Dead Tree Journalism

I’m pretty sure I know what this means and very sure it is not intended to be flattering.  Imagine then the concept of using the name of a newspaper as an adjective to describe yourself or your group, especially one that no longer exists.

I attended a gathering of about 75 “Herald Tribune Republicans” to hear author, Geoffrey Kabaservice, describe his book “Rule and Ruin The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party.”  I doubt the audience consisting of about 75 overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly older and unanimously white lunchtime guests was pleased about what they heard.  These are the last of the moderates (virtually every hand went up in response to the question “are you now or have you ever been a moderate Republican?), and they long for the return of the distinguished history of the Republican Party to replace what the author described as “the most politically polarized period since the Civil War.”

Polarization is not the hallmark of the Herald Tribune Republican.

Kabaservice began his research using the records of the Ripon Society, a centrist Republican think tank that produces The Ripon Forum, the country’s longest-running Republican thought and opinion journal.  Founded in 1962, one of its main goals is to promote ideas and principles that have contributed to the GOP’s past success including national security, low taxes and a smaller but smarter federal government that is more accountable to the people. Hmmmmm….  no social issues to fire people up?

One measure of the decline of moderates is seen in a study conducted by the National Journal in which each congressman and senator is scored from liberal to conservative.  The National Journal then counts those whose scores fall between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat, seemingly a fair definition of moderate.  In 1982, moderates were a majority of the House of Representatives and the Senate, but today there is not one single senator and only a small handful of congressmen who fall into that category.

The author divides Republicans into four camps: conservatives; moderates; stalwarts; and progressives.  The half-century since 1961 has been marked by the progress of the conservative group to the dominant role within the party.  They were embattled and driven, but they were not readers of the Herald Tribune, which could explain both the demise of that distinguished newspaper and the current state of politics.  Their first major success was the nomination of Barry Goldwater as the Republican candidate for president in 1964. They have gained from there.

The term RINO — Republican In Name Only — tends to be used pejoratively for inhabitants of the left side of the Republican Party, but the author argues that it is the conservatives themselves who are the real RINO’s.

The GOP, which used to be both more fiscally conservative and socially tolerant than it now is, has been changed considerably by factors including geography, money and gerrymandering.  Power has moved south and west. Money has increased dramatically.  Horse trading of the voters I don’t want for the voters you don’t want while drawing lines between legislative districts now reduces the competitiveness of elections and moves the real contests to the party primaries.  These are but some of the factors that have reduced the influence of those in the audience.

Of particular interest was the author’s explanation of the importance of geography.  Curiously, he analogized it to soccer; “in which 22 people run around for a considerable period of time then the Germans win.”  In politics, “many more people run around for an even longer period of time then the South wins.”

The cause of the moderates was not helped by the substantial increase in the number of primaries over the last several decades.  The prevalence of democracy over cigar smoke did not help their cause because, like the other factors, it played to their weaknesses rather than their strengths.

Kabaservice suspects that most of the moderates have in fact become independents and given up on both parties though he expects both President Obama and former Governor Romney to make substantial plays for this group in the election.  In response to a question about third parties on the very day the Americans Elect experiment was set to implode, Kabaservice quoted Columbia Professor, Richard Hofstadter who said “third parties are like bees, they sting and then they die.”

Another book, along the same lines as Rule and Ruin (and with an equally long title), is called “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.”  Written by Thomas E. Mann, of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, two scholars who have successfully navigated the shoals of partisanship in several prior books, the book places most of the blame for today’s gridlock at the feet of the Republicans.

Though they were WASPs rather than Hofstadter’s bees, moderate Republicans seem to have stung and now they have died.  Only the most partisan would argue that the country is better for it.

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