David Frum: George and Mitt Romney & the Death of Moderate GOP

Mitt’s father, George, was once the great hope of moderate Republicans. Art Shay / Polaris

If Austin Powers were unfrozen in 2012 from his 1960s cryogenic freeze, there’s one political headline that would make him feel immediately at home: “Romney Struggles With Republican Party Conservatives.”

In 1966, George Romney tried to beat them. In 2012, Mitt Romney hopes to join them. In 1966, moderates seemed destined to rule the GOP forever—and George Romney was their great hope. In 2012, the moderates are on the verge of extinction—and Mitt Romney devotes most of his days to distancing himself from those aspects of his record that make him look like one of them.

Mitt and George Romney were intensely close. Yet few father-and-son politicians have ever been more unlike in their temperaments. George was direct to the point of bluntness. When Barry Goldwater suggested in 1964 that maybe he and George did not differ so much on the issues, George Romney wrote out a 12-page letter explaining exactly how and where they disagreed.

George Romney was shaped by the hard circumstances of his early life. When as a man in his 80s he traveled to visit his son’s campaign offices in Massachusetts, this millionaire former auto CEO rode the subway from Logan Airport, and then took the bus from the subway.

George Romney was not as adept with words as his son, perhaps not as mentally nimble. But he had a very clear view of himself. He and other party moderates had warned that nominating Goldwater in 1964 would be a ticket to disaster. Which of course it was. A chastened GOP turned to the center by 1966—and won a big midterm victory that year.

In November 1966, the Massachusetts GOP elected the first black Republican senator since Reconstruction: Edward Brooke. Moderate Republicans gained Senate seats from liberal Democrats in Illinois, Oregon, and Tennessee. Republicans scored big wins in that year’s House elections. And they elected and reelected governors in major states, including George Romney.

Visionary Moderates: The moderates’ hour seemed to have arrived. In 1968 they would nominate one of their own for the presidency, most likely Romney himself. And then they’d prove again what Dwight Eisenhower had demonstrated in 1952: a moderate Republican could win the presidency. Nominate a conservative and, in the memorable words of New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, the mastermind of the Eisenhower nomination, “you can bury the Republican Party as the deadest pigeon in the country.”

What did it mean to be a “moderate Republican” in that crucial year, 1966? The best answer comes from Geoffrey Kabaservice’s superb newly published history of the moderates, “Rule and Ruin.” The moderate Republicans of the 1960s were supporters of the free-enterprise system. They distrusted the then-overwhelming power of trade unions. They disliked the bureaucracy of the New Deal spending programs.

Yet they did not altogether oppose social insurance. They favored voucher-style programs that delivered benefits without bureaucracy. Many were drawn to Milton Friedman’s concept of a negative income tax: the government would set a number that every American was entitled to. If an American earned less, he or she would receive back from the IRS a check necessary to bring him or her up to the guaranteed minimum.

That idea went nowhere, but many other ideas appealing to moderate Republicans were enacted in the 1960s, forming the basis of much of our modern welfare system. We don’t build public housing anymore. We have Section 8 benefits that enable poor people to rent homes in private apartments. We don’t have a Federal Food Administration. We have food stamps.

Mitt and George Romney Father and son, June 1965. Courtesy of Cranbrook Schools

Civil-Rights Champions: Moderate Republicans also strongly disliked two important constituencies of the mid-1960s Democratic Party: the big urban political machines of the North—and the racist Bourbon Democrats of the South. Moderates were the strongest supporters of federal civil-rights legislation, and had been such since the 1930s. In percentage terms, more congressional Republicans voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 than did Democrats.

Maybe you know that. But you probably don’t know this: remember the ban on the sale of birth control that was struck down in the 1965 case Griswold v. Connecticut? Between 1941 and 1959, 17 bills to repeal that ban were introduced into the Connecticut Legislature. They always passed the (Republican-dominated) Connecticut House. They always lost in the (Democratic-controlled) Connecticut Senate.

The dilemma of the moderate Republicans was nicely captured in the political career of another Republican dynast, Prescott Bush, father of the future president George H.W. Bush. Prescott had served as head of fundraising for Planned Parenthood and then as chair of the Connecticut chapter of the United Negro College Fund. When Prescott Bush first ran for the U.S. Senate in 1950, both of these associations were used against him—and he went down to defeat against an incumbent Democrat backed by the local Catholic hierarchy.

George Romney epitomized the thinking of moderate Republicans, above all in his forceful support for civil-rights laws. (As Michael Kranish and Scott Helman observe in their excellent Mitt Romney biography, “The Real Romney,” George and Lenore Romney also strongly advocated within the Mormon church the repeal of that church’s racially discriminatory practices.)

George Romney had opposed Barry Goldwater’s candidacy for president in 1964 expressly on grounds of Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act. When Goldwater was nominated, Romney declined to campaign for him. He explained that while he “accepted” the Goldwater nomination, he would not “endorse” it. Such outspokenness surely cost Romney the nomination in 1968. (Romney’s defeat is sometimes blamed on a wayward remark in a TV interview about having been “brainwashed” about Vietnam—but that’s political folklore more than anything else.)

The winner in 1968, Richard Nixon, had dutifully campaigned for Goldwater in 1964 while deftly signaling to party moderates that he inwardly aligned with them—very like the method used by Mitt Romney since 2006. As president, Nixon balanced the two party factions. He used conservative rhetoric, but on environmental and discrimination issues he governed with the GOP moderates. Nixon proposed both a guaranteed annual income and national health insurance, defeated both times by a Congress with Democratic majorities.

Moderates, R.I.P.: And yet of course history went in a different direction, leaving the moderate Republicans as dead as the Whigs—and Mitt Romney’s presidential strategy in crisis.

Mitt Romney moved to Utah to rescue the 2002 Winter Olympics from a corruption scandal. He had the option of remaining in the state and relaunching his political career from there. Instead, he returned home to Massachusetts to seek (and win) that state’s governorship, like a long line of moderate Republicans before him: Leverett Saltonstall, Christian Herter, John Volpe, William Weld, and Paul Cellucci.

Romney’s principal accomplishments in office derived from the moderate Republican tradition. He battled the famously machine-run Massachusetts Legislature to impose accountability and improve management on the state’s huge Big Dig project to run the I-93 expressway under downtown Boston. And he introduced a health-care reform that extended health coverage through a private-insurance mechanism.

Neither accomplishment did him any good in 2008, and the second accomplishment has become his most dangerous liability in 2012.

Casualties of Change: What happened to George Romney’s moderate supporters inside the GOP? To a great degree, they fell victim to cultural and demographic shifts in the U.S.

As evangelical Southern conservatives and white working-class ethnics migrated from the Democratic Party into the GOP, secular Northern professionals and managers migrated out. (An extreme example: members of the third generation of the Rockefeller family were highly active as moderates inside the GOP, Nelson Rockefeller serving as governor of New York and Winthrop Rockefeller as the first Republican governor of Arkansas since Reconstruction. The fourth and fifth generations are almost all Democratic, most notably Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia.)

Geoffrey Kabaservice argues that the moderate Republicans were doomed by their weak organizational skills and their lack of a clear program. Conservatives inside the GOP just out-organized and out-hustled them.

But here’s another thought: the moderates in the GOP are also casualties of changes in the U.S. economy.

George Romney and those who supported him were economic winners: the more affluent, the better-educated. But they were economic winners at a time when there seemed plenty to go around for everybody. Leaving some of the gains on the table to share with the have-nots looked—in the 1950s and ’60s—like a good investment in social cohesion, especially to people who remembered the pain and turmoil of the Great Depression.

Today’s economy looks much more pinched, and today’s winners don’t feel they can afford to share. Today’s winners are looking for leaders who will protect their winnings against what looks to them like a voraciously hostile environment.

The GOP moderates were the ultimate “good sports” of American politics. There isn’t much room for such people in an era of “winner take all.”