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The level of political partisanship has surged in recent years. Some point to the election of Barack Obama as the cause. But Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne argues the roots of today’s politics go back to Barry Goldwater’s failed campaign for the presidency in 1964. Dionne argues it was “Goldwaterism,” with its promises to abolish large parts of the federal government that created what he calls a cycle of disappointment and betrayal among Republican voters. He says the result was a steady march rightward within the GOP. Guest host Susan Page and guests discuss the history and evolution of contemporary American conservatism.
- E.J. Dionne Jr. Senior fellow, Brookings Institution; columnist, The Washington Post; author, "Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism--From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond"
- Michael Gerson Syndicated columnist and author of "City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era."
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's recovering from a voice treatment. In Congress, partisan gridlock seems more intractable than ever and on the Republican campaign trail, candidates with very conservative positions and controversial ones are leading in the polls. Washington Post columnist EJ Dionne thinks he knows why.
MS. SUSAN PAGEIn a new book titled, "Why The Right Went Wrong," he argues the roots of today's partisanship can be found in the Republican party's rejection of Eisenhower conservatism in favor of what he calls Goldwaterism. So joining EJ and me, also in the studio, to talk about this new book is syndicated columnist Michael Gerson. Welcome to both of you.
MR. EJ DIONNE JR.It's great to be here. Thank you for doing this.
MR. MICHAEL GERSONYeah, good to be here.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number. It's 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, EJ, good news for you. The new New York Review of Books is just out. It has got a review of your book by Gary Wills. He refers to you as "dependably intelligent," which I guess is better than not to be...
JR.Which is way better than the alternative. Yeah, god bless him for that.
PAGEBut, you know, I think some people will look at this book and say why are you writing about a history of conservatism? You are, of course, a liberal commentator.
DIONNE JR.Right. Well, there are a couple of things here. One is as Wills points out in this review, he and I and also Hillary Clinton began life as conservatives in conservative families. And in my own case, I started changing my views when I was a teenager. I always say that reading Martin Luther King's collection of sermons, "Strength To Love" actually -- in religion class, it was my choice -- for a book review, actually began to change my view on racial justice and economic justice and what those required.
DIONNE JR.But also, I think a couple reasons why conservatives might listen. One, as a Republican friend told me, sometimes people on the outside can see things that people on the inside can't, but secondly, as I argue in the book, I think, you know, all political systems, all democratic systems need a responsible kind of conservatism that will call us, that is to say progressives, to task when our programs don't work and who remind us that not all traditions are to be overthrown.
DIONNE JR.But I also wrote this as out of alarm as a citizen because I do think that the Republican party has veered so far to the right that it is not only dysfunctional, I think, for the long term of the Republican party, for the long term future of the Republican and we can talk about that, but I also think it's very dysfunctional for the country because we can't agree on any shared premises when it comes to either the current culture or the role of government.
DIONNE JR.I think that the Republicans and the conservatives are in trouble, and this explains the rise of Trump and Cruz, because the conservative politicians have made promises, election after election, that they couldn't keep, alienating their supporters because working class voters who have voted Republican have gotten nothing for their votes materially. And I think Trump is their revenge. And you have responsible Republicans, and my friend Michael is one of them, who are saying, we've got to stop this.
DIONNE JR.And they look around for the more moderate voters who would stop this, who would stop Trump and Cruz and they realize they have all been driven -- or most of them have been driven out of the party over the last 50 years. And my book is, in part, the story of how that happened and what that's done to both Republicanism and conservatism.
PAGESo we want to talk about kind of your analysis of the roots of this, but let me turn to the responsible Republican with his -- for the comments by the dependably intelligent.
DIONNE JR.By the way, listeners should know, Michael does play an important part in this account and I enjoyed writing the part that was a description of Michael.
GERSONAnd, in fact, it refers to me as trim, which I really appreciate. I think my wife doesn't agree with that, but...
DIONNE JR.That's in comparison to me, at least.
PAGESo do you agree that you've got a dysfunctional Republican party now that's in crisis?
GERSONYou know, I would put it a little bit differently. You know, EJ is covering ground that I've been a part of now for 25 or 30 years as one side of that argument. And there have been a number of really good Republican politicians from Jack Kemp, who I worked for, and Dan Coats in the Senate, where I worked for, and George W. Bush in 2000, talking about compassion and conservatism, that have been pushing back against this.
GERSONThis is a two-sided argument. And when it came to the nominating process that we've had, you know, the establishment or mainstream choice was the best bet, you know. Mitt Romney and John McCain and Bob Dole and so in some ways, 1964 was an aberration when it came to the governing element of the Republican party. So I view it as a little more of a two-sided argument, but I share the concern about this nominating cycle, which I've been writing about week after week, in which you have Ted Cruz, who really embodies the Tea Party spirit, a kind of interpretation of constitutionalism that I think is fundamentally wrong and limiting, but then something else entirely, a more European-like right-wing anti-immigrant populism that I do think is an aberration.
GERSONI don’t think that grows out of Barry Goldwater. I think it's something different and something very disturbing.
PAGESo EJ, you write about this right word progression ideologically of the Republican party that we certainly see in Congress. We certainly see it in how Congress works. But how does Trump fit in with this?
DIONNE JR.Well, there a couple things here. One is, Michael noted correctly that McCain in 2008 and Romney, the last time, won the Republican nomination, but as I argue in the book, McCain and Romney won because the right wing of the Republican party was splintered and I think that the sort of what we call, I think, and very imperfectly, the establishment wing -- I don't where they are now. In fact, a lot of them have gone over to Tea Party view. They won because in Romney's case, Gingrich and Santorum split the opposition vote.
DIONNE JR.And in McCain's case, and I enjoyed describing that 2008 campaign, 'cause McCain's comeback that year was really fascinating, but you had all the right wing candidates checking each other so Huckabee beat Romney in Iowa, then Fred Thompson let McCain win in South Carolina by cutting the conservative vote in half or in pieces. So really, you've had this kind of right wing nominating majority there for a while and this time, it's the other way around where, yes, you have the Trump/Cruz split, but you have all these other candidates on the other side splitting an increasingly diminishing moderate conservative vote.
DIONNE JR.But I think the larger story here -- I do write a lot about compassion and conservatism and I had hoped compassion and conservatism might make a difference. But what you saw, and Michael's own words in the book confirm this, this was an idea that most of the leaders in the Republican Congress had very little interest in.
GERSONI agree with that, yeah.
DIONNE JR.And in the end, the administration, partly 'cause of 9/11, but also for political reasons, I think, decided that the energy in the party and their long term political interest didn't lie with compassion and conservatism. But Trump, in particular, you know, Michael talks about how nativism is alien to the party. The truth is that when he worked for President Bush, President Bush fought for immigration reform and when you looked at the vote on that, most of the votes for President Bush's position at the time came from Democrats and that a large part of his party revolted against Bush.
DIONNE JR.And so now you have a lot of conservatives who are casting Bush as a big government conservative liberal on some of these issues and that helps explain the trajectory. I was like to say that big government was more in Bagdad and Basra than in Buffalo and Biloxi, but this critique has fed this movement to the right of the party.
PAGESo there's a cycle, you write, of resentment that a series of candidates, Republican candidates, say I'm going to rein in government. They get into office. They don't deliver, George W. Bush being an example of that, but so would some of his predecessors.
DIONNE JR.Right. Well, in...
GERSONYeah, Ronald Reagan would certainly be in that category and Reagan played the interesting role of both being a movement conservative leader in 1964 in supporting Goldwater, but then, as president, really getting the party accustomed to accepting the new deal and the great society, that this was not going to be abolished, even under a very conservative president. And there has been some tension between the governing conservatism of Nixon, of Reagan, of George W. Bush where you have to make compromises with reality and a party that has, you know, McGovern ideal, which I agree, which is somehow that you're going to undo much of modern government, which is not politically realistic.
DIONNE JR.My chapter on Reagan is called "The Ambiguous Hero" and I think one of the problems for conservatives is that different conservatives describe a different Reagan and that -- I begin the book with Chris McDaniel the sort of neo-Confederate Senate candidate who was trying to knock off Thad Cochran, Senator Thad Cochran in Mississippi. And he describes this really right wing Reagan and then I interviewed Haley Barber, the former governor who says, purity is the enemy of victory.
DIONNE JR.And he talks about the Reagan who, fortunate for Reagan, actually had a Democratic House, which forced him, in some ways, to moderate, although he was willing to deal with it. The issue the Republicans face now is if you go to that Mississippi race, the only way Thad Cochran survived was to import Democratic voters into the Mississippi Republican primary, largely African-Americans who realized Cochran was way better for them that McDaniel would be. The problem in these presidential primaries is while independents can vote in some states like New Hampshire, you can't import Democratic voters to offset the increasingly right wing nature of the Republican party.
PAGEWe're talking to EJ Dionne about his new book. It's titled "Why The Right Went Wrong: Conservatism From Goldwater To The Tea Party And Beyond." And we're also joined in the studio by Michael Gerson. He's a syndicated columnist. He's the author of "City of Man: Religion And Politics In A New Era." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we're gonna go to the phones. We're gonna take some of your calls.
PAGEOur toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email to email@example.com. Stay with us
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. A new book is out, "Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism--From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond." The author, EJ Dionne, is with us here in the studio. And we are also joined by Michael Gerson, syndicated columnist, Michael Gerson of course a conservative syndicated columnist with a history with Republican officials, EJ Dionne a liberal columnist with the Washington Post and also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
PAGEYou know, many have argued that the conservative movement and the Republican party moved far to the right with President Obama's election, that it was a response to him. We've got a tweet to that in from someone called Cheerio. This person writes, blame partisan on the GOP not on Obama, really? He has been the most divisive president. Keep blaming conservatives. So what role has President Obama's election and his administration played, do you think, EJ, in this rightward movement of the Republican Party?
DIONNE JR.Well, first I salute Cheerio for having an excellent Twitter handle. I think that's what's clear and what a lot of conservatives themselves say is that this sentiment, this Tea Party sentiment, did not begin with Obama's election. It first began under President Bush, with a reaction against the No Child Left Behind Act, the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, even though no conservatives really want to repeal it because so much of their base is over 65 and actually benefits from it, and with his immigration policy.
DIONNE JR.So Obama didn't start this revolt, and indeed as I point out in the book, at the end of the 2008 campaign, we forget those very angry rallies where -- Republican rallies, particularly when Sarah Palin spoke but also when John McCain spoke, and he sometimes had to rebuke or push back against his own crowds screaming about Obama being ineligible to be president, that he was a Muslim and all this sort of thing. So this began before Obama took office.
DIONNE JR.Secondly, you know, the real critique against Obama, and I make it at the beginning of the book and in the course of it, is that he had more confidence in his ability to win over conservatives, partly because he had done so, for example, as president of the Harvard Law Review, than was possible. I tell two stories the -- of Republicans saying right from the start they were going to try to stop Obama. One was a meeting organized by the pollster Frank Luntz on inauguration day that involved people like Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy basically saying we've got -- and Eric Cantor, who were basically saying we've got to stop Obama right from the beginning.
DIONNE JR.About a month later, Mitch McConnell said a very similar thing to a meeting of Republican senators. So this strategy of obstruction against Obama, even though he included a lot of Republican elements in the Affordable Care Act, even though they spent debilitating months trying to get some Republican buy-in by making compromise after compromise, they weren't really to do it. So I simply think it's historically wrong to blame this on Obama, and the Republicans pursued this strategy of obstruction, and politically it worked at the level of congressional races. It just didn't defeat President Obama.
PAGEMichael Gerson, do you agree with that? Do you think this is not really a reaction to President Obama?
GERSONWell, I have talked with leading Republican and Democrat members of the Congress that talk about how inept President Obama's relationship with the Congress was from the very beginning. You would hear this on the congressional staffs of leadership, Democratic leadership. And so there was an element of that, and there was an element here where John Boehner, for example, because of the way that, you know, the votes stacked up, didn't really have an effective majority. He could be blocked by, you know, 20, 30 members of his coalition that were not on board.
GERSONSo you had someone like Boehner, who I think for example wanted to make a grand bargain deal. It would've, you know, had political risk to do that, and he didn't find much support, either, from his own caucus or from President Obama, mishandling that negotiation. So I think, you know, as usual in cases like this, there's a significant amount of blame to go around.
DIONNE JR.Could I just say the -- I read the budget deal a little differently than Michael does in terms of Boehner. But look, could President Obama have dealt with Congress better? Sure, a lot of the people who are mad are Democrats. They wanted -- you know, they felt that there were times when the only people in Congress getting any attention at all were senators Snow and Collins of Maine, the two moderate Republicans occasionally willing to work with Obama.
DIONNE JR.But what I write in the book is more effective schmoozing and more invitations to the White House might have been nice, but they would not have solved Obama's problem. The fierceness of the opposition he faced had deep structural and historical roots in the long-term changes in conservatism in the Republican Party, and that's the case I make in the book.
PAGEYou know, I don't doubt that there are -- things don't happen on dime, that long historical forces -- on the other hand, just yesterday the Supreme Court agreed to take up a review of the immigration actions that President Obama has taken. And we had, on the last hour of the show, Jeffrey Rosen, constitutional scholar, talking about the Supreme Court now being willing to take a look at kind of the relationship between the branches. Has President Obama overreached executive authority on immigration and other matters, which is, Michael, a argument you hear Republicans make all the time?
GERSONYeah, no, I think that's true. I would go back to one event that's just interesting about the -- during the budget process, where there -- President Obama gave a speech at George Washington University, invited Ryan, Paul Ryan, to come and sit in the front row of that speech and then assaulted Republicans as wanting to take away care from Down Syndrome children. Okay?
GERSONRyan was deeply offended. The chief of staff of the White House ran out after him to try to calm him. There were several of these circumstances, where Obama would say I won the election. That's what he told Eric Cantor when he was asked to compromise. And then you had, I think, President Obama eventually gave up on that process entirely.
GERSONSo if you listen now to a speech that he will give on gun control, for example, there's no -- nothing designed to actually persuade the other side, just to demonize them. That's what you get from presidential rhetoric now. He's given up on that process pretty much entirely. Now maybe it was hopeless all along. I can't imagine that. I think they were actually close to a budget agreement. There might have been something serious there.
GERSONAnd executive orders have been part of that frustration. Now I just have to tell you, though, in the latter stages of the Bush administration, when we got frustrated, say on the compassionate conservatism because the Congress wasn't very interested, we did a series of executive orders to try to encourage, you know, contracting for faith-based organizations and other things. That's -- presidents, you know, want to do that. But this was really testing a lot of the boundaries, which seeing in the courts now.
DIONNE JR.A couple things on that. First, I like Michael for, even though he just made a strong case Obama, he is willing to acknowledge that there is nothing sort of way out of the world about President Obama's executive orders. Indeed, the last time I looked, and maybe the count has changed, he had issued fewer executive orders than many of his predecessors.
DIONNE JR.But two things on what Michael said and on the court. Well, let's go to the court. I listened to the Jeffrey Rosen interview, and he was very surprised that the Supreme Court went there, and I think the partisanship and polarization to the right that we are seeing in the Republican Party now extends to a very large degree to Republicans on the Supreme Court. We won't fight about Florida. I would say Bush v. Gore is an interesting case of that. But I'll leave that aside for now.
DIONNE JR.But, you know, decisions such as Citizens United, the decision to gut the Voting Rights Act, these are very ideological decisions. And in this case I just have to wonder whether the court would take this up if Barack Obama were not president. But in terms of Obama giving up on bipartisanship, he tried, and he tried, and he tried. They put a lot of tax cuts into the stimulus in order to try to win Republican votes. Except for three Republican senators, it was a solid bloc of opposition.
DIONNE JR.They spent months trying to get Chuck Grassley -- there are a lot provisions of the Affordable Care Act that Chuck Grassley, senator from Iowa, wanted that are in there. They gave a lot of revisions to Republicans. The structure of this is very similar to what John Chafee, the late Republican senator, and Bob Dole had proposed as an alternative to Bill Clinton's efforts to reform health care. None of that was good enough. Suddenly Obamacare, broadly a Republican idea, some Heritage Foundation ideas in there, suddenly becomes this big government monstrosity.
DIONNE JR.So if anything, I think President Obama tried to do the bipartisan thing longer than evidence suggested it could be functional.
PAGEYou know, one of the things that strikes me when I go out and talk to voters is, as the Republican Party gets more fiercely conservative, and as the Democratic Party gets more liberal, has with the very remarkable campaign of Bernie Sanders, there are all these Americans who are kind of more in the middle, and it's hard for them to figure out where they belong in this political structure.
DIONNE JR.Well, I think the polarization is asymmetric, and our friends, many or all of us know them, Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein wrote this in a very important book that they wrote some years ago, and the reason I think that is not just because I am a liberal, and therefore I would think that, I think the polling data is very clear, if you look at Republicans, 67 percent call themselves conservative. Only 32 percent said they were moderate or liberal. These are Pew numbers from 2014.
DIONNE JR.Among Democrats, only 34 percent call themselves liberal. 63 percent are moderate or even conservative. Pew asked a great question in 2013. Do you support politicians who make compromises with people you disagree with, or do you prefer politicians who stick to their principles? Among Democrats, 59 percent preferred compromise seekers. Among Republicans, only 36 percent did. These are not -- this polarization is not equal.
GERSONI don't -- I don't dispute -- I think there is an element of an asymmetrical polarization, but I'm not sure that's true in this election. I think many of Sanders' supporters think the Democratic establishment is too compromised. That's one of their criticism, that they don't insist on the pure faith. That's exactly the same if you're talking about Cruz voters. That's a significant portion.
GERSONAnd, you know, so I agree. I mean, right now you have populist movements, populist anti-establishment movements in both parties that -- where compromise is the problem. Now I -- you know, that's not my kind of conservatism. So I strongly agree that a kind of Goldwater approach, you know, extremism in the pursuit of virtue, is in fact an unproductive governing approach. And I think a lot of Americans are in that position. But it not just one ideology that's in that position.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Let's go to the phones and let some of our listeners join our conversation. We're going to go to Winterville, North Carolina, and talk to Mike. Mike hi, you're on the air.
MIKEHi, how are you?
MIKEI'm a Rubio supporter, who I think is the most right of what they call so-called establishment candidates. But I think there are a lot of elements that y'all aren't talking about that alienated both congressmen and the Republican Party and Republicans. I think the first was abandoned South Vietnam and not arming them and letting it fall. I think the McCloskey-McIntyre race in southern Indiana, Reagan never proposing a balanced budget amendment and what happened to Bork. I think all those things contributed to our anger.
PAGEAll right, Mike, thanks so much for your call. EJ?
DIONNE JR.We won't go into the details of the McCloskey-McIntyre race. I agree with the caller on that, actually. I think the Democrats probably should not have gone the way they did on that race.
PAGEWell, that was a disputed House race.
DIONNE JR.It was a fight over who to seat somebody in the House. And, you know, on the Bork -- on Reagan, I think it is -- what the caller said is very important because what I argue in the book is that conservatives never want to let go of Reagan as a hero. Reagan raised taxes, depending on how you want to count it, six or seven times, but two really big tax increases to support Social Security and to pull back on what his own tax cut was doing to the deficits.
DIONNE JR.And they didn't want to blame him, so they blamed it all on George H.W. Bush, when George H.W. Bush raised taxes. I have a lot -- you know, I write quite a bit about George H.W. because I think some of what we're seeing now began to take hold then and then really took hold under Bill Clinton. But on the Bork business, I think we do have a politics of resentment in the country. Conservatives say it all began with Bork. Liberals say that it all began with Abe Fortis, when LBJ tried to name him to the court.
DIONNE JR.And so I think there is this -- we all try to blame each other for the polarization. My view in the book is that the evidence of the last 50 years is that especially with the Bill Clinton correction, the Democrats actually moved somewhat to the center, while the Republicans continue to trudge right, and as one liberal and moderate after another was purged from the party, from Jacob Javits to Clifford Case, Mac Mathias retired out in Maryland, you can go down a very long list of Republicans who were moderate who were just driven from the party.
GERSONI think that's true, and the Republican Party has become more conservative, but Marco Rubio is a very good example of how the Tea Party can go in one direction or the other. So Ted Cruz has gone in the direction of essentially blowing up the system, opposing the establishment, and he's supported by talk radio and, you know, all sorts of interests, Republican, right-wing interests.
GERSONBut Marco Rubio came out of the Tea Party and took an entirely different direction. He's now -- you know, has a more interesting, governing conservative. He's identified himself with reform conservatism. That's actually, you know, some of the modern expression of, like, compassionate conservatism or Sam's Club conservatism or bleeding heart conservatism. You know, idea-oriented, particularly for working-class people. He has been on the cutting edge of a lot of good policy. So it's just showing, you know, the Tea Party has gone in two directions here.
DIONNE JR.A couple things. Rubio is actually -- I deal with the current Republican race in the book, right to where we are now, so Trump and Rubio and other figures are in there. Two things about Rubio. One is, you know, if you look at his tax policy, it is still the same old Republican policy. It gives a little bit to low-income people, but there are big tax cuts for the wealthy. But Rubio...
GERSONRubio sponsors the EITC expansion that the president wants, as well. Those two -- and that would be serious policy.
DIONNE JR.That would be very nice, but it's accompanied with these big tax cuts for the wealthy. But put that aside. You know, I am still reporting on this campaign, as I am trying to promote this book, and I went up to New Hampshire about a week ago to hear Marco Rubio. And what is really striking, and I think it sort of ratifies the thesis of the book, Marco Rubio has been backing away from this very optimistic rhetoric he used to have about the future of the country, in his announcement speech for example, and is sounding more and more like Trump and Cruz in his criticism of the state of the country of whether we recognize the country we're in anymore, and I think politically that may be a problem for him because he's trying to occupy too many wings of the Republican Party at the same time.
DIONNE JR.But it also shows that he sees the direction this party is taking, and right now he's chasing Trump and Cruz more than he is challenging them.
PAGEWell, I would say the thing that strikes me about Mike's call that we just heard from is the long list of grievances he has about the national party, going back to the Vietnam War. So this is very much to your point, EJ, that this is -- these are longstanding forces and the result of promises that people believed and then officials didn't deliver on. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with EJ Dionne about his new book, "Why the Right Went Wrong." We'll continue in our conversation with Michael Gerson, syndicated columnist and author of "City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era." And we'll go back to the phones, and we'll read some of your emails, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're in the studio with Michael Gerson, a syndicated columnist, and E.J. Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of a new book, "Why The Right Went Wrong: Conservatism From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond." Let's go to the phones and invite our listeners to join our conversation, raise your own comments or questions. We'll go to Bill, who's from Dayton, Ohio. Bill, you've been really patient. Thanks for holding on.
BILLGlad to be on. Thank you for letting me on. I would first of all, express my admiration to both Mr. Gerson and Mr. Dionne and their work. I would challenge them and other participants to address the issue of race, which in the last 40 minutes has not been done. President Obama may have many faults, but one of his big faults to many people is that he's black.
BILLI note that the people in the red states were perfectly happy with the federal government providing them with TVA and the interstates and all those other nice things. But then when the feds started dabbling in civil rights, things changed very dramatically. I finally remembered George Wallace's very astute comment about politics after he lost his first state election, all these years ago. There's a nasty racial streak in all of this and it doesn't seem to want to go away.
PAGEBill, thanks so much for your call. And I just would say we have an -- kind of a related email from Gloria, who writes, "I'm of the opinion that the Republican right wing ascendance is due in large part of to its embrace of racism. For example, the southern strategy." What do you think, E.J.?
DIONNE JR.I talk a lot about race in this book. And I think race is the issue that many conservatives kind of want to push in the background. And this goes back even before Goldwater. I've discovered, through the work of another historian, a book called "Whither Solid South," back in 1947, where you already saw southern conservatives who had aligned with the Democratic Party when the Democrats really were the party of racism and segregation.
DIONNE JR.And said our long-term future is with the Republicans. And the, you know, National Review -- and I admire Bill Buckley in many ways. But when you look -- I quote an editorial he wrote, a piece he wrote called "Why the South Must Prevail," back in 1957. And Republican -- the early conservative coalition was very conscious that there were all of these white conservatives in the South who were opposed to civil rights initiatives. And they fundamentally altered the trajectory of the Republican Party.
DIONNE JR.This was a party that, in fact, had supported civil rights for decades and decades, from Lincoln forward. And they went the other way. And so I talk very explicitly about the role of race in opposition to Obama. And I argue it's a tricky question. Because there are plenty of conservatives who are opposed to Obama, like they oppose John Kerry, like they oppose Bill Clinton, on ideological grounds. But there was clearly an extra racial element on the part of some voters.
DIONNE JR.And you saw that in election returns in the South when you compared the John Kerry vote in 2004 with the Barack Obama vote in 2008. There were clearly people reacting on race. So race is an extremely important part of the growth of the conservative coalition that conservatives need to come to terms with. But I think there is race plus ideology, and they are intermingled in interesting ways and troubling ways in some -- in many cases.
GERSONI actually agree with much of that. I think one of the defining moments in all this was when Barry Goldwater, who was not himself a racist by any stretch of the imagination, in the middle of the campaign went -- for president -- voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I, you know…
DIONNE JR.And that's absolutely right.
GERSONRight. And that…
DIONNE JR.And it changed the trajectory right there.
GERSONSo, you know, Colin Powell, who was former secretary of state, someone I know, you know, told me the story that when that happened he went out and put an LBJ bumper sticker on his car. And that really did change the trajectory of the Party. And so when I worked for Jack Kemp, Jack thought that there was a particular burden, the Party had to overcome this, that it actually was something that needed to be addressed.
PAGEBut he was kind of a singular voice in the Republican Party on that front, wasn't he? In terms of Republican leaders.
GERSONWell, he influenced Paul Ryan. And, you know, that's coming out. Jack was an inspirational leader for a lot of people on the right, certainly for me and for others. You know, I look at sometimes you get leaders arise. So you had Nikki Haley in the aftermath of the shooting, come out against the Confederate flag, do the right thing. Then do a response to the State of the Union where she opposed singling out Muslims, you know, when it came to immigration.
GERSONSo there is -- I don't think that element of the Party is gone. I would also agree with E.J. that the populism we're seeing is kind of complex because some of it is economic populism. I mean, we really do have stagnant wages for working class people. You know, people can't get ahead. Their children can't get ahead. That's real. We have some cultural populism where people hold traditional moral values and think they're being condescended to.
GERSONAnd then we have a challenge of ethnicity, where there are some people that look at the changing face of America and don't like what they see. That, you know, whether that in the context of African Americans or Hispanics or others. So I think it's a, you know, American populism right now is a very mixed movement with a lot of different motives.
DIONNE JR.I write, actually, quite a lot about Jack Kemp in the book. And I'm gonna garble it. I was looking for the reference. There's a great Kemp line that went something like, they won't care what you think unless they think you care. And Kemp was a unique figure, partly because of his background in pro sports as a quarterback. He had a real feel for racism and a deep opposition to it. Now, I profoundly disagreed with Jack Kemp on taxes. He and I occasionally exchanged light-hearted reposts on the tax issue.
DIONNE JR.But on these -- there were so many occasions when Republicans have had the opportunity to say, you know, we have turned our back on that decision made by Goldwater, and to re-embrace our Party's long past for civil rights. And they haven't taken it. I think the best example is looking at these voter suppression efforts in the States. And the failure of a Republican Congress to pass a substitute voting rights act after the Supreme Court, on a 5-4 ideological majority, knocked out the heart of the Voting Rights Act. So the Republican Party does need to prove something here, given the history that Michael and I, at least in part, agree on.
PAGELet's go to Concord, N.H., and talk to Kevin. Kevin, hi, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
KEVINHi. Thanks for taking my call. I was just curious whether you could comment or if the book at all mentions the effect of the media or the emergence of media over the last 30 years. That effect, especially political catering media, such as Fox News or, you know, Rush Limbaugh, the effect that that's had on the division -- further division to the right of the -- for the right side of the Republican Party.
PAGEKevin, thanks so much for your call. You know, we've got an email from Emily that makes a similar point. Emily writes, "No one has addressed the influence of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter/shows which have been blanketing radio with the hateful speech that used to be on the fringe. Rupert Murdoch's media empire has had the effect of pushing Republican candidates to the right." This is the email from Emily.
DIONNE JR.I -- fortunately, for me, I say quite a lot about this in the book. David Frum refers to it as the conservative entertainment complex. And one of the things I argue is that the Republican leadership has, to a significant degree, lost control of the Party to these other forces, including the harshest voices on Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and all of the talk show hosts. And I think that this has reinforced and pushed along the journey of this Party to the right. And you're seeing it in this campaign.
DIONNE JR.Again, I don't think you see a comparable effect on the left because, you know -- and I have some polling data on Republicans trusting Fox News versus the media habits of liberals. Liberals are all over the lot, which is one reason why MSNBC, a network I do some work for, has never gotten the same hold among liberals that Fox News has among conservatives.
PAGEIsn't there -- is there a chicken and an egg question here, though? I mean, could conservative media commentators have such influence if there wasn't an audience that already agreed with them?
DIONNE JR.There is a chicken and egg problem. And I think that one of the interesting academic exercises over time will be whether the polarization began before the rise of these conservative media outlets. But let's give Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes credit as conservative entrepreneurs. Rush Limbaugh came along in the late '80s when President -- the first President Bush was in office, when we weren't this polarized. Fox News came along in the middle of the Clinton administration.
DIONNE JR.So while I do agree with you that there is -- it's not a clear, single arrow pointing one way or the other, I do think if you look at the history, these media forces really did have their own independent effect on the right.
GERSONI do think E.J.'s analysis here, I think is very good in the book. I mean, there have always been extremists and conspiracy theories on the right, just as there have been in other ideologies. But, you know, Phyllis Schlafly put out pamphlets, okay, when she made these cases. And then now you have a genuine infrastructure of people committed to an antiestablishment, pure conservative, fundamentalist kind of message, that actually gained money from hits and from donations based on this.
GERSONTheir interest is not the success of the Republican Party. It's actually the success of their own movement. And there -- but there has been actually a pushback on this. So we saw, you know, a pushback on -- against institutions like Heritage Action and others by Mitch McConnell, who was working with the Chamber of Commerce to try to make sure that better candidates get picked in these races. And it worked in this last round quite well. So it's not just one-sided. There is a kind of establishment of the Party that's still been pretty effective even recently.
DIONNE JR.Well, first, thanks for your kind words on the media part of the book. One of the fascinating things that I try to deal with is where -- who is the establishment. And I quote two very smart conservative writers, Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry, who wrote a piece called, "Establishment Tea," where they basically argued that much of the establishment, in order to preserve its power, went over philosophically to the Tea Party.
DIONNE JR.But the other thing that Mike underscored is…
GERSONThe Tea Party does not think about Mitch McConnell.
DIONNE JR.No. I…
GERSONI promise you.
DIONNE JR.…agree with that. But a lot of the candidates have -- the other thing, by the way, is Michael's absolutely right. You always had conservative books. You always had this right wing. And now it's got new outlets and new power.
GERSONRight. I agree with that.
DIONNE JR.The chapter on this in my book -- in the book is called "The New New Old Right." And I think that's what we're talking about.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the phones. From Louisville, Ky., we're joined by Bernie. Bernie, hi.
BERNIEHi. How are you? Can you hear me okay?
BERNIEGood. By the way, three of my favorite reporters, right now, I'm talking to.
GERSONBless you, thank you.
DIONNE JR.Yeah, thanks.
KEVINWell, and, E.J., I'll see you on February 24th, in Louisville, Ky., at the Kentucky Authors Forum.
DIONNE JR.I appreciate the plug. Thank you. I look forward to seeing you. Come and say hello.
KEVINOkay. Quickly, I was wondering why John Kasich's message just hasn't really rang true well enough to get him higher in the polls. And is he just not conservative enough? And do you all see any role for John Boehner in the convention?
PAGEAnd are you a Republican yourself, Bernie?
PAGEAnd so who -- are you supporting John Kasich?
KEVINI am supporting John Kasich. We caucus on March 5th her in Kentucky. And I'm hoping -- I'm certainly hoping he's still on the ballot by then.
PAGEI know the Ohio governor appreciates the sentiment. What do you think a role for John Kasich?
DIONNE JR.Actually, the caller will like a column that appeared in The Washington Post that I wrote on Monday. I actually interviewed Kasich when I was up in New Hampshire. I do believe he has an opening in New Hampshire to at least run…
DIONNE JR.…second. And because he does represent a space in the Party that the caller represents, but he couldn't do that -- I don't think he could succeed if New Hampshire didn't have laws that allowed Independents, who constitute 44 percent of the vote up there, to pick up Republican ballots on Election Day. That's the Party's problem. But the difficulty for Kasich is even if he does well in New Hampshire, which I believe he could do, where does he go beyond that?
DIONNE JR.Because he doesn't show much strength in the coming southern primaries elsewhere. But I do think Kasich is trying to give voice to a different kind of Republicanism, that it would be very useful in this -- that is very useful in this debate.
PAGEYou know, you could argue Republicans, this more conservative Republican Party, has done pretty well, controls the House, controls the Senate, 32 governorships, two-thirds of state legislative chambers. But the argument that E.J. makes, Michael, is that it's become impossible or very difficult for this Republican Party to win the White House, to put together the kind of national coalition you'd need to win the White House. Do you agree with that?
GERSONI think there's a clear contrast here. I mean, during the Obama era, Democrats have lost 11 governorships, more than 900 state legislature seats. Some of that is because of very strong Republicans like Kasich or like Christie or, you know, others who, you know, have a different message. It's not just a cookie cutter Tea Party message on the state level in many ways. They're confronting real problems with the foster care system or, you know, other issues.
GERSONAnd, you know, so there are two Parties to some extent, the -- a national message, which Republicans have had a hard time getting right, but a lot of success at the state and local level. And not just because of gerrymandering. These are genuine state level success of the Republican Party by offering a better message.
DIONNE JR.A couple things, actually, I think what's happening -- there are a few exceptions. Kasich has gone right on some things, but he did embrace the Medicare -- Medicaid expansion under Obamacare.
DIONNE JR.But he had to fight his own Party. On the other hand, I think you're seeing state governments which used to incubate a more moderate kind of Republicanism become increasingly conservative. North Carolina and Kansas being two good cases. But you raise a good point. Yes, the good news for the Republicans is they've done very well in these midterms. But I think that disguises some very troubling news.
DIONNE JR.The reason they've done well is because the Republican Party is more and more dependent on the votes of older people and white people who turn out very heavily at midterm elections. Under Reagan, the Party had a lot of support among the young, increasingly it doesn't. And so that may bode well for midterms for a while, but it bodes a real long-term problem because, just demographically, you do not want to depend primarily on older voters.
PAGEAnd also on white voters. Yes.
GERSONYeah, I completely agree with that. And -- but if you're looking at who right now is defending on older voters, Hillary Clinton belongs in that category. By the way, she's doing very poorly among millennials, millennial women. She's behind significantly. So, yeah, that is a problem in, you know, in a variety of places. So, you know, Republicans came out of their loss in 2012 recognizing they needed to -- in their -- the RNC autopsy, you know, which was a document, an interesting document -- that they had to do better with working class voters. And they had to better with new Americans.
GERSONAnd I'm afraid in this election cycle, someone like Donald Trump is trying to do better with working class voters by demonizing and dismissing new Americans. Putting a tension between the two. I think that's a real problem.
PAGEWe're almost out of time.
DIONNE JR.I agree with that.
PAGEAn hour on the future of the Republican Party, one quick question, yes or no, is Donald Trump going to be the Republican nominee for president, E.J.?
DIONNE JR.Only a fool is gonna predict this Republican Party. I can be foolish sometimes, but do I think he could be? Yes, I do.
PAGECould be. Most likely at this point, do you think?
DIONNE JR.I still think Ted Cruz has the most coherent strategy. And we'll see how he holds up under the attacks he's under now.
PAGEDon't weasel out of this, Michael Gerson. Will Donald Trump be the Republican nominee?
GERSONOh, who knows. I'm sorry. I'm just a weasel. I -- this is a case, though, if he wins there will be talk of third party.
DIONNE JR.If pundits don't learn humility in this race, they will never learn humility.
PAGEThat's so true. E.J. Dionne, the author of a new book, "Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism from Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond." Also joined this hour by Michael Gerson. Thank you so much, both of you, for being with us.
DIONNE JR.Thank you so much.
DIONNE JR.And thanks to Michael.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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