Where have all the moderate Republicans gone?
That's what E.J. Dionne wants to know. He's a journalist and op-ed writer for the Washington Post, and his new book, "Why The Right Went Wrong: Conservatism—From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond," postulates that the rise of the far-right in the Republican Party has pushed out more centrist voters—maybe forever.
Dionne sat down with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan to discuss the role of conservatism in the 2016 primaries, the flight of the Republican Party from Massachusetts, and more.
JIM BRAUDE: The opening line to your book encapsulates this whole idea: ”the history of contemporary American conservatism is a story of disappointment and betrayal.” Fill in the blanks for those who haven't read it.
E.J. DIONNE: The core thesis of "Why The Right Went Wrong" is: for fifty years since Barry Goldwater’s victory and the conservative takeover of the Republican Party, Republican politicians have had to make a series of promises they couldn’t possibly keep. They promised to reduce the size of government, which was impossible because most Americans—including a lot of conservatives—want government to do a lot of things, such that government was the same size (as a share of GDP) when Reagan left office as when he took office. They talk about rolling back the cultural changes of the 1960s. Most people don’t want to do that. They don’t want to give up on racial equality, and equality between men and women, and—of late, with Mr. Trump—they seem to think they can roll back the ethnic makeup of the country to where it was back in 1940. If you make a series of promises like this and don’t keep them, your base of people who support you get very disappointed and angry. That explains the radicalization you’re seeing…
Fifty years since Barry Goldwater's victory and the conservative takeover of the Republican Party, Republican politicians have had to make a series of promises they couldn't possibly keep.
I talk quite a lot about Donald trump in "Why The Right Went Wrong." The Republican Party also got a lot of support over the years from white working class voters…and really delivered very little to them in material benefits. Trump, in an odd way for a billionaire, is leading a kind of class war inside the Republican Party. If you look at who is voting for Donald Trump, it tends to be less well-off Americans, less well-off Republicans, who are sick of being ignored.
MARGERY EAGAN: If it hasn’t worked in the last 2 elections—though it’s worked better on the local level—why do they keep making these promise? You hear the same rhetoric coming out of the GOP candidates this time around in 2016.
DIONNE: One of the problems for the party is they’re looking around now, and a lot of the politicians who are worried about losing the general election are saying: 'My God, we have to stop Trump and Cruz.' But then they look around for voters to support them and a lot of those voters have left the Republican Party. Massachusetts is an extreme case of that…There is a Republican governor now, but this was a very Republican state. When Goldwater ran and the party moved to the right, a lot of the folks out in the suburbs here who were loyal Republicans stopped being Republican. That’s replicated all over the Northeast and Midwest and on the West Coast. The people are gone who would vote for that.
A line I've been using a lot lately is one of my favorite John F. Kennedy lines in his inaugural address, where he says: 'He who foolishly rides to power riding the back of the tiger ends up inside.'…A lot of Republican politicians thought they could exploit the anger of the Tea Party and still keep it under control. Among those who have ended up 'inside the tiger' are Speaker Boehner, who couldn’t make it work and left in frustration, Eric Cantor, who lost a primary, Kevin McCarthy, who was blocked from the speakership. Now the party is saying: 'Why do we have this Trump problem?' Well, they kind of courted it for quite a long period of time.
BRAUDE: There a bunch of people who were not caught 'inside the tiger': Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney. If your thesis is right and the ideological purists…have taken over their party, why have more moderate conservatives been their presidential nominees?
DIONNE: Two things about that. First, Mitt Romney himself had to play to this. He passed the health care plan in Massachusetts that is something, actually, he should still be proud of. When he entered the Republican primaries, the first thing he said was: ‘No way do I want to impose that on the rest of the United States.’ He couldn’t even talk about what was legitimately a real achievement of his governorship…
That’s the irony. Republicans had to abandon and denounce as socialism a set of ideas they had been forwarding for a long time. I talk about in the book how in 2008 and 2012, the more moderate conservatives—and let's face it, we’re talking moderate conservatives. They aren’t people like Ed Brooke or Frank Sargent in Massachusetts, or Charlie Baker—is because the right wing was split. Mitt Romney was blessed by the fact that Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich could not give way to each other and kept splitting the conservative vote. John McCain had a bunch of people checking each other. Mitt Romney ran to John McCain’s right in 2008, but he was beaten by Mike Huckabee in Iowa, and then Huckabee’s vote was cut by Fred Thompson in South Carolina. What you’ve had is moderates hanging on, basically, by their fingernails because conservative candidates were splitting the vote. This time you’re seeing the real conservatives…
Trump and Cruz are, if you put them together in a lot of these polls, they’re getting the majority of the vote. Marco Rubio is said to be more moderate, but if you look at what he stands for he is very conservative…The closest thing to a moderate is someone else who is quite conservative, who is John Kasich. He, at least, has a moderate tone to his campaign…although he is a guy who cut taxes, cut the budget, tried to take on labor in Ohio and got defeated in a referendum. Nevertheless, he is the guy who at least sounds like he wants to do business with someone outside the Republican Party.
Trump, in an odd way for a billionaire, is leading a kind of class war inside the Republican Party.
BRAUDE: On the issue of ideological purity, you would think someone who you’re not crazy about, Donald Trump, would appeal to you to break this streak, because he’s the only person who has the courage—I can’t believe I’m using that word—to say “I am going to cut deals with Republicans”…He says what no other Republican can do: he breaks with traditional orthodoxy and says “I can work with these Democrats.”
DIONNE: Not only that, but to pick another issue on which Trump is way off the Republican reservations, he said Medicare should negotiate with drug companies to cut the price of drugs. That’s a Democratic position. So yes, you’re right about Trump in that respect. But the other side of Trump is this xenophobia, the notion we’re going to keep all Muslims out of the country—as if that’s going to do us any good in the world in our search for Muslim allies—or we'll deport 11 million people who are here illegally. So he’s got both those sides to him, and obviously he also has an authoritarian streak you see. I don’t know if you saw the 'turn out the lights,' even yelling at the guys doing lighting at an event. But you’re quite right that he is at least talking about deal making.
Reagan is fascinating. One of the things I did for this book, which was fun for somebody who is a liberal but actually respects cnservatives, is I did a lot of interviews with prominent conservatives. When I was talking to Charles Krauthammer about Reagan he said a great thing. He said: 'You can choose your Reagan.' My first chapter is called 'The Ambiguous Hero' because there is Reagan the movement builder, who did take very right-wing positions and was proud of it, so the right-wing of the party can see him that way. But as governor and as president, he had to govern with Democrats controlling part of the government and he had to comprimse. So he cut taxes sharply and then he reaised them a bunch of times when that didn’t work out so well for the deficit.
E.J. Dionne is an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post and the author of "Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservativsm—From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond." To hear more from Dionne, tune in to Boston Public Radio above. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.