By GEOFFREY KABASERVICE
REPUBLICANS aren’t big fans of Karl Marx, but perhaps they should ponder his observation that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. As preposterous presidential candidates dominate the polls and extremists topple congressional leaders, the Republican Party is headed for a replay of the catastrophic Goldwater revolt of the early 1960s. It may be an entertaining spectacle, but it’s dangerous.
The Republican Party has long been divided into comparatively moderate and conservative factions, but historically the conservatives were realists, too. Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, the great conservative leader of the mid-20th century, understood that his side had to make incremental steps toward its goals. It had to devise detailed policy alternatives to Democratic proposals, work with party leadership and build coalitions both within the party and across party lines.
But the early 1960s witnessed an overthrow of Taftian realism. The radicals who coalesced around Senator Barry Goldwater’s insurgent presidential campaign were zealots. They had no interest in developing a governing agenda. Their program consisted mainly of getting rid of the New Deal and every other government effort to promote the general welfare. As Goldwater famously wrote: “My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones.”
Goldwater’s followers viewed any Republicans who wanted to govern as traitors to be stamped out. They accused their own leadership of conspiring with Democrats to thwart conservatives; the theme of betrayal from within had been the essence of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s populist appeal. They had no strategy other than taking over the party and nominating Goldwater. He would win the 1964 election, they believed, because a hidden majority would flock to the polls when presented with a candidate who wasn’t what we would now call “politically correct.”
Years ago, I wrote a history of the Republican civil war between the moderates and radicals of the Goldwater era. I’m sufficiently alarmed, watching history repeat itself, that I now work as a research consultant for the Main Street Partnership, an organization of over 70 members of Congress who represent the moderate-conservative wing of the Republican Party. Their rivals are members of the Freedom Caucus, who would rather close the government than compromise.
Once again, the battle is between Republicans who want to govern and those who don’t. The radicals have no realistic alternative solutions of their own. Even to contemplate the negotiations and compromises such policies entail would sully their ideological purity.
Senator Goldwater, despite his brave talk of repeal, was an isolated, powerless legislator. The extremists who opposed John A. Boehner as speaker are likewise a small faction without the ability to accomplish any positive program. InsideGov, a government watchdog site, recently came up with a list of the least effective members of Congress, as determined by the percentage of bills they sponsored that went on to pass committee. Ideological extremism correlates closely with legislative impotence.
That’s unsurprising, since many members of the Freedom Caucus put a higher priority on scoring purity points than on carrying out the nation’s business. Its chairman, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, is, by this accounting, the second-least effective member of Congress. The only one who’s even less effective is another longtime critic of Mr. Boehner, Representative Steve King of Iowa, not one of whose 94 sponsored bills has passed the committee stage. Most of Mr. Boehner’s harshest critics lurk at the bottom of the Lugar Center’s Bipartisanship Index. Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, who triumphantly tweeted “Today the establishment lost” after Mr. Boehner’s resignation, is ranked last.
The Republican Party’s unhappy ideological adventure in the early ’60s ended in disaster. Goldwater not only lost the election in a landslide, but he dragged down the entire Republican ticket. The main result of conservative overreach was to hand President Lyndon B. Johnson the liberal supermajority he needed to pass Medicare and Medicaid.
The present resurgence of anti-governing conservatism is also likely to end badly for Republicans. The extremists have the ability to disrupt the Congress, but not to lead it. Their belief that shutdowns will secure real concessions is magical thinking, not legislative realism. And the more power they gain, the less likely it becomes that a Republican-controlled Congress can pass conservative legislation, or indeed any legislation at all.
It’s true that sometimes no legislation is better than bad legislation. But the United States faces real problems, including stagnant wages, family instability, infrastructure collapse and long-term indebtedness. If Republicans can’t advance their own solutions, they’ll have to deal with what Democrats — or harsh realities — impose on them. Paralysis is not a plan.
The rebranding of Republicanism as a force for anarchy has spilled into the presidential contest and threatens the general election chances of the eventual nominee. The Republican establishment, and the party’s governing majority, have the power to quell this insurgency, whether by abandoning the so-called Hastert rule, which requires a majority of the majority to approve of legislation before it can come up for a vote, or by mounting primary challenges of their own. It’s too late for Mr. Boehner to face down the radicals, but his successor will have to if the Republican Party is to have a meaningful future.