Republican Civil Wars

An August 1, 2015 article in the Rasmussen Reports asked the question, “Is the GOP on the Brink of Civil War?”  As evidence of what appears to be an impending “civil war,” the author points to a floor speech by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) in which he accused Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) of lying.  Cruz claimed that the majority leader had promised that there was no behind-the-scenes deal to revive the controversial Export-Import Bank…which conservatives oppose as “corporate welfare,” and which business organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce strongly support.

What caused Cruz to erupt was a last-minute decision by McConnell that the bill reauthorizing the Ex-Im bank would be attached to a highways funding bill, all but guaranteeing its passage.

Cruz charged, “The American people elected a Republican majority believing that a Republican majority would be somehow different from a Democratic majority in the United States Senate”… a thinly veiled charge that the Senate, under McConnell’s leadership, was all but indistinguishable from the Senate run by Democrat Harry Reid (D-NV).

The current bitterness between Cruz and McConnell is but a hint of the dissatisfaction that exists among rank-and-file conservatives and Republicans across the country.  It may very well be the first open skirmish in another war for the hearts and minds of conservatives and Republicans.

The first Republican “civil war” I experienced was in the early 1960s when the eastern liberal establishment dominated the Republican Party.  And when a group of conservative Young Republicans felt that the country had been allowed to drift much too far to the left, they took it upon themselves to engineer the nomination of a true conservative for president.

That was not a very popular notion among party liberals such as New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller; Congressman William E. Miller, of New York, Chairman of the Republican National Committee; or Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, of Pennsylvania.  Nevertheless, in 1961, a group of twenty-two young conservatives, mostly officers and active members of the Young Republican National Federation, met in New York to plot a course toward nominating a conservative Republican in 1964.  The group was led by F. Clifton White, of Connecticut; freshman congressman John Ashbrook, of Ohio; and future National Review editor, William Rusher.  Unable to settle on a candidate at that meeting, the group decided to wait until after the 1962 mid-term elections to select a candidate.  Following that election the decision was made to draft Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), and the Draft Goldwater Committee was born.

What the casual observer fails to understand is that, when first approached, Goldwater was not excited about the idea of running for president of the United States.  However, as the Draft Goldwater Committee (of which this writer was a card-carrying member) began to gain support across the country, he eventually relented and warmed to the idea… especially when he came to the realization that his campaign against John F. Kennedy would represent a long-sought confrontation between conservatism and liberalism… a confrontation that would never occur if the eastern liberal establishment was allowed to nominate yet another moderate Republican.

However, it was immediately evident that the Rockefeller wing of the party would not willingly cede the nominating process to a group of upstart Young Republicans.  Instead, the YRs backing a Goldwater candidacy decided that they could only be successful by seizing control of the party, even though that effort would likely set off a “civil war” within the party.

At a Young Republican meeting in New Jersey, in 1963, a meeting at which copious amounts of adult beverages were consumed, a group of YRs calling themselves the “Rat Finks,” wrote and sang a number of very creative song parodies… news of which quickly reached party leaders in Washington.  It was then that the animosity between party leaders and the Young Republican National Federation reached a boiling point.

One of the ditties, sung to the melody of the church hymn, Rock of Ages, went like this:

Rockefeller’s not for me,
He is not for GOP.
He is for the welfare state,
And he’s had more than one mate.
Rockefeller’s not for me;
He is just an s.o.b.

Needless to say, it was not a popular lyric at GOP headquarters in Washington, and in the governor’s mansion in Albany it was seen as downright sacrilegious.  As a result, Senator Hugh Scott led an effort to disfranchise the Young Republicans, including closing their office in RNC headquarters in Washington and cutting off all RNC funding.  Suddenly, it was open warfare and it continued through the 1964 Republican National Convention and all the way to the General Election in November 1964.

Unfortunately, a disastrous twist of fate lay in store for the Goldwater campaign and for the entire country.  On November 22, 1963, as John F. Kennedy rode in a motorcade through downtown Dallas, Texas, a communist sympathizer named Lee Harvey Oswald had other plans.

Suddenly, without warning, John F. Kennedy was dead and Lyndon Baines Johnson (D-TX) was president of the United States.  As of that day, the Draft Goldwater Committee had attracted enough support across the country to win a first-ballot victory for Goldwater at the 1964 national convention in San Francisco.  Nevertheless, those of us who’d given two years of our lives to the effort to send a conservative to the Oval Office knew that we’d have to work in the Goldwater campaign for an entire year, knowing that in the end we would lose… and lose BIG.

Because Goldwater was able to win only 27 million votes, against Lyndon Johnson’s 43 million, Republican liberals and moderates blamed the landslide loss on Goldwater’s conservatism, rather than on the circumstances surrounding LBJ’s ascent to the presidency.  And they continued to do so through the 1968, 1972, and 1976 presidential elections.

Finally, in the years leading up to the 1980 General Election, conservatives were once again able to nominate one of their own, former California Governor Ronald Reagan.  However, the success of the Reagan movement once again energized opposition among establishment Republicans.  In 1980, I attended the Republican National Convention in Detroit as an aide to former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon, who, along with former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former congressman Jack Kemp (R-NY), comprised Reagan’s “short list” for vice president.

However, on the day after Reagan was nominated, and before he had announced his selection of a running mate, establishment Republicans let it be known that they didn’t think Ronald Reagan had sufficient knowledge of foreign and domestic affairs to successfully lead the country.  In order to assuage that doubt, they created a groundswell of support on the convention floor aimed at forcing Reagan to select former president Gerald R. Ford, a moderate, as his running mate.  It represented the first “shot” in yet another Republican “civil war.”

Reagan was watching events unfold from his hotel suite in the nearby Renaissance Plaza Hotel.  And although neither of the Reagans was fond of George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s principal opponent in the Republican primaries, the decision was quickly made… in the interest of party unity… to abandon his plans to select a conservative running mate in favor of the establishment candidate, George H.W. Bush.

By sheer coincidence, I arrived at the Joe Louis Arena at precisely the instant that the Reagan entourage arrived and I walked through the revolving doors of the convention hall shoulder-to-shoulder with Reagan.  Believing that George H.W. Bush was not a man of presidential caliber, I have often thought that I might have changed history by merely extending my foot and putting “The Gipper” flat on his face.  Nevertheless, establishment Republicans had their way once again and the Bush “dynasty” that now attempts to nominate former governor, Jeb Bush, was born.

Now it has become clear once again that Republican leaders in Congress and at the RNC have no idea how to reach out to African-Americans, Hispanics, women, or to young voters.  At least blacks, Hispanics, Orientals, women, and college Republicans are listed on the RNC letterhead.  Nowhere does it mention the Young Republican National Federation, those young leaders who are the future of the Republican Party.  They were unable to find a formula under which they could guarantee Carly Fiorina, one of the top contenders among the 2016 hopefuls, a place in the first presidential debate on August 6; nor have they demonstrated any understanding whatsoever of the anger in the American electorate that Donald Trump appears to be harnessing.

It was just sixteen years between the Goldwater nomination in 1964 and the Reagan nomination in 1980.  It is now thirty-six years since the party nominated its last conservative.  With the Republican establishment throwing its substantial resources behind former Governor Jeb Bush, who has little, if any, chance of winning in November 2016, it looks as if we are long overdue for yet another intra-party “civil war.”

The only Republican who can save America for future generations is one with a bit of an edge who is capable of out-thinking and out-debating the Democratic nominee.  Since there is no one among the moderate candidates who can meet that requirement, Republican primary voters must choose very carefully in 2016.

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