Politics & Policy

The GOP Civil War

Ronald Reagan and WFB confab with Barry Goldwater before NR’s 20th-anniversary dinner, November 17, 1975.
A longtime combatant looks at the GOP, and conservatives’ place in it, from the early days of NR on.

I understand that you’ve been involved in the GOP civil war for some time.

Only 50 years or so. I came in late.

How did you first become involved?

I headed Youth for Goldwater in New York.

Wasn’t Goldwater’s principal opponent for the Republican nomination, Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York at the time?

I had grown up in New York and at some point began to fear that Rockefeller would be governor for life. Mine, as well as his.

Why didn’t you support Rockefeller?

His big-government Republicanism was ’roided up. He treated the municipal-bond market like an ATM machine. If he had stayed in office another term — he served three and a half, before being named vice president by Gerald Ford — he would have bonded trash collection, not just landfills.

He’s been called a supply-side bureaucrat. What’s that?

It’s somebody who borrows money to build a huge development in the middle of nowhere in the expectation that government workers will fill the space available. They did, of course. The result was Albany, N.Y., which makes the Soviet-era parts of Bucharest look good.

You’re referring to his famous “edifice complex.”

Every conservative knows in his bones that the threshold question in politics is whether or not to enlarge city hall.

How would you characterize Rockefeller’s politics?

A classic liberal cocktail of class privilege with a splash of ideological presumption.

Explain, please.

He wanted to open opportunities for all people to advance, he said urbi et orbi, but only in tiny, mincing steps that would never permit low-born types to approach his own station in life. The freezing of privilege seemed at times to be bedrock principle for him, unlike his other principles, which were ethically situational.

And the ideological presumption?

That he and his heavily subsidized entourage of academic experts, minority-group leaders, and nonprofit executives could design, implement, and enforce social arrangements superior to any that might arise organically from a benighted citizenry.

He must have done something right.

He hired competent people. If Rockefeller had been in charge of Obamacare, it would have been up and running and wrecking the health-care system on schedule.

Did he do anything else right?

Well, some people said he died heroically.

I thought he died in the arms of his 20-something mistress.

That’s never been confirmed, but he was 70 years old.

What was your relationship with Goldwater?

We were not close in the ’64 campaign. He seemed to think my name was Fred.

What drew you to him politically?

He was not a student of Madison, much less Tocqueville, but he was dead right attitudinally. He carried a giant chip on his shoulder about the intrusions of government. Over the years I heard him say dozens of times about one government program or another, “It’s none of their goddamn business!” Barry used a lot of exclamation points.

Did he make a lasting contribution?

Indisputably. It was Goldwater who reminded us that, if it is the natural tendency of government to metastasize, it is the obligation of the citizen to join the resistance.

Goldwater seemed to lose favor with conservatives later in his career.

Over the years, conservatives came first to suspect and then to conclude that Goldwater was really not Brent Bozell, who under Goldwater’s name had written the bracing manifesto The Conscience of a Conservative. That was a whale of a campaign book, but it got out in front of the candidate a bit.

What was your take on Goldwater, all in all?

Toward the end of his career, he and I became colleagues on a board overseeing classified projects, which meant that the two of us spent a lot of seat-miles wrapped in a security cocoon. What I can report authoritatively is that, when it came to defending America’s interests, Barry Goldwater was both reliably testudinal and aggressively forward-thinking. Our enemies were right to fear him.

What happened to the civil war after the Goldwater–Rockefeller campaign?

It continued, but in mutated form. The GOP civil war is by its very nature a war without end. It’s not a tactical skirmish, but a dynamic contention between the political haves and want-to-haves.

Did Nixon and Reagan become engaged in the civil war, too?

Yes, in different ways. Nixon was a close student of political architecture. In his political life, he was a full-spectrum fusionist — social conservative, free-market man, national-security hawk. In choosing his speechwriting staff, he cued up the perfect singer for every number on the conservative jukebox, from the Irish tenor Pat Buchanan to the Ivy League crooner Ray Price to the New York saloon singer Bill Safire. But that was Nixon’s political profile — all fusionist, all the time. His policy profile was altogether different. His uncontained enthusiasms ran from EPA and OSHA to arms control and welfare to — and, after all these years, I still find this hard to believe — wage and price controls. Unfortunately for Nixon, Lincoln proved to be correct in the matter of fooling people. Conservatives turned sullen and then mutinous and at the end refused to save Nixon when his campaign people got into the breaking-and-entering business.

I’m guessing that you think Reagan then declared peace in the intraparty war.

Not at all. He declared victory. He welcomed moderates into his administration, beginning with George H. W. Bush and running through Baker, Darman, and the other media favorites. But it was a marriage as morganatic as it was convenient. Reagan made it clear that it was his administration and, lest anybody forget, that it was his party. Reagan’s great contribution was to demonstrate that a right-center coalition could command majority support in modern America. He proved that a principled fusionism was, not at all coincidentally, a formula for political success.

Was there any downside to what you call Reagan’s great contribution?

Only that some conservatives came to believe that Reagan-style governance was the natural order of things. It wasn’t. It was a case of an extraordinary man meeting an extraordinary opportunity — and then taking the steps necessary to realize it in full measure.

Where do you place Bush 43 in terms of the GOP civil war?

With George W. Bush, conservatives voted for Reagan and got Nixon. In policy terms, Bush’s signal “achievements” were longstanding left-Democratic goals: federalizing education, creating a new drug entitlement, breaking the fiscal discipline of the Clinton years. Bush adopted the old Nixon formula of rhetoric for the Right, policy for the Left. Inevitably, though, everything Bush did or tried to do was overshadowed by 9/11.

What about Bush 43’s politics?

Like Nixon, Bush was a party stripper. He left the GOP depleted and sliding inexorably toward defeat. Nixon’s demise left the door open for Jimmy Carter, and Bush 43’s departure for Barack Obama. Contrast those exits with Reagan’s. In 1988, Bush 41 was elected to what voters openly embraced as “Reagan’s third term.”

Did Bush 43 leave a political legacy?

The wisdom of the Iraq adventure will be debated for years: Many conservatives applauded it; others thought it was butt-stupid. Scholars will sort it out one day. But in political terms, the Bush 43 legacy is already set in stone. He nurtured, promoted, and helped entrench a consultant class that maintains a chokehold not only on party structure but on much of the donor base that funds it and the commentariat that promotes it.

Whoa! Are you talking about Karl Rove & Co.?

I have great respect for Karl Rove & Co. as campaign technicians. As navigators for the conservative movement, not so much.

And are you talking about some of the conservative pundits, too?

To thrive over the long haul, a political commentator has only two viable options. He can be a party guy or a movement guy. That is to say, he can speak in a partisan voice or a principled voice. Bill Buckley chose the latter option, and most conservatives would agree that he chose wisely. It is useful to remember that, to underscore his commitment to the principles business as distinguished from the elections business, Buckley launched the magazine as a pitbull critic of Dwight Eisenhower, who was, perhaps after Coolidge and Reagan, the most popular and conservative president of the 20th century.

But didn’t Buckley himself become a darling of the establishment?

Very much so, but only after taking down their pants and paddling their fannies in public debate, after which many of them became docile, even affectionate. To borrow wisdom from the car bumper, the beatings continued until morale improved.

Is it likely that conservative pundits will recover their balance?

I hope so. The movement will always need navigators more than party operatives. Buckley’s injunction, never refuted by experience, was that principles should always precede politics.

What, then, should conservatives do now?

Conservatives must acknowledge their role in contemporary America. We are the permanent insurgency.

And how does that translate into political action?

It may seem counterintuitive, but it remains demonstrably true: For conservatives, devotion to principled fusionism is more likely to be rewarded with policy success than any partisan accommodation, however cleverly contrived.

You’re not talking about that same-old, same-old Eighties approach, are you?

We need a new idiom, not a new paradigm. The principles are timeless. It’s the clichés that are tired.

What form would the new idiom take?

It would include a robust new federalism running across the domestic agenda — more Mitch Daniels and less Kathleen Sebelius. It would include tough but stable regulation for the corporate economy and radical incentives for the small-business economy — more mom and/or pop capitalism and less buddy capitalism. It would include a national defense re-scaled and re-shaped to meet probable threats — more rapid response and less massed armament in the Fulda Gap. It would embrace the politics of reality and raise the retirement age for entitlement benefits to 70 — more data and less cant. It would proclaim a civic morality of personal responsibility and citizen service — more Bill Cosby and less Nancy Pelosi. And it would incite a full-scale public revolt to save our schools — more mentors, more rote learning, more tech and trade schools and less administrative support, less union privilege, less help from Washington. Thematically, the new idiom would celebrate unabashedly the virtues of work, faith, family, freedom, and country. And it would carry the day.

— Neal B. Freeman has written for National Review for 50 years.


Neal B. FreemanNeal Freeman is a former editor of and columnist for National Review and the founding producer of Firing Line.


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