Ike could whip GOP into shape.

Photographer: Moore/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Republican Faithful Have a Third-Party Option, Too

Sam Tanenhaus, the author of “The Death of Conservatism” and “Whittaker Chambers,” is working on a biography of William F. Buckley Jr. He was editor of the New York Times Book Review from 2004 to 2013.
Read More.
a | A

Disillusionment with establishment politics has long been a staple of Republican politics. In the Obama years, it gave us the Tea Party and the rebellious House caucus that shut down the government. In this climate, the popularity of outsider presidential candidates doesn't seem unnatural.

But could we be hearing something different now, the restless stirrings from insiders? Should Donald Trump, in particular, remain a force, a crisis could come in which "the Republican establishment completely freaks out," Mark McKinnon, a strategist who has advised both George W. Bush and John McCain, said on NPR recently.

If faced with a runaway victory by Donald Trump, or even a convention in which he arrives controlling a large number of delegates, top Republicans might "get together and say, this is unacceptable, but it looks like it's going to happen. So we go off, and we create a new Republican Party as an independent candidacy."

McKinnon allowed that this scenario might seem "wild and improbable." For one thing, the Republican candidates have pledged to support the winner of their primary season. But the solution he described -- a rebellion within the party and directed in some sense against it -- isn't unprecedented. In fact, there is a long history of revolutions from above, by Republicans and Democrats alike.

One example -- and it has been cited by conservative writers like Michael Gerson as a model for Republicans to follow -- was the Democratic Leadership Council. Formed in the 1980s, its members (who included Bill Clinton) pulled the party closer to the center in an effort to attract voters alienated by nominees like George McGovern.

This is not to say revolutions from above need be centrist. What they must be is relevant. Parties lose their grip not because they've swung too far left or right, but because their policies and rhetoric seem out of touch with the country at large. This is the problem the Republican field faces today -- and it is not a new one.

In the 1850s, when the modern Republican Party was founded, its great leaders were former Northern Whigs like Abraham Lincoln and William Seward who responded to the growing fervor of the Free Soil movement. They realized a new party was needed, founded on anti-slavery principles, a burning issue in the frontier where new territories and states were being settled.

Another rebellion from above came in the 1910s when Theodore Roosevelt worried the Republican Party had lost sight of the Progressive principles that had guided his own presidency and had met public demand for more effective regulation of business and better protection against the upheavals of industrialism. Inspired by thinkers like Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann, Roosevelt tried to redirect the party to higher ground, and then ran himself, in 1912, on a third-party Progressive platform premised on a "new nationalism."

His campaign failed, though it resulted in one of the greatest campaigns in history, and the winner, Woodrow Wilson, pursued a Progressive agenda. Roosevelt's movement faded away, and the Republicans once again became the party of unregulated big business. A Wisconsin Republican, Senator Robert La Follette, formed a Progressive Party, but its platform-- pro-labor and pro-farmer — strayed far from traditional Republicanism.

The most surprising revolution from above in the postwar era was the brainchild of Dwight Eisenhower. A moderate Republican elected in a landslide in 1952, he was appalled by the resistance his proposals met in Congress -- not from Democrats but from conservative Republicans, who seemed not to grasp the realities of cold-war America. The country could no longer be isolationist, nor could a Republican president simply roll back New Deal programs that had been in place for almost 20 years and return to pre-Depression fiscal policy.

Eisenhower was so frustrated that in 1953 "he began asking his most intimate associates whether he did not have to start thinking about a new party," Robert J. Donovan wrote in his book "Eisenhower: The Inside Story," published in 1956. But Eisenhower was also a pragmatist. "He brought up the case of the Progressive Party which Roosevelt headed . . . as an example of how third parties, even though they may serve a useful purpose at the time, are unable to survive."

Eisenhower chose a different course. Rather than stalking off on his own, he decided "to persevere in trying to give the Republican Party a new viewpoint and a new complexion," Donovan noted.

The revelation of Eisenhower's third-party flirtation angered some conservatives. But working quietly, Eisenhower had already secured his grip on the Republican Party. When delegates met at the nominating convention in 1956, "modern Republicans" dominated the national committee and held party chairmanships in 41 of the 48 states.

The party's platform called for raising the minimum wage and a constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women. On civil rights, it boasted that "more progress has been made in this field under the present Republican Administration than in any similar period in the last 80 years."

Eisenhower's re-election, an even bigger landslide than his first, was probably the most effective revolution from above in modern history. And it was remarkably bold. "By emphasizing the distinction between the President and his party, what the campaign strategists did was to read Mr. Eisenhower out of the party," Richard Rovere observed in The New Yorker.

The broad issues -- involving class, race and cultural transformations -- that divided the Republican Party in the 1950s are still with us, compounded by the stresses of a globalized economy and changing demographics.

The difference is that the Republican Party's decades-long rightward movement has made it ideologically rigid. This puts candidates in a bind. They must be faithful to conservative doctrine even as they recognize that the party is at a turning point and needs to change one way or another.

This was crystallized by Jeb Bush at the second Republican debate when he declared that disagreements over immigration pointed to an identity crisis. "We're at a crossroads right now. Are we going to take the Reagan approach, the hopeful optimistic approach?" he asked. The alternative, he argued, simply "says that everything is bad, that everything is coming to an end." And yet, Bush has since pulled back, warning that America is "creeping toward multiculturalism."

With no transcendent figure like Eisenhower to turn to and no credentialed leader like Ronald Reagan with a history of appealing to moderate and independent voters, it was left to outsider candidates to expose the party's depleted ideology.  

It is not even clear that a true Republican establishment exists any longer. When Robert Siegel of NPR asked Mark McKinnon who its members might be, McKinnon was stumped. "That's a good point," he replied. "It will be the big-money donors who get together and say, we need to figure out an alternate solution. And it will be all about the money and who they back."

It is almost certainly true that a revolution from above will require big sums at some stage. But it will begin with what for the moment looks harder for the Republicans to agree on -- principles and passions that reach beyond the party's shrinking base and connect with the broader life of the nation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Sam Tanenhaus at tanenhaus.lit@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net