reasons rejected the program.
But what’s interesting is when Moynihan wrote about it in several pieces that ran in The New Yorker and then were really serialized from a book, Politics of Guaranteed Income, Moynihan made it clear that when he presented his program … the Family Assistance Plan … which was essentially a guaranteed income to the poor. Everyone would be given money to do with … it was based on the economics of quite a quite Conservative thinker, Milton Friedman, that this would be a way to rescue the nation or the poor, the underclass, as some called it, from dependency … that was Moynihan’s big word which then filtered into the culture.
Well, when he first presented the plan to powerful legislators in Congress, people like Wilbur Mills, remember him … before his scandals. He was actually quite a brilliant and respected legislator … you know, the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
The question was … “Well, we know proverty’s a problem, but is your solution going to work?” And now you think the answer would be Mitt Romney’s “Well, what, what poverty?” … you see.
That, that’s what’s a little dismaying now. And that why the piece is partly about is … the period that Geof Kabaservice writes about with such depth and detail in his book Rule and Ruin … is, you know, it’s really a kind of a lament of a very closely researched, for this period of moderate Republicans who acknowledged the same problems which are social problems in the country at large. So they didn’t say “Well, Democrats are unpatriotic because they say America may not be the greatest country that ever existed.” Instead they said, “Well, Democrats have one solution to the problem of urban poverty. Here’s ours that we think is better.”
The consensus came when everybody agreed that was a real problem. Now we’ve gotten to the point, I think this is one of the surprises in the primaries where even those basic questions were kind of taken off the table and substituted with others. You know Rick Santorum’s campaign about, you know, separation of Church and State and the evils of Liberal college professors. All these cultural issues that don’t address in any way the concrete problems much of the country is facing and concerned about and that, oddly enough, although reassuringly, polls seem to indicate they really do want solved.
That somehow all that got removed and it, it’s … we’ve had a, a primary season so far just strikingly devoid of real policy discussion. Because it … there seems to be a premise … just going into this election that even the idea that you think government might be able to solve a problem already brands you as a, as a Socialist or a Leftist of some kind. So it has poisoned the conversation, no question about it.
HEFFNER: Well, that’s, that’s what your more recent review is about. About the downfall of moderation. Do you think he is right picking the Republican party as …
TANENHAUS: Yes, well I think there was pretty good evidence … ah, a colleague of mine at the Times … Thomas Edsel has written about this … that yes, you can say … and, and this is what Norm Orenstein is getting at, too … it’s important to remember that Orenstein is at the American Enterprise Institute …
HEFFNER: I know.
TANENHAUS: … you know, one of the most respected and most conservative think tanks in Washington. And what does he say … he says “well if you look closely at the two parties the Democrats are really not so different from what they’ve been for quite some time now in the kinds of programs and policies they favor”.
It’s the Republicans who’ve moved in a more extreme direction. Why? Because the Republican Party is dominated by a movement. This is what my last book, The Death of Conservatism was about. It was about how ideological conservatism, Movement Conservatism became the engine of the Republican Party and Kabaservice writes about it in much greater depth and detail. That it … there was a kind of fratricidal war fought within the Republican Party. And the Moderates and the Liberals and, I think, there’s a regional and sectional component to this … the Northeasterners, the Rust Belt legislators, were either marginalized or actually purged, we might say, from the Republican Party.
So what you have is a party that’s much narrower in its ideological interests and thrust. And that doesn’t work so well in a two party system.
There’s an irony to this, by the way, because back in the day … political scientists … I mean back in the 1950’s the height of consensus … political scientists like James MacGregor Burns actually wanted the parties to be more ideological because he, he interpreted it in the opposite way from what ended up being our political reality. Which is to say he predicted that we would have parties that were more ideological, but he didn’t realize it would be the extremists who would take over.
HEFFNER: Well …
TANENHAUS: He thought the extremists would be purged.
HEFFNER: That’s why he would come to this table and argue for that development and I would say, “Look out for what you’re wishing for”. And I don’t know what Jim feels about that at this very moment …
TANENHAUS: He’s amazingly still with us.
HEFFNER: Oh, I know that.
TANENHAUS: In his nineties … and, and very vital and active … wrote an important book recently about the Supreme Court. It’s true …
HEFFNER: I don’t like the way you say “In his nineties …
HEFFNER: Come on …
TANENHAUS: No, I say that with admiration and aspirations of my own. Well, here’s another thing, too, Dick, if you remember, one of the famous essays Professor Burns wrote, it was in the New York Times Sunday magazine, 1956, I think, when he introduced this argument. I think the … it’s called “Whose Party Is It?”, I think was the title of, of the article.
He began with an anecdote he’d been told about his biographical subject, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That in 1944 Roosevelt had said in a conversation with Judge Samuel Rosenman one of his intimates, he said, “You know, I’m … Willkie and I … Wendell Willkie are, you know, talking about this, that maybe what we need is two parties, a Liberal Party and a Conservative Party. Right? And the Liberal Party would be composed of really the Northern and Western states and some of those around the Great Lakes. And the Conservative Party would be those Southern Democrats who were getting in FDR’s way and the isolationists in the Plains States and the Midwest.” And he saw very accurately how the country was moving.
But, what, what the great Roosevelt himself missed and I think Professor Burns following him … is, is apparent in the idea that somehow Wendell Willkie would be the leader of a Conservative Party.
Because to the true die-hard Republicans Willkie himself was ideologically suspect. You know a former Democrat, he came from Wall Street, he had no strong party allegiances at all. So what that shows is these very powerful political minds, like President Roosevelt and Professor Burns … even … at the period of consensus when they wanted to break consensus down still were thinking in the terms that governed that same consensus.
HEFFNER: Is it unfair of me to ask you what your feeling is about that? About Jim’s and the President’s desire to see this dichotimization?
TANENHAUS: Well, I think they were prophetic.
HEFFNER: In what way?
TANENHAUS: You mean do I think they were right … I, I think maybe not. I’ve thought about this, Dick, and I wish I had a better answer … I’m not a political theorist the way James MacGregor Burns is. But here’s something that struck me during this primary. It’s partly what this second of two essays was about.
Is how much the country is still separated out by sectionalism and, and regionalism. There’s a good bit in the second piece about the strength of the Evangelicals during the primaries. And where are they strongest? They’re strongest in the Bible Belt and the Deep South.
So, does that mean we really should have two parties that directly address those areas? Maybe. But there’s a slight difference as well that I think complicates it. And that is that our society, culturally we’re more complicated and diverse than we were 60 or 70 years ago.
So, for instance, in Roosevelt’s day you could look at the Northern cities, with their political machines and they’re ethnic immigrant populations and say, “okay, that’s one part of the country now … that’s going to be very distinct from what you might find in the Southwest.”
Well, now you look at almost any big city in America and you find that well, there are large Latino …
TANENHAUS: … populations … they maybe Democratic. If you look at the great suburbs which … in some ways are the deepest reservoirs of votes. They tend to be Liberal on some issues, Conservative in others. I think if we had parties that were that distinct you’d have a huge … you’d have huge areas of the population that really wouldn’t know where they belonged. That may be the case now, already. You know, the, the Independents and Moderates who, who really don’t know where to go. I think what we call Independents now are really the moderate Republicans that Geoff Kabaservice writes about.
HEFFNER: You do think so?
TANENHAUS: Yeah. That, that’s why I think …. there are two different kinds of Independents that we should be clear about.
There’s one in the old days they called “switch voters” and those people who don’t even … they change from election to election … they don’t know what they think.
Those are the ones that if a poll is given won’t know what’s, they won’t be able to say what state Mitt Romney was Governor of, for instance. They’re not really paying attention.
Then you have the Independent voters who are really in the middle somewhere, looking at both parties or both candidates in a Presidential election and saying “Well, which one is more likely to solve the problems we have.” Who seems to have better judgment. Who seems to have, you know, better executive material. Who’s more likely to break down partisan barriers and divide … who speaks in a way that connects with me.
These are very serious minded centrist voters. I think a lot of them were comfortable voting for Republicans, probably through the Administration of, of George Bush. That’s when a lot of them broke away.
Those were a lot of the voters that the Democrats attracted in 2006 in the Congressional elections. That President Obama attracted again in 2008. 2010 hard to say, very low voter turnout. But he probably lost some of them. They’re the voters he’s trying to bring back now. They are probably party-less and it maybe a new thing in our politics.
I don’t know how many there are, but the number … don’t you think … seems pretty high.
HEFFNER: Where do you think your friend Bill Buckley would be now?
TANENHAUS: Well, Bill Buckley’s a very tricky case. Because he was a brilliant, wonderful man. A man of great intellect and extraordinarily civil and a really quick, flexible mind … no question about all of that.
But he was also a true-blue Republican. He was an ardent defender of Joseph McCarthy. Now, Bill was very young …
HEFFNER: That’s …
TANENHAUS: … when he did that …
HEFFNER: … yes …
TANENHAUS: … but nonetheless it was true. He and National Review, his magazine, I’ve just been looking at some of this material recently, were very staunchly segregationist in the 1950’s. It was not just a matter of states’ rights. That was the argument they made. They were segregationists. They supported that … you know … what was called “massive resistance” to the Supreme Court decision of Brown and to some of, you know, the Little Rock incident where President Eisenhower sent troops … Federal Guardsmen … National Guard.
They, you know, ferociously criticized that. And, and in the pages of the magazine were arguments … oh, interviews with Senator Richard Russell from Georgia who said that integrating schools is a step toward miscegenation. I mean this was published in the magazine. No those were ideas, those were … or sentiments … that were current at the time, but, as many have said, they were not necessarily conservative arguments. They were reactionary arguments. They were arguments that came out of the very Right Wing of the Republican Party.
And Bill sponsored some of that … at the same that he wrote very sensitive and a penetrating editorials in defense of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. So it gets very confusing when you look at Bill Buckley. But in the end he was always a Republican and usually found a reason to support Republican candidates. So he probably would this time, too.
HEFFNER: We have a minute and a half left … something like that. What do you do when your subject obviously changes. As Bill Buckley did change … move … develop … grow … what do you do …
TANENHAUS: Oh, well, that’s, that’s exciting. Well, first of all you don’t pass judgment. At least I don’t. He’s a much bigger figure than … the same as Whittier Chambers … these are huge figures who are more interesting than I am.
My job is just to try to get it right at each moment. That’s what makes them interesting, Dick. That’s what makes figures like that attractive and fascinating … is … the changes they undergo, the … all the information that they absorb and re-calculate, the way they question themselves, formulate arguments at any given moment, that will be the sharpest arguments made and then five years later they’ve turned around and changed their mind. It makes them interesting.
HEFFNER: Well, I know that that’s what makes so interesting the great book on Whittier Chambers. Will it on Bill Buckley?
TANENHAUS: Well, as I make no claims for, for what I do in telling the story except to try to get it right. And Bill Buckley led a very big and multi-faceted life. It’s not an easy story to tell. Though it’s fun to learn about it.
HEFFNER: And that’s the point at which I say, Thanks very much for joining me today Sam Tanenhaus.
TANENHAUS: Always a pleasure, Dick.
HEFFNER And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
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