“We’ve got to get the Rockefeller Republicans out of the party,” a fellow told me in Minnesota recently. Or was it Arizona? Or Wilkes-Barre, Pa.? Actually, I think it was all three. I hear it all the time as I travel around the country.
For those of you who don’t know, Rockefeller Republicans — named after the former New York governor, Nelson Rockefeller — were the liberal, mostly Northeastern wing of the Republican Party.
Rockefeller Republicans are basically extinct, at least among GOP officeholders. Sure, a handful of descendants with some Rockefellerian DNA are hiding in the woods of New York, Maine and Pennsylvania. But even they are on the endangered species list.
And yet, there’s this idea that they control the party. Even Pat Buchanan, who knows this history better than most, recently wrote that the current battle between the GOP establishment and forces allied with Ted Cruz is a replay of the old fight between Barry Goldwater and Rockefeller.
There are certainly some similarities, but the differences are more relevant and profound. Pick any three defining issues of conservatism — say, smaller government, low taxes and opposition to abortion, or a strong national defense, entitlement reform and gun rights — and you’ll be hard-pressed to find the Republican “establishment” on one side and the tea party faithful on the other.
Even on policies that are splitting Republicans these days — say, foreign policy or immigration — the rift does not neatly divide the establishment and the “real conservatives.”
Such a statement will no doubt infuriate conservatives who believe the establishment is insufficiently committed to conservative principles. And that is a fair complaint. But that criticism is about efficacy and passion, not policy or philosophy. And this is an important distinction that has been airbrushed out of the picture by groups like Heritage Action and FreedomWorks. The current GOP establishment is more conservative than it has ever been.
In the recent conservative donnybrook over the government shutdown, insurgents insisted they were in an ideological struggle with the establishment. But there was precious little ideology involved. Instead, it was a fight over tactics and power. The Republican Party almost unanimously opposed Obamacare, and Republicans who’ve been in office far longer than Cruz & Co. have voted more than three dozen times to get rid of it. And yet, the latecomers to the battle talk as if the veterans in the trenches were collaborators the whole time.
I have enormous sympathy for their frustration, because I share it.
But the real source of that frustration is not the insufficient conservatism of the establishment; it’s the insufficient power and popularity of conservatism coupled with the very real failures of the GOP to reverse conservatism’s fortunes over the last two decades.
That’s reason enough to be mad at the establishment. But replacing the leadership with even more ardent, passionate and uncompromising conservatives is far from a guaranteed formula for making the GOP more popular or powerful. To do that, the GOP needs to persuade voters to become a little more conservative, not to hector already-conservative politicians to become even more pure.