Monday, December 1, 2008

Beyond Nixonland

In Rick Perlstein's fabulous history "Nixonland" he traces the roots of the modern GOP and it's Rovian approach to politics and policy to Richard M. Nixon. In the LA Times this weekend Neil Gabler takes the Perlstein analogy to its next logical conclusion,

But there is another rendition of the story of modern conservatism, one that doesn't begin with Goldwater and doesn't celebrate his libertarian orientation. It is a less heroic story, and one that may go a much longer way toward really explaining the Republican Party's past electoral fortunes and its future. In this tale, the real father of modern Republicanism is Sen. Joe McCarthy, and the line doesn't run from Goldwater to Reagan to George W. Bush; it runs from McCarthy to Nixon to Bush and possibly now to Sarah Palin. It centralizes what one might call the McCarthy gene, something deep in the DNA of the Republican Party that determines how Republicans run for office, and because it is genetic, it isn't likely to be expunged any time soon.

The basic problem with the Goldwater tale is that it focuses on ideology and movement building, which few voters have ever really cared about, while the McCarthy tale focuses on electoral strategy, which is where Republicans have excelled.

It's a convincing argument. Perlstein himself spends quite a bit of time discussing how the then freshman GOP Congressman Nixon used the McCarthy hearings to propel himself onto the national stage. Without McCarthy would Nixon have been a useful running mate for Eisenhower in '52? It's a fair question to ask - how much does Nixon's career rely on McCarthyism as a catalyst? If you conclude that without McCarthy there is no President Nixon then it's fair to argue it's McCarthy, and not Nixon, who is the true father of the modern Republican Party.

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