If there is a better book on the subject of whatever happened to "moderate Republicanism" than Rule or Ruin by Geoffrey Kabaservice (just published by Oxford University Press), I can't imagine what it is. And I probably would know, having helped hold aloft in my young hands the "moderate" banner during the period leading up to Barry Goldwater's nomination in 1964. What Kabaservice has written is thorough, fair, and sometimes very entertaining.
That doesn't mean I agree with some of its conclusions.
Kabaservice, a writer and former history professor who wrote a widely acclaimed account of Kingman Brewster's reign at Yale, The Guardians, obviously is not happy that the moderate faction in the GOP was slowly, but inexorably, sidelined by more assertive (sometimes aggressive) right wingers, until today practically all candidates fall over themselves assuring voters that they are the true conservative in any given race and that their intra-party rivals are covert moderates or liberals. "Moderate" once was an accolade; not any more.
Rule and Ruin takes advantage of the time that has passed since the moderate-conservative battles of the 60s and now is yielding archival letters and memos that have not been reported before. They reveal, for example, the true feelings and operations of candidates like Nelson Rockefeller. The New York governor, in the day, was seen as a moderate GOP hero, but in the Kabaservice telling turned he out to believe that extremism in pursuit of his own career was no vice. ""It was the moderates' great misfortune that Nelson Rockefeller devoted his storied wealth to fruitless and counterproductive quests for the White House rather than building up the moderate movement," Kabaservice concludes.
The reporting and analysis in Rule and Ruin are first rate, but even a participant in the story occasionally may find himself bogged down on insider accounts of minor political skirmishes of long ago. Furthermore, Kabaservice seems unduly pessimistic about the political future. He himself obviously feels like a moderate Republican out of season, a bit like a latter-day Confederate. But the analogy is not apt, nor is the pessimism. To have held moderate Republican views decades ago was to be a conservative today. The 60s, when the moderate Advance magazine published and then the Ripon Society was organized, came before the huge government spending expansions after Lyndon Johnson's election, the regulatory excesses of almost all the liberal (and some Republican) administrations since then and the rise of predatory social engineering experiments that have helped demoralize society. The only way to stay a "moderate" in the environment of recent decades is to keep moving one's actual viewpoint leftward to stay in position. This is a serious intellectual as well as political flaw. Being practical and being willing to accept compromises makes sense. But it is not a political program.
To some extent, Geoffrey Kabaservice grasps this concept and his book certainly gives it an airing. But maybe it could be strengthened. Maybe Mr. Kabaservice could afford to be more cheerful.
Conservatism has been described as a disposition, not a philosophy, per se. If so, moderation can be described as a sentiment, not a disposition, let alone a philosophy. It's an attitude, not a set of principles, not an agenda, let alone a program. The intentional moderate is always in danger of becoming the slave of right and left. If the general mood swings right, the moderate--to get in the middle--is compelled to move right. That's what moderates did after Ronald Reagan was elected and after the 2010 Tea Party-influenced Congressional election. If the mood moves left, the moderate does, too, as happened briefly in the Carter years and again after Barrack Obama came to office.
If a self-conscious moderate writes an article, he seems to think he must damn both right and left, showing that he is above them both, because he is between them. For example, when the sentiment for war is strong, as in the early days of the Vietnam War or the second Iraq War, one supports US entry. When war fatigue sets in, the moderate finds the war no longer supportable.
That's the trouble with moderation, other than as a sentiment. It is not very inspiring. Who are the great moderates of history? Eisenhower? Well, he was a moderate in his time, but his program basically was conservative, making necessary accommodation--as he saw it--with the Democratic Congress then in power. The same might be said of both Bushes. One can argue with their analyses of their predicament, but history--and the Left--certainly understood them to be motivated by conservative aims and--to the extent possible, again in their eyes--by conservative policies.
Of course, the danger is that self-proclaimed moderate will represent opportunism in practice, disguised, even to himself, as a program. In a culture dominated by left wing media, academia and bureaucracy (and even a largely liberal Wall Street), the moderate program soon turns to dust. Its pretenses don't deserve respect.
However, while there is no moderate program in politics, there is a moderate temperament that bears respect. When carried away, the conservative (or liberal) may be susceptible to extreme measures, even to the endangerment of civil liberties and government economy. Then the moderate in temperament are able to suggest a cooling of passions and a more deliberate pace of reform rather than of revolutionary change. The Goldwater '64 campaign famously went wrong in tolerating the extremists in the Birch Society and the segregationists in the South. Even many old time Republican conservatives who resented the supposedly East coast GOP elite were put off. An immoderate tone helped bring about a collossal electoral defeat, though at the same time the campaign itself was energizing the conservative movement and the Republican base with new recruits, especially among the young. The proof of this analysis is its subsequent acknowledgement and acceptance by such conservative leaders as Bill Buckley, and, even in part, by Sen. Goldwater after the election defeat. Kabaservice, by the way, tells this tale well.
But conservatism itself should never have been an issue within the Republican Party. It should have been recognized that the Republican Party ineluctably is the party of conservative principles-- of limited government, skeptical of expanded central government power and spending, of free trade (not historically a conservative principle, of course), favoring individual liberty and reward for individual initiative. It supports a national government strong enough and competent enough to do the few important, necessary things well because it doesn't fritter away its strength and the energies of the citizenry by undertaking tasks that are unneccessary, wasteful and outside the Constitution. It is the party of patriotic faith in American exceptionalism.
The most relevant question is not the validity of these principles, but how to put them into practice.
Fifty years ago the challenge was the same as today: how can conservatives employ their principles to answer the challenges of the times, and not simply rest with opposition to liberalism.
It turns out that some conservatives have understood that calling better than others, and some supposed moderates have not understood it at all.
Geoffrey Kabaservice, as I say, seems discouraged about conservatism today and pines for moderation. But, actually, conservatives today--not the showboaters and flash-in-the-pans--have internalized the requirement to stand for positive changes and not just opposition. Indeed, some of the best thinkers and achievers in Republican history are alive in the party today; Congressmen like Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor and governors like Mitch Daniels, Scott Walker and Chris Christie. It would be hard to find a more even-tempered and trustworthy Speaker than John Boehner--firmly conservative in principles, moderate in demeanor, temperament, and refreshingly reliable and trustworthy.
The final irony about Rule and Ruin, and what should give Mr. Kabaservice cheer (but probably won't) is that for various reasons the Republican Party again may nominate a candidate for President (like Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush) who is essentially of the moderate persuasion Mr. Kabaservice desires. That is, his moderate temperament is likely to lead his conservative philosophy. The danger will be that that the conservatism of the candidate might fade in the glare of left-wing media attacks. If a Republican wins, therefore, conservatives will count on principled members of Congress to help him keep his feet securely on a path that is forward and rightward.