Would FDR, Truman, JFK, or LBJ be nominated by their party today?
The never-ending Democratic attempt to resurrect the strategy that destroyed Barry Goldwater in 1964—he’s an extremist, don’t you know—rolls on, with liberals and the media trying to tar the Republican party as an “ideological outlier” in American politics.
There are three legs to this rickety barstool of an argument. One is the pseudo-social science findings of Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann that congressional Republican voting records have lurched sharply to the right in recent years (though it is not obvious why this should be bad news). The second is the populism of the Tea Party, which, to be sure, is a disruptive force in the Republican party much as the anti-Vietnam war movement was a disruptive force in the Democratic party in the late 1960s and 1970s. The wobbliest leg of the triad is the argument, unfortunately abetted by Jeb Bush, that the GOP has become too extreme even for Ronald Reagan.
The use and abuse of Reagan has been going on for a while now, but the claim that Reagan could not be nominated by today’s GOP takes absurdity to a new level. You really need a poker face to suggest that the party that, since 1988, has nominated two Bushes, Bob Dole, John McCain, and now Mitt Romney would find Reagan insufficiently conservative. And Reagan would surely delight in the stronger ideological composition of the House GOP caucus today. One unappreciated aspect of Reagan’s diary is how often he expressed disappointment with congressional Republicans who ran for the tall grass on tough votes. Reagan complained about weak-kneed Republicans in his diary almost as often as he did about Democrats and the media. “We had rabbits when we needed tigers,” was a frequent lament. Today’s Tea Party-influenced GOP caucus would gladden the Gipper’s heart.
Rather than try to make Reagan out as too moderate for an extreme party, the decriers of “extremism” ought to give a hard look at Democratic presidents who couldn’t get the nomination of today’s Democratic party, starting with one who actually didn’t get it: Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. Despite delivering the most substantial liberal reforms since the New Deal (the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Medicare, the War on Poverty, etc.), LBJ was on his way to losing renomination when he withdrew. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan memorably put it, Johnson “was the first American president to be toppled by a mob. No matter that it was a mob of college professors, millionaires, flower children, and Radcliffe girls”—in other words, what Democrats today call “the base.”
Four years later, the protest wing of the Democratic party was in the saddle and delivered the nomination to George McGovern. Whatever similarity might be discerned between the Tea Party and the antiwar movement, the Tea Party has not remade the Republican party in anything like the way the New Left remade the Democrats, or else Ron Paul or Herman Cain would be the nominee instead of Mitt Romney.
LBJ is only the first of many supposedly liberal heroes who would be unacceptable to the liberal base today. Start with Franklin Roosevelt. Despite his New Deal programs, he piled up a considerable record of statements that would be anathema to contemporary liberal orthodoxy. “The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me,” he told Congress in 1935, “show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief . . . is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” A liberal can’t talk about our welfare state that way today.
FDR opposed public employee unions. In a 1937 letter to a public employees’ association, FDR wrote: “All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. . . . Militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees.”
FDR, an Episcopalian, made the kind of remarks about religion that send the American Civil Liberties Union into paroxysms of rage when someone like George W. Bush or Sarah Palin says the same thing today. During World War II, FDR wrote a preface for an edition of the New Testament that was distributed to American troops: “As Commander-in-Chief, I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States.” On the eve of the 1940 election, FDR said in a campaign radio address: “Freedom of speech is of no use to a man who has nothing to say and freedom of worship is of no use to a man who has lost his God.” Today, the left-wing fever swamps would call this “Christianism.”