For much of the American mainstream, there’s a general understanding of the two major political parties: voters choose between a center-right Republican Party and a center-left Democratic Party. This dynamic has been pretty consistent for many decades, and voters broadly know what to expect from both sides.
One of the broader goals for Democrats is to persuade the mainstream that, in 2012, the dynamic has changed. There’s a Republican Party on the ballot, but it’s not the same Republican Party that Americans have come to know and understand.
President Obama recently told supporters, “In 2008, I was running against a general election candidate who believed in banning torture, believed in doing something about climate change…. Somebody, who, frankly, could never get a nomination in the Republican Party this time out.”
Vice President Biden sounded a similar note yesterday: “This is not your father’s Republican Party. This is a different party than I’m used to…. It really is different.”
With this in mind, E.J. Dionne Jr. argued persuasively today, “A brief look at history suggests how far to the right both the Republican Party and contemporary conservatism have moved.”
Today’s conservatives almost never invoke one of our most successful Republican presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who gave us, among other things, federally guaranteed student loans and championed the interstate highway system.
Even more revealing is what Robert A. Taft, the leader of the conservative forces who opposed Eisenhower’s nomination in 1952, had to say about government’s role in American life. “If the free enterprise system does not do its best to prevent hardship and poverty,” the Ohio Republican senator said in a 1945 speech, “it will find itself superseded by a less progressive system which does.” He urged Congress to “undertake to put a floor under essential things, to give all a minimum standard of decent living, and to all children a fair opportunity to get a start in life.”
Who can doubt that today’s right would declare his day’s Mr. Republican and Mr. Conservative a socialist redistributionist?
In 1954, President Eisenhower wrote a letter to his brother. “Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history,” Ike said. The president acknowledged in the letter that there are some who advocate such nonsense, but added, “Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
A half-century later, there can be little doubt that (1) Eisenhower wouldn’t recognize his own party; (2) he would think the contemporary GOP is, to use his word, “stupid”; and (3) Republicans are eager to test Eisenhower’s assessment of what the American mainstream is willing to tolerate.