The fallacy of the Republican "moderate": Stop being nostalgic for the right

A raft of news coverage points back to the good old days, when Republicans were reasonable. The history is way off

Published October 26, 2013 1:45PM (EDT)

Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Michele Bachmann                                          (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Mary Calvert)
Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Michele Bachmann (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Mary Calvert)

In the New York Times this week, John G. Taft, who is the grandson of Robert Taft, makes his contribution to the growing “Oh, conservatives used to be so moderate, now they’re just radicals and crazies” literature.

Having written about and against this thesis of conservatism’s Golden Age so many times, I don’t think it’s useful for me to rehearse my critique here. Instead, I’ll focus on one important tidbit of Taft’s argument, in the hope that a little micro-history about his grandfather might serve to correct our macro-history of conservatism.

Here’s what Taft says:

This recent display of bomb-throwing obstructionism by Republicans in Congress evokes another painful, historically embarrassing chapter in the Republican Party — that of Senator Joseph McCarthy, chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, whose anti-Communist crusade was allowed by Republican elders to expand unchecked, unnecessarily and unfairly tarnishing the reputations of thousands of people with “Red Scare” accusations of Communist affiliation. Finally Senator McCarthy was brought up short during the questioning of the United States Army’s chief counsel, Joseph N. Welch, who at one point demanded the senator’s attention, then said: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” He later added: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

There is more than a passing similarity between Joseph McCarthy and Ted Cruz, between McCarthyism and the Tea Party movement. The Republican Party survived McCarthyism because, ultimately, its excesses caused it to burn out. And eventually party elders in the mold of my grandfather were able to realign the party with its brand promise: The Republican Party is (or should be) the Stewardship Party.

According to Taft, McCarthy’s “anti-Communist crusade was allowed by Republican elders to expand unchecked” and it was ultimately forces like his grandfather who put that crusade in check.

Let’s turn to the Wayback Machine, shall we?

First, it’s important to remember that in 1946, the year McCarthy was elected to the Senate, Taft was the leader of the conservative Senate Republicans who were eager to use red-baiting to help Republicans get elected. Taft had no compunction about claiming that the legislative agenda of Democrats in Congress “bordered on Communism.” That kind of talk helped put the entire Congress back in Republican hands for the first time since 1930. So forceful — and out there, ideologically speaking — was Taft’s leadership that after the election the New Republic editorialized that “Congress…now consists of the House, the Senate, and Bob Taft.”

Second, Taft was the author of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, one of the most infamous rollbacks in 20th century American history. (Far from being a genteel defender or “steward” of tradition, as Taft the grandson suggests, Taft the grandfather aggressively sought to counter the New Deal. When he ran against Eisenhower for the Republican nomination in 1952, Taft was the candidate of domestic rollback, not accommodation, including rollback of such policies as the Fair Employment Practices Commission, which required companies receiving government contracts not to discriminate on the basis of race.)

Among Taft-Hartley’s many provisions was the prohibition of closed or union shops, which paved the way for states to pass “right to work” laws and other anti-union legislation of the sort that we’ve seen many right-wing state legislators pushing since 2010—particularly in those states where both elected branches of government were suddenly in the hands of the Republicans, thanks in no small part to support from the Tea Party.

In addition, the anticommunist provision of Taft-Hartley was one of the more potent pieces of legislation contributing to the developing atmosphere of Cold War hysteria around communism. That provision mandated that all unions seeking the protections of the Wagner Act had to have their leaders take an oath affirming that they were neither members nor supporters of the Communist Party or any other organization seeking the overthrow of the United States government. That provision provoked a wave of red-baiting and red-hunting within and around the labor movement, which proved to be a kind of social corollary to what the government was doing in and around the executive branch.

Taft was not the opponent or even just the helpmate of this repression; he was a leading agent of it — more than three years before anyone outside of Wisconsin had even heard of Joseph McCarthy.

But on the question of McCarthy himself, the record is clear: Taft did not merely “allow” the man and the -ism to dominate; Taft actively coddled, encouraged and supported him and it at every turn.

As early as March 23, 1950 — four weeks after McCarthy’s famous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia — Taft gave McCarthy his firm support, telling McCarthy, “If one case [accusing a State Department official of being a Red] doesn’t work out, bring up another.” And added, for good measure, “Keep it up, Joe.”

When Truman attacked McCarthy’s speech — no amateur when it came to red-baiting, Truman called McCarthy “the greatest asset the Kremlin has” — Taft responded in kind, accusing Truman of being “bitter and prejudiced” and of “libeling” McCarthy, who was “a fighting Marine.” (Asked whether he had indeed libeled McCarthy, Truman responded, “Do you think that is possible?”)

While the Tydings Committee conducted its hearings about Communists in the State Department, Taft denounced the hearings as a “farce” and a “whitewash,” and pushed for even more aggressive inquisitions into subversion of the executive branch. As late as 1952, Taft would be harping on the issue of Communists in the State Department. He claimed that Dean Acheson had welcomed the Communist takeover of China because “in the State Department there’s been a strong Communist sympathy, as far as the Chinese Communists are concerned.” Sensing a major political opportunity in the coming presidential election of 1952, Taft said, “The only way to get rid of Communists in the State Department is to change the head of the government.”

In 1951, however, Taft pulled back — after it seemed that McCarthy had gone too far, accusing George Marshall on the Senate floor of aiding the Communist cause. That was in June. In October, after temporizing for months in response to a wave of negative publicity, Taft inched away from the senator from Wisconsin. He said:

"I don’t think one who overstates his case helps his own case. There are certain points on which I wouldn’t agree with McCarthy. His extreme attack against General Marshall is one of the things on which I cannot agree."

But within weeks, Taft reversed course. In response to a wave of letters from complaining fans of McCarthy, Taft issued a correction in which he downplayed his disagreements with McCarthy (“I often disagree with other Republican senators”) and reaffirmed his support: “Broadly speaking, I approve of Senator McCarthy’s program.”

Just in case there was any doubt about that, Taft personally endorsed McCarthy’s reelection bid during the Wisconsin primary of 1952, claiming that “Senator McCarthy has dramatized the fight to exclude Communists from the State Department. I think he did a great job in undertaking that goal.” He even campaigned for McCarthy — despite the fact that McCarthy never returned the favor by endorsing Taft.

And on at least one occasion (there might have been more), Taft quietly passed information to McCarthy about possible subversion in the State Department, suggesting to McCarthy that one employee deserved “special attention.”

By the time McCarthy was censured by the Senate in December 1954 — not because of Joseph Welch’s eloquent pleas but because he had turned on the Republican leadership and the Eisenhower administration, who no longer needed him — Taft had been dead sixteen months.

This was the man they once called “Mr. Conservative,” who is now being held up as the paragon of moderation. To paraphrase Woody Allen: a moderate Republican is a right-wing reactionary plus time.

By Corey Robin

Corey Robin is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin and Fear: The History of a Political Idea, he is currently writing a book about Clarence Thomas.

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