Among my circle of Facebook friends — many of whom I used to interact with in the real world before the internets relieved me of that burden — there is a tendency to celebrate the common-sense wisdom of one Dwight David Eisenhower. (There is also a seemingly endless fascination with kittens and Star Wars, but that's for another post.) The good general’s quotes are brought up to demonstrate that the Republican Party was not always dominated by con artists, shills, and flat-out lunatics. “Why isn’t the GOP this sensible today?” or something similar is usually the comment that accompanies these citations.
What my friends don’t seem to realize is that The Version of the Republican Party That Confronts Us Today (since it would be an oxymoron to call it “The Modern GOP" or even “Today's GOP”) has its roots in a reaction against the very moderation that Eisenhower embodied. The short version is that early in Ike’s first term, a small group of right-wing reactionaries concluded that Eisenhower was a communist dupe (!) because he did not move immediately to uproot every last trace of the New Deal immediately upon taking office. So they decided they would do it themselves. Step One was to take control of one of the two major political parties, and we can all guess which one they picked.
Step Two was to get a candidate of their choosing onto the national ticket. That turned out to be Goldwater in 1964 — which was rather sooner than expected. Goldwater’s campaign is usually depicted as a setback for this peculiar brand of conservatism. But the reality is that winning the election was not the point of his candidacy, although I’m sure the folks who put him there would have viewed it as a nice perk if he had actually won. (All of this is admirably recounted by Rick Perlstein in Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, which I consider indispensable in understanding how we got into this mess.)
Step Three was to actually take the White House, which as we all know was accomplished by Saint Ronnie of Reagan.
Which brings us to another point my Facebook friends have made fairly regularly: The notion that Ronald Reagan — yes, even Ronald Reagan — would be “too liberal” for The Version of the Republican Party That Confronts Us Today. Nor is this point limited to Facebook. It seems to be Conventional Wisdom (which would explain why it’s disseminated on Facebook.) Last week it showed up here:
A lot of people have said that Reagan wouldn’t even recognize the Republican Party of today. Do you think that’s right?
I think that’s right. I don’t think Reagan or myself or any of us could win a primary now with these standards...
The problem with this idea is that it completely ignores the basic reality of what Reagan was — an opportunist. He would have become whatever his handlers told him to become in order to win a primary, and then a general election. I know The Version of the Republican Party That Confronts Us Today likes to claim that Reagan was a great leader. And certainly he exhibited many of the outward qualities of leadership. What he never exhibited was any actual leadership. Reagan was a follower, not a leader. It’s as simple as that.
So, let’s review:
1) Eisenhower was not representative of the GOP even when he was its nominal head.
2) Ronald Reagan is not our friend. Not then. Not now. Not ever.
Please make a note of it.Posted by Kurt Weldon at October 13, 2012 10:14 PM