Magazine | November 25, 2013, Issue

The E-Word

John J. McCloy (AP)
Thoughts on the use and abuse of ‘establishment’

When we were schoolkids, we were taught that the longest word was “antidisestablishmentarianism.” Lately, I’ve been thinking that the most common word is “establishment” — as in “establishment Republican.” I read it every day, especially in the conservative press. I read it in virtually every article about politics, certainly in articles about the Republican party. And I find it nearly as empty and cheap as it is common.

At the end of October, a reporter for the Associated Press wrote, “The GOP is struggling to control tensions between its tea party and establishment wings and watching approval ratings sink to record lows.” Further on in his article, he reached for different language, to describe the same division. He spoke of “business-oriented Republicans and the GOP’s more ideological wing.” None of these words will quite do.

“Establishment” really got going in the 1950s, when Henry Fairlie, the famed British journalist, employed it. He used it to mean “the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised.” There have always been people eager to join the establishment (and if you want to make it seem really powerful and fixed, you use a capital E). They want to go to the right school, or work for the right firm, or belong to the right club. Dreaming on a grand scale, they may aspire to the Trilateral Commission or the Bilderberg Group.

On the flip side, there have always been people eager to oppose the establishment, or to give the impression of doing so — to stand up to the Man. “Hey, Johnny, what’re you rebelling against?” asks the girl in The Wild One. “Whaddaya got?” answers Marlon Brando.

I’m not entirely sure what an establishment Republican is. Someone elected to office? Someone who has a position of serious responsibility? Someone who has been around for a while? Who doesn’t huff and puff? Speaking of puffing, there used to be smoke-filled rooms, in which party bosses selected candidates. Now we have primaries — and voters, to a considerable degree, are the bosses.

The definition of “establishment Republican,” I think, is partly emotional. The term is almost always used vituperatively. I don’t think anyone has ever called himself an “establishment Republican.” The term means something like, “I disagree with you, I think I’m to the right of you, I resent you, get out of the way.” It is the latest form of derogation. A friend of mine said the other day — not in a light vein, but with genuine concern — “‘Establishment’ is the new ‘neocon.’”

In December 2011, as the presidential primaries loomed, we at National Review published an editorial about those primaries. We counseled against nominating Newt Gingrich, among others. Shortly after, a colleague poked his head into my office and said, “They’re calling us the E-word.” Who was “they”? Certain conservative activists. What was the E-word? “Establishment.” When I myself wrote critically of Gingrich, or Michele Bachmann, or Herman Cain, I too was called “establishment” (by angry e-mailers). That was kind of amusing. I held essentially the same views I’d held when I was working at a golf course for minimum wage.

I am in the position of many conservatives: blasted from the left for being Attila the Hun; blasted from the right for not being Attila the Hun. (Just to be clear: I am, indeed, Attila the Hun.)

The current poster boy for establishment Republicanism is Mitch McConnell — one of the smartest, ablest, most valuable conservatives in America. He has performed any number of services (such as standing athwart unconstitutional, or unwise, limits on campaign finance). We’re lucky to have him in politics. But now he wears a scarlet E.

#page#Probably, it’s the position — McConnell is the Republican leader in the Senate. I have had occasion to recall something with my NR colleague Michael Potemra, who worked in the Senate for twelve years: When Howard Baker was Republican leader, a lot of us said, “We need to get rid of that moderate old compromiser and replace him with a real conservative, like Bob Dole.” When Dole was leader, we said, “We need to get rid of that moderate old compromiser and replace him with a real conservative, like Trent Lott.” When Lott was leader . . .

Baker went on to serve as chief of staff to that marshmallow President Reagan. And I find Dole a particularly interesting case: He was always known as a right-winger, a true-believing junkyard dog. President Ford had included him on the 1976 ticket, dumping the incumbent vice president, Nelson Rockefeller. In his debate against Walter Mondale that year, Dole inveighed against the “Democrat wars” of the 20th century: World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. (A sign of proper wingery is the use of “Democrat” as an adjective.) These days, some conservatives think of him as not much different from Rocky.

I was a Dole intern in 1984, the year he became Republican leader in the Senate. There was a mixture of Republicans in that body. We had true-blue, foursquare conservatives, such as the Idahoans, Jim McClure and Steve Symms. (McClure, in fact, ran for the leadership position that year, to the right of Dole. I think my feelings were slightly torn.) The Idahoans were the most conservative pairing — unless you count the North Carolinians, Jesse Helms and John East. (The wheelchair-bound East was known, usually affectionately, as Helms on Wheels.)

But there were also moderates and liberals: the Oregonians, Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood; the Pennsylvanians, John Heinz and Arlen Specter. We also had Chuck Percy of Illinois, Mac Mathias of Maryland, John Chafee of Rhode Island, and Bill Cohen of Maine, among others. (Cohen ended up in a Clinton cabinet, as defense secretary.)

The most liberal Republican of all, probably, was Lowell Weicker. Plenty of us wanted him to up and leave the party. But “I’ll always be the turd in the punchbowl,” he said. Like other politicians, he broke his promise: He left the GOP in 1990, becoming governor of Connecticut under a third-party banner.

Today, there are no liberal Republicans in the Senate, and scarcely a moderate — maybe Susan Collins of Maine? There are no Rockefeller Republicans anywhere, so far as I’m aware. But, strangely enough, that term has come back into vogue: I know people who revere Ronald Reagan, and who worked for him, who have been tagged as “Rockefeller Republicans” — because they want to oppose Obamacare in ways other than their critics want.

Reagan, too, was attacked from the right: He raised taxes, amnestied illegals, pursued arms control, racked up debt. Conservatives liked to quip, with a sigh, “None of this would be happening if Ronald Reagan were still alive.”

Over in the House, though, there was genuine revolutionary, anti-establishment action: Newt and the boys were forming the Conservative Opportunity Society. This was after the 1982 elections, in which Republicans took a hit. They wanted to offer the public a positive agenda (rather than merely a blocking or temporizing one). And they wanted to reverse the minority mentality represented by our House leader, Bob Michel — a moderate and a swell guy. He played golf with Tip O’Neill, which, reasonably or not, bothered the hell out of us righties. Anyway, the Republicans triumphed at the polls in 1994, and Newt became speaker.

There is such a thing, no doubt, as a go-along, get-along mentality: a contentment with the status quo, a disinclination to fight. But there is not much of that in the Republican party today. Republicans have developed a healthy appetite for success. So, what is our division now? At the end of 1964, after the “Goldwater debacle,” as it was called, Robert Novak published a book called “The Agony of the G.O.P.” It told of the warfare between the Goldwater wing and the Rockefeller wing (roughly speaking). That was a real division. And today?

Much of the turbulence, or “agony,” I think, has to do with style. I repeatedly hear Mitt Romney described as a “moderate.” Why? He is a free-marketeer, a traditionalist, and a hawk. But his manner is moderate — he’s too polite or polished for some. I have noticed something curious over the years: If you espouse conservative positions in a moderate way, you may well be called a moderate. If you espouse moderate positions in an immoderate way, you may well be designated a “real conservative.”

Obviously, governing is not for the pure, although we expect our officeholders to remember principle. Almost everyone who gets into a significant governing position is viewed by someone as a sell-out. Reagan certainly found this out (although he is now a conservative saint). By much of the Right, George W. Bush is seen as a moderate, an “establishment” type. But he was also the one who grabbed the “third rail,” trying to reform Social Security, a national sacred cow. And he ran up against an immense force, which might be called “the establishment.”

As of now, my friend Ted Cruz, the Texas senator, is the darling of the antiestablishmentarians. But if he becomes president, or even the GOP nominee, he’ll disappoint many of them. And he will be the same sterling conservative, the same Reaganite, he was years ago, when he and I jawed and schemed at Earl Campbell’s barbecue place in Austin.

No one who writes, no one who talks, can live without labels. We need our shorthands, generalizations, and crutches. In 2010, some people formed a group called “No Labels” (motto: “Stop fighting, start fixing”). But without labels, you’re practically mute. I have often used “establishment media,” instead of “mainstream media,” to describe the New York Times, 60 Minutes, the Today show — you know. But labels can also be lazy and misleading.

In early 2003, a bunch of us were sitting around, figuring out where we stood on the impending Iraq War. A colleague said, “I know what the neoconservative position is, but what’s the conservative position?” In reality, there was no cupboard from which you could pluck conservative positions (or neoconservative ones). You had to think: “What’s the right thing to do, or the least wrong thing to do? What is the wisest or most palatable of the options?”

It may be convenient to label something “tea party” or “establishment,” “conservative” or “moderate,” “hard-core” or “squishy.” But it may be better to ask whether that thing is right or wrong, smart or dumb, promising or unpromising. I, for one, have had it with “establishment,” which has been used with gross promiscuity. I have an E-word of my own: Enough.

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