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Books Explore Republican Evolution

Three New Books Take Three Different Looks At the Tea Party

One wonders what might have happened to the notion of liberal Republicanism if its identity had been linked to President Dwight Eisenhower rather than New York Gov. and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.

Would attaching Eisenhower’s iconic status as savior of Europe and his popularity as president to the middle-of-the-road mentality have made it more palatable to the changing GOP electorate?

Probably not. By the end of his presidency, Ike remained personally popular and politically unassailable, but his policy preferences were already beginning to be pushed aside by many members of his own party. It would be nearer the truth to say that Rockefeller Republicanism became the appellation for the left wing of the party because nobody wanted to attach that stigma to the popular president.

So, Clint Eastwood notwithstanding, “Eisenhower Republican” remains a quaint phrase with little grounding in either history or contemporary politics.

Which brings us to the tea party movement. 

In “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party,” Geoffrey Kabaservice tries to make the case that “the GOP has for all intents and purposes become a uniformly ideological party unlike any that has ever existed in American history.”

Except, of course, the one it is currently competing with. (And, for a party that has suffered “destruction,” the Grand Old one seems to be doing quite well.)

There is much bemoaning by the liberal chattering class — and many crocodile tears shed — about the demise of Republican pluralism (and hardly any about the similar trend toward the left of the Democratic Party). Of course, the Republicans that liberals of today pretend to get all misty about are the same ones who were invariably labeled as dangerous kooks by their liberal contemporaries.

“Rule and Ruin” is a readable history of the evolution of the Republican Party, but it suffers from this same myopia. All was swell in the good old days, and if only Republicans today would act like Republicans of old, all would be swell again.

Kabaservice gives a passing nod to the changing circumstances that largely accounted for a changing body politic, including population shifts to the South and West and the Democrats’ purge of segregationists that made the party more palatable to GOP moderates.

But in his telling, the Democrats are virtually blameless. The party that abandoned President John F. Kennedy’s clarion call to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty” and replaced it with “come home America” barely makes an appearance.

Which is too bad because “Rule and Ruin” is good history, as far as it goes. Unfortunately, Kabaservice can’t get past his nostalgic attachment to the mythical figures of the past that he chronicled in “The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment.” Either he doesn’t understand that the game has changed, or he doesn’t want to admit it.

The people who changed it, of course, are the tea partyers.

In “The Tea Party: Three Principles,” law professor Elizabeth Price Foley lays out in exacting terms the core philosophy that underpins the movement.

Foley writes like a lawyer, and the book reads like a well-constructed brief, which is not a criticism. So much nonsense has been written about tea party philosophy that a structured treatise that gets to the heart of the matter is more than welcome.  

Unlike Kabaservice, Foley understands that ideological evolution doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

She methodically lays out the movement’s rejectionist beginnings — opposed to President Barack Obama’s lack of appreciation for American exceptionalism and to his desire to have the government do more, made manifest by the 2010 health care overhaul.

“The growing perception that America’s foundational principles are on the verge of a deep, dark politically correct precipice has created a political environment akin to a gas leak,” Foley writes. “It was only a matter of time before something ignited the flames of political resistance.”

She then goes on to spell out the “Three Principles” of her subtitle: limited government, U.S. sovereignty and constitutional originalism. This is the heart of the book, the most legalistic, and makes for highly enjoyable reading. It would also make good fodder for an American Constitution Society/Federalist Society debate.

Taking another tack altogether is David Brody, chief political correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network. 

In “The Teavangelicals: The Inside Story of How the Evangelicals and the Tea Party Are Taking Back America,” Brody seeks to make the case that the tea party movement, grounded in constitutionalism and support for a less intrusive government, has a natural partner in the evangelical movement.

“Throughout the years, conservative evangelicals have powered important movements like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition,” he writes. “Tea Party rallies are the next wave in that revolution.”

If so, it would seem to be more a marriage of convenience than passion. 

Any number of fissures are visible between the tea party and evangelicals, among both group leaders and the rank and file.

Brody comes to grips with the problem in what he calls “the Ayn Rand controversy.” The libertarian instincts of many tea partyers are at odds with the evangelical desire to use the power of the state to create a more moral universe. 

I would argue that Brody overstates the influence of Rand on the broad mass of tea party adherents, although the objectivist philosopher is obviously a guiding light for many leaders of the movement. He is on firmer ground when he asserts “that most churchgoing conservative Christians probably have never even heard of Ayn Rand.”

In any case, Brody seems certain that the wings of the movement can work together, which is probably true for the time being. Any split will come after they’ve obtained real power and try to figure out what to do with it.

No movement in recent American politics has had as big and as immediate an effect as the tea party. The debate over its influence continues in the popular media and has now begun to migrate to the more considered corners of intellectual thought. That’s a good thing for people who want to know more about the subject, and it’s also an indication that the tea party movement is not going away any time soon.

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