Richard Reeves

Conservatives Poised to Repeat History

LOS ANGELES -- Was George Santayana right when he said that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it?

Well, perhaps the Republican Party can test that thesis for the rest of us. Forty-five years ago the Republicans in convention -- the convention that nominated Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater for president -- tried to boo New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller off the stage when he said:

"These extremists feed on fear, hate and terrorism. They encourage disunity ... The Republican Party must repudiate those people."

It was no tea party, that one. Angry Goldwater delegates began booing and chanting, "We Want Barry!" Many of the people in the hall wanted Rockefeller out of the party at least as much as they wanted Goldwater in the White House.

"Rockefeller was the enemy!" said Richard Viguerie, who was one of the most enthusiastic chanters in the balcony. He was 30 years old then and was soon to become an important figure in the "New Right," the branch of the party that wanted liberals, and moderates too, out so that the Grand Old Party would be a pristine conservative vehicle. Maybe a Model T.

Goldwater, of course, went down in one of the greatest landslides in the history of presidential elections. Many raw conservatives ended up more or less in the wilderness or underbrush until they felt free to come out into the open again during Ronald Reagan's run for president in 1980.

It seemed to me then that the big story of last Tuesday's cluster of elections was not the Democratic defeats in gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, but the amazing race in the 23rd Congressional District of New York, a relatively poor area where trees greatly outnumber residents. Most of that area -- congressional district lines have changed over time -- has sent only Republicans to Washington since 1871. On Tuesday, a Democrat named Bill Owens was elected over a moderate Republican and a Conservative Party candidate named Douglas Hoffman.

How could that happen? Well, conservatives were out of the woods again. Local Republican leaders in 11 counties had given the nomination to a state assemblywoman, Dede Scozzafava. National Republican trumpeters, led by radio talk show hosts Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, proclaimed that Scozzafava was too liberal on social issues, particularly abortion and gay marriage. Sarah Palin and money from conservatives all over the country poured in, and Scozzafava was effectively marginalized and quit the race, throwing what support she had to Owens. National party leaders were humiliated, but they quickly joined the push for Hoffman. In the name of party unity, they abandoned their own nominee.

Owens defeated Hoffman in a race close enough that national conservatives probably found encouragement in their drive to marginalize all moderate Republicans. (There are no liberal Republicans of the Rockefeller type to eject anymore. The last ones standing, Lincoln Chafee and Jim Leach, were defeated in 2006.)

The new New Right, I suspect, will be a major factor in the 2010 congressional election. Establishment Republicans are celebrating party victories in Virginia and New Jersey -- good for them -- but it is no longer a joke when folks say Limbaugh is the real leader of their party. The radio conservatives will almost certainly be challenging establishment Republicans across the country. When the new New Right cannot choose the Republican candidate, which is what happened in upstate New York, they are going to use or try to create third parties. That was easy under New York election laws because the state has had a small but real Conservative Party on the ballot since the early 1960s.

Santayana's quote about history is not the only relevant thought about what these off-off-year elections showed. It was Henry Clay who said he'd rather be right than be president. Clay was exaggerating more than a bit, but conservatives are going to demand that Republicans be Right before they can be president -- and history will repeat itself in defeat.

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