A few decades ago I asked my father why he had voted for Eisenhower in both the ’52 and ’56 elections. It puzzled me because my father was a lifelong Roosevelt-New-Dealer Democrat who had founded and led for many years the labor union local at his factory. There, the management regularly accused him of being a Communist and sometimes threatened his life. Not a person you’d expect to support a Republican, he fought for worker’s rights and benefits. That included, humorously, distributing readings to workers by Spinoza, Freud and Aristotle. The company decreed that to be subversive activity and tried to ban it. But he brought the case to the NLRB — and won a celebrated victory.
So why did he support Eisenhower, a Republican? His answer was short and simple: “Because he beat the Nazis.” To his thinking, that trumped politics, period.
I’m reminded of that perspective as I reflect on the outcome of the 2012 presidential election. I’m wondering if we might start to see a swing of the pendulum away from the Tea Party domination of the GOP, and towards the kind of “cooperative adversary” orientation that once existed between the parties. That was back when the role of government was understood by both sides as essential for addressing social and economic problems.
It wasn’t so long ago when both parties could argue and advocate vigorously for their policies, but then proceed to hammer out compromise legislation that actually achieved something. Roughly speaking, up through the Reagan administration Republicans recognized the need for government and collaboration — while maintaining their philosophy about the best use of government. It’s possible that we may begin to see some of the so-called “moderate” Republicans (now viewed as heretics) rise in confidence and stop kowtowing to the extremists they’ve been hiding from.
Thinking back to my father’s support of Eisenhower, I recall that it wasn’t so unusual for Democrats like him, or those on the other side politically, to vote for and support candidates of the opposite party. They did so because they believed them to be good legislators, with good, sane values. For example, in my home state of New York, my father and other Democrats voted Jacob Javits, Kenneth Keating, Nelson Rockefeller, and other Republicans into office. They were considered good people for the State, and for the country. So they crossed party lines and voted for them. I think some Republicans did likewise when they saw a Democrat who represented them well, despite differences of philosophy.
I’m old enough to recall when most Democrats weren’t labeled Communists or Socialists or destroyers of Western civilization. And when most Republicans weren’t considered paranoid McCarthyites or John Bircher extremists. Those that were extremists were quickly denounced by mainstream conservatives. Recall, for example, that William F. Buckley had no trouble denouncing The John Birch Society for its lunacy, including its assertion that both President Eisenhower and his brother Milton were secret, dedicated Communists. But today, we’ve heard one member of Congress asserting that 78 to 81 fellow legislators are Communists; another that most Democrats are anti-American. But no denunciation has been heard from other Republicans.
Perhaps some current Republicans will now begin to recall examples of compromise that existed through the Reagan administration, until the Lee Atwater attack orientation became the preferred way to deal with the opposition. For example, after vigorous combat between Democratic and Republican proposals on the House and Senate floor, Reagan and Tip O’Neill would get together for drinks at the end of the day and talk about how and where to make deals to move the agendas of both sides forward.
Going further back to the ’50s and ’60s, both the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations depended on the cooperation of the “other side,” whichever was in power, in order to pass legislation. And that was during the era of the Dixicrats, the anti-civil rights Southern Democrats who eventually became Republicans during Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.”
For example, longtime Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, a consistent conservative, developed a good relationship with the Senate’s majority leaders, Democrats Lyndon B. Johnson and Mike Mansfield. On foreign policy, Dirksen reversed his isolationism to support the internationalism of both President Eisenhower and Kennedy.
In 1964, Southern Democrats staged a 54-day filibuster to block passage of the Civil Rights bill. But Senator Dirksen, with a coalition of Republicans and Democrats, introduced a substitute, slightly weaker bill that passed in the Senate. The House-Senate conference committee then adopted the Senate version of the bill. Moreover, Dirksen helped write and pass not only the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but also the Open Housing Act of 1968, both landmarks of civil rights legislation.
(And speaking of filibuster, despite its use by Dixicrats to block civil rights legislation, it was invoked far less than in our recent era, as a recent analysis shows).
On the House side during that same period of Republican and Democratic collaboration, Republican Majority Leader Charles Halleck, a staunch conservative and strong opponent of the liberal social proposals of Kennedy and Johnson, nevertheless was a strong advocate for the Civil Rights Act and was key to its passage.
And, even with all we now know about Nixon — whom the Tea Party dominance of today would probably castigate as a radical left-winger and “big government” guy — he recognized the need for collaborating with the “enemy” and using government in practical ways. He created the EPA by executive order, and advocated a health care system more radical than Obamacare.
Today, in the aftermath of the Tea Party’s destruction of center-right Republicans like Richard Lugar and others, it may be more than just wishful thinking to think that those who have been hiding out will start demonstrating some courage and strength — some “brass,” in Bill Clinton’s term — reassert themselves and push back against the right-wing dominance of their party that’s undermined legislative action and harmed the country.