A Tale of Two Romneys

By Frum, David | Newsweek, April 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Tale of Two Romneys


Frum, David, Newsweek


Byline: David Frum

If Austin Powers were unfrozen in 2012 from his 1960s cryogenic freeze, there's one political headline that would make him feel immediately at home: "Romney Struggles With Republican Party Conservatives."

In 1966, George Romney tried to beat them. In 2012, Mitt Romney hopes to join them. In 1966, moderates seemed destined to rule the GOP forever--and George Romney was their great hope. In 2012, the moderates are on the verge of extinction--and Mitt Romney devotes most of his days to distancing himself from those aspects of his record that make him look like one of them.

Mitt and George Romney were intensely close. Yet few father-and-son politicians have ever been more unlike in their temperaments. George was direct to the point of bluntness. When Barry Goldwater suggested in 1964 that maybe he and George did not differ so much on the issues, George Romney wrote out a 12-page letter explaining exactly how and where they disagreed.

George Romney was shaped by the hard circumstances of his early life. When as a man in his 80s he traveled to visit his son's campaign offices in Massachusetts, this millionaire former auto CEO rode the subway from Logan Airport, and then took the bus from the subway.

George Romney was not as adept with words as his son, perhaps not as mentally nimble. But he had a very clear view of himself. He and other party moderates had warned that nominating Goldwater in 1964 would be a ticket to disaster. Which of course it was. A chastened GOP turned to the center by 1966--and won a big midterm victory that year.

In November 1966, the Massachusetts GOP elected the first black Republican senator since Reconstruction: Edward Brooke. Moderate Republicans gained Senate seats from liberal Democrats in Illinois, Oregon, and Tennessee. Republicans scored big wins in that year's House elections. And they elected and reelected governors in major states, including George Romney.

Visionary Moderates: The moderates' hour seemed to have arrived. In 1968 they would nominate one of their own for the presidency, most likely Romney himself. And then they'd prove again what Dwight Eisenhower had demonstrated in 1952: a moderate Republican could win the presidency. Nominate a conservative and, in the memorable words of New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, the mastermind of the Eisenhower nomination, "you can bury the Republican Party as the deadest pigeon in the country."

What did it mean to be a "moderate Republican" in that crucial year, 1966? The best answer comes from Geoffrey Kabaservice's superb newly published history of the moderates, "Rule and Ruin." The moderate Republicans of the 1960s were supporters of the free-enterprise system. They distrusted the then-overwhelming power of trade unions. They disliked the bureaucracy of the New Deal spending programs.

Yet they did not altogether oppose social insurance. They favored voucher-style programs that delivered benefits without bureaucracy. Many were drawn to Milton Friedman's concept of a negative income tax: the government would set a number that every American was entitled to. If an American earned less, he or she would receive back from the IRS a check necessary to bring him or her up to the guaranteed minimum.

That idea went nowhere, but many other ideas appealing to moderate Republicans were enacted in the 1960s, forming the basis of much of our modern welfare system. We don't build public housing anymore. We have Section 8 benefits that enable poor people to rent homes in private apartments. We don't have a Federal Food Administration. We have food stamps.

Civil-Rights Champions: Moderate Republicans also strongly disliked two important constituencies of the mid-1960s Democratic Party: the big urban political machines of the North--and the racist Bourbon Democrats of the South. Moderates were the strongest supporters of federal civil-rights legislation, and had been such since the 1930s. …

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