By Geoffrey Kabaservice
It’s hard not to feel at least a little sorry for Iowa’s conservative Republicans. Although three-quarters of the votes in Tuesday night’s caucus went to conservatives of one stripe or another, the winner by a bare eight votes was Mitt Romney, the most moderate candidate running – and “moderate” is an obscenity for conservatives. They don’t like Romney, and the feeling seems to be mutual. But even the relatively moderate Iowa Republicans who voted for Romney don’t seem terribly excited by him. The word his supporters most commonly use to describe him is “electable,” which is faint praise on the order of calling a meal “edible.” Nonetheless, his Iowa victory makes it all but certain that the former Massachusetts moderate, despite being the least preferred candidate of a majority of Republicans, will be the party’s champion for the presidency in 2012. This is an unhappy marriage of convenience that even Madame Bovary might pity.
Why are the Republican front-runner and the party’s base so at odds with each other? The answer lies in the party’s history, and particularly in the tension between moderates and conservatives that has been a constant theme of the GOP since the first incarnation of the New Right coalesced around the red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s.
The conservative movement has flared up at regular intervals ever since, like cicadas or herpes. Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy in the early 1960s was followed by Ronald Reagan’s efforts in 1976 and 1980, the Newt Gingrich-led Congressional insurgency of 1994, and the Tea Party over the past several years. In all of these incarnations, the primal enemy for the conservative activist has been not so much the liberal Democrat as the moderate Republican.
In the conservative view, the Democrats are foes to be overcome, but moderates are traitors to be exterminated. Moderates strike conservatives as a haughty establishment, unresponsive to the people’s wishes and in thrall to the elite media and “informed opinion.” Were it not for the moderates’ unprincipled willingness to compromise with Democrats, so the conservative thinking goes, the welfare state would long since have been repealed, and few of the pernicious progressive developments of the twentieth century would have come to pass.
Business-minded moderate Republicans, naturally, have a different perspective. In their minds, they represent the party of prosperity, stability, pragmatism, and efficient government. They think of liberals as fiscally incontinent hacks, but conservatives are something even more dangerous: Southern and Western populists and crony capitalists who abandoned their natural home in the Democratic Party and took over the GOP.
Moderates see conservatives as radicals hellbent on destabilizing the international system, debauching the country’s finances by heedlessly cutting taxes even in the face of massive deficits, and threatening domestic order by rendering government dysfunctional and seeking to polarize the political parties along ideological lines. As one prominent moderate Republican warned Barry Goldwater in the early 1960s, “Dogmatic ideological parties tend to splinter the political and social fabric of a nation, lead to governmental crises and deadlocks, and stymie the compromises so often necessary to preserve freedom and achieve progress.”
That long-ago moderate Jeremiah, as it happens, was George Romney, father of Mitt. As the governor of Michigan during the 1960s, the elder Romney fought for good-government reforms, defended citizen interests against both big labor and big business, balanced the state budget by implementing an income tax, and increased spending on education, unemployment relief, and local governments. As a candidate for president during 1967-68, he battled conservatives to put the GOP on the side of minority civil rights and called for the U.S. to disengage from the bloody Vietnam war. George Romney was undoubtedly the person Mitt most looked up to, and as Massachusetts governor he was a moderate Republican in his father’s tradition.
For many conservatives, the Romney family history of moderation disqualifies Mitt as a true Republican standard-bearer. It doesn’t matter to them that he has disavowed positions he once clearly believed, on issues such as the environment, abortion, and health care. They would remain unconvinced even if he succeeded in conveying the enthusiasm of a real convert rather than the flexibility of a contortionist.
Romney’s real problem, though, may be that the conservative enmity to his candidacy isn’t matched by corresponding moderate enthusiasm. Obviously many moderates are put off by his opportunism, and Romney’s appeal to moderates and independents will wane further if he moves farther right in the Southern primaries. But he may not be more appealing when he tacks back toward the center, because Mitt’s moderation seems amorphous and lacking content, particularly in comparison with his father’s example.
Granted, it will always be hard to fire up voters with the moderate virtues of prudence, efficient government, and fiscal responsibility. But George Romney excited moderates with his enthusiastic support for civil rights and civil liberties, his embrace of bold new ideas, and his real concern for equal opportunity and the problems of the disadvantaged. He kicked off his presidential campaign with a nationwide tour of American poverty, from rural wastelands to Watts, and implored his fellow citizens to “listen to the voices from the ghetto.”
Can anyone see Mitt doing the same? If he’s really a moderate at heart, is there more to his moderation than technocracy and a yen to cut taxes and business regulation? These are questions Romney will have to wrestle with long after the memories of Iowa have faded.
Geoffrey Kabaservice has written for numerous national publications and has been an assistant professor of history at Yale University. He is the author of the National Book Award-nominated The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment and, most recently, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party. He lives outside Washington, DC. Rule and Ruin was reviewed in this Sunday’s New York Times.