Overthrowing the overthrowers of the Republican establishment
Is there such a thing as a Republican establishment? Yes, if you trust Ann Coulter, and she thinks she knows exactly who they are – “political consultants, The Wall Street Journal, corporate America, former Bush advisers and television pundits” – which is a sly way of boasting that she is a member of this select band of behind-the-scenes power brokers.
To the American Spectator’s Steve McCann, the GOP establishment consists of: top lawmakers past and present “whose livelihood and narcissistic demands depends upon fealty to Party and access to government largesse”; “the majority of the conservative media … whose proximity to power and access is vital to their continued standard of living”; conservative think-tank staffers “waiting to latch on to the next Republican administration for employment and ego-gratification”; and donors and consultants whose businesses would benefit from a Republican in the White House.
George Will, surely an archbishop in the GOP establishment if it exists, takes a suitably contrary line, declaring without cracking a smile that “the Republican establishment died at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in 1964, when Goldwater was nominated against their frenzied wishes.” “Google the Republican establishment, you’ll get 20 million hits,” he explained. “Google the Loch Ness monster and you’ll get a whole bunch of hits. They’re both dead or never existed.”
But if the Republican establishment doesn’t exist, so many believe it does that it might as well. So let me suggest why the Tea Partyers and so many conservative pundits of all stripes agree it’s real. Like all parties, the GOP divides between those who sit atop the heap and those who aim to take their place. Since 1964, Republican Party moderate conservatives have endured a persistent, endless, aggressive assault from social conservatives and libertarians rallying behind such inspirational figures as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
Every radical movement needs a lost leader, like Goldwater, and an unimpeachable savior, like Reagan. There is a persisting myth among non-establishment Republicans that Reagan was not seduced by the Beltway and the comforts of office. Once in the White House, however, the Gipper often acted more like a conservative than a libertarian and, thanks to his tax cuts and borrowing for military spending, presided over, as J.K. Galbraith quipped, “involuntary anonymous Keynesianism.” But no matter.
The old corporatist conservative Republicanism of Big Businessmen like Nelson Rockefeller, who posthumously gave the last-gasp burst of the old-school establishment its name, has been defeated by successive waves of entryists such as the Christian Right, out-and-out libertarians, and the Tea Partyers, whose borrowers’ remorse transformed into a surprisingly potent political force. George H.W. Bush was the last Northeastern blue blood in the Oval Office, if you do not count his faux hick son George W., who talked the Hayekian talk with a Texas twang, but facing financial meltdown, smartly walked the Keynesian walk.
The distressing thing for the entryists is that no sooner do they manage to get one of their less frightening number into Congress than the once rebellious radical becomes a cozy establishment pussycat. Hence the solemn signed pledges, from not raising taxes to outlawing abortion, that bind the hands of Republicans and attempt to prevent them sliding into Washington’s wicked, wicked ways.
Establishment Republicans believe it’s all to do with pragmatism and electability. Give us another Reagan, they suggest, and we would happily line up behind him. In the meantime we’ll take Romney. The sound and fury of the primaries has signified nothing so much as that old establishment trick where, like the succession of monarchs and Soviet leaders, the next in line inherits irrespective of merit. Romney, the establishment’s champion, has been foisted on the idealists, who believe they have, once again, been taken as fools.
But can Romney be elected? Certainly not if his GOP opponents don’t work to have him elected. Already establishment figures like Rush Limbaugh, who poses as an idealist to please his legions of aggrieved, angry listeners, are paving the way for the backlash that would accompany a Romney defeat. “If this doesn’t pan out to big-time electoral victory the way the establishment has it figured, then what will their excuse be?” Limbaugh said. “They’re going to blame us conservatives for once again being too rigid and too demanding and too narrow and unrealistic.” Quite so. And the establishment will be right.
PHOTO: Travis Lober, 28, a postal worker and painter, completed this portrait of former Senator Barry Goldwater the night prior to Goldwater’s funeral, June 3, 1998. Reuters/Stringer