A president initiates public, high-level diplomacy with an enemy nation we’ve been refusing to talk to, he signs into law a bill creating a new agency to regulate business in order to clean up the environment and another agency regulating business to keep employees safe on the job, as well as new laws protecting endangered […]
A president initiates public, high-level diplomacy with an enemy nation we’ve been refusing to talk to, he signs into law a bill creating a new agency to regulate business in order to clean up the environment and another agency regulating business to keep employees safe on the job, as well as new laws protecting endangered species. He proposes an expansion in health insurance for lower-income Americans and an expansion of the food stamp program. Additionally, working with members of the other political party, he proposes a radical notion that the poorest Americans should actually receive a grant of money from the government that they would be free to use as they wish.
That would be a president considerably to the left of Obama, would it not? Actually, these are the actions of Richard Nixon.
Walter Mondale, in his autobiography, “The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics,” (Scribner, 2010) writes of his early days in the United States Senate and in the course of describing a number of legislative fights mentions a number of Republican senators who he cooperated with. We can add to his list, a list of politicians who would have no chance of being nominated by today’s Republican Party.
A Senate roll call
We could start with Everett Dirksen of Illinois (1950-68, dates in parenthesis are the years of serving in the Senate), perhaps the last of the great characters on the political stage, a larger-than-life figure known for flowery flights of rhetoric. He was certainly a conservative, but one who worked with Democrats and was respected by them and played a constructive role in moving forward some civil rights legislation.
For many years there was only one African-American in the United States Senate, and that was the Republican, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts (1966-1978). He is still the only African-American ever re-elected to the Senate. He co-authored important civil rights legislation and led opposition to one of President Nixon’s conservative Supreme Court nominees.
James Pearson of Kansas (1962-78) shared leadership with Mondale to reduce the requirement for filibusters from 67 to 60 senators and worked with Democrat Phil Hart on campaign finance reform.
Jacob Javits of New York (1956-80) supported most of President Johnson’s Great Society programs, and became a leading advocate for an early end to the Vietnam War.
Margaret Chase Smith of Maine (1948-1972), the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress, was the first senator to condemn Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts.
John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky (1956 -1972) served on the Warren Commission, and held a number of diplomatic posts. He was also an early opponent of McCarthy, consistently opposed escalation of the Vietnam War and worked with Sen. Frank Church to try to defund the war.
Charles Percy of Illinois (1966-1984) worked for energy conversation, tried to professionalize the selection of federal judges and advocated for low-cost housing.
Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania (1958-76) supported the Marshall Plan and other international objectives when in the House in the 40s and 50s and supported the civil rights legislation of the 60s.
Winston Prouty of Vermont (1958-70) has as a legacy a child development center for children with special needs that is named for him, reflecting his leadership in passage of one of the first pieces of legislation on this subject.
Howard Baker of Tennessee (1966 – 84), who also became majority leader, was known as the “Great Conciliator” for his ability to achieve bipartisan consensus on many issues.
Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas (1978- 96), the first woman elected to the Senate whose husband had not previously been in Congress, (her father had been governor of Kansas) was known for work on health care legislation with Ted Kennedy and was pro-choice on abortion. She called for sanctions against South Africa. Incidentally, she and Howard Baker married in 1996.
Karl Mundt of South Dakota (1948-72) was certainly conservative, but he also founded and led the National Forensics League, an honors society that promotes high school debate.
Barry Goldwater of Arizona (1953-65, 1968-1986) was, of course, one of the major conservative figures of American politics in his day, and a significant factor in the rightward shift of America. But in his later years, he grew wary of the influence of the religious right and became an advocate of letting gays serve in the military. He once famously said that “Every good Christian should line up and kick Jerry Falwell’s ass.”
Other names could be added to this list, people who never served in the Senate, including, of course, Nelson Rockefeller himself who gave his name to a term for moderate Republicans. Despite being in the 1 percent, if not the 0.01 percent of the wealthy, Rockefeller, as governor of New York, was a tireless advocate of “big government,” especially in using tax money for public works projects of all types.
Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus, who both resigned during the Watergate “Saturday Night Massacre” rather than impede an investigation into misconduct by Nixon, deserve a place on this list. Mitt Romney’s father might also be a candidate.
The point is that there used to be no shortage of Republican politicians on the national stage that Democrats could work with, who were willing to compromise and about whom – even if you disagreed with them – could be seen as partners with a common goal of advancing America.
The Overton Window
The term “Overton Window” is a reference to what sets of ideas can be discussed in public without the advocate being labeled “extreme” or a “fanatic.” For example, various approaches to cutting the deficit are inside the window, but questioning the need to reduce the deficit is outside the window. Cutting the cost of health care is inside, a single payer system is outside.
Over time the window moves to the right or to the left. Clearly, in the United States in the 80s and 90s it moved to the right. Look at the dates on the list of senators and see how many left the senate around the late 70s or by 1984. The presidency of Ronald Reagan (1980-88) marks the time of transition.
Today, I’d argue, none of those on the list could survive in the Republican Party, and a few might be threatened by right wing challenges in the Democratic Party.
Obama, the moderate Republican
Goldwater once remarked to Dole that “We’re the new liberals of the Republican Party. Can you imagine that?”
A world where Goldwater and Dole sit on the liberal end of Republicans is the only world in which Obama could be called by people with some claim to be leaders a “socialist,” a “Marxist” or an “ideologue” who is “nationalizing” American industry and doesn’t understand America. Were Obama president 30 years ago, he could easily be classified as a moderate Republican rather than a liberal Democrat.
The window shuts
A poignant and embarrassing illustration of the shift occurred recently when Sen. Dole, confined to a wheelchair, came to the floor of the Senate he used to lead in order to lobby for a treaty that would merely ask other nations to adopt the same rules for disabled people that the U.S. has had in place for 20 years.
Instead, after he left the floor, Republican after Republican – including both senators from Kansas – spouted the most amazing series of conspiracy theories one could imagine. It was an embarrassing performance.
Except no Senate Republican appeared to be embarrassed.