Are the Republicans in civil war or in the middle of an evolution? Sen. Robert A Taft (1889-1953) says it need not be the former and can be the latter. Taft, known in his day (the 1930s through ’50s) as “Mr. Republican,” possessed a personal background strikingly pertinent to the current moment. He was establishment with a capital E—not just Yale and Harvard Law but a father who’d been president. And yet he became the star legislator and leader of the party’s conservative coalition, which had a certain Main Street populist tinge. Taft contained peacefully within himself two cultural strains that now are seemingly at war.
In his personal style he was cerebral, courtly, and spoke easily, if with limited eloquence. The secret of his greatness was that everyone knew his project was not ” Robert Taft ” but something larger, the actual well-being and continuance of America. His peers chose him as one of the five best U.S. senators in history, up there with Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.What would he say about today?
“Nice talking with you even though I’m no longer with you. Out golfing with Ike one day and felt a pain in my hip. Thought it was arthritis, turned out to be cancer. It had gone pretty far, and I was gone soon after.”
Why did they call you “Mr. Republican”?
“Well, I suppose in part because I never bolted the party, and, in spite of what were probably some provocations on my part, no one managed to throw me out either. But I felt loyalty to the GOP as a great institution, one that historically stood for the dignity of the individual versus the massed forces of other spheres, such as government. I stayed, worked, fought it out.”
What is the purpose of a party?
“A theater critic once said a critic is someone who knows where we want to go but can’t drive the car. That can apply here. It is the conservatives of the party, in my view, who’ve known where we want to go, and often given the best directions. The party is the car. Its institutions, including its most experienced legislators and accomplished political figures, with the support of the people, are the driver. You want to keep the car looking good. It zooms by on a country road, you want people seeing a clean, powerful object. You want to go fast, but you don’t want it crashing. You drive safely and try to get to your destination in one piece.”
In the current dispute, he says, “both sides have something to admit. The GOP will not be a victorious national party in the future without the tea party. The tea party needs the infrastructure, tradition, capabilities—the car—in order to function as a fully coherent and effective national entity.” He feels more sympathy toward the tea party than the establishment. “Their policy aims, while somewhat inchoate, seem on the right track. They need to be clearer about what they’re for—intellectually more ordered. They can’t lead with their hearts.”
The establishment? “My goodness—lobbyists, consultants. I gather there’s now something called hedge-fund billionaires.” The establishment has a lot to answer for. “What they gave the people the past 10 years was two wars and a depression. That loosened faith in institutions and left people feeling had. They think, ‘What will you give us next, cholera?’ ”
The tea party, in contrast, seems to him to be “trying to stand for a free citizenry in the age of Lois Lerner. They’re against this professional class in government that thinks we’re a nation of donkeys pulling their wingèd chariot.
“Their impatience with the status quo is right. Their sense of urgency is right. Their insight that the party in power has gone to the left of where America really is—right on that, too.”
But the tea party has a lot to learn, and quickly. “It’s not enough to feel, you need strategy. They need better leadership, not people interested in money, power and fame. Public service requires sacrifice. I see too many self-seekers there.
“The tea party should stop the insults—’RINO,’ ‘sellout,’ ‘surrender caucus.’ It’s undignified, and it’s not worthy of a serious movement. When you claim to be the policy adults you also have to be the characterological adults. Resentment alienates. An inability to work well with others does not inspire voters.”
They should remove the chip from their shoulder. “Stop acting like Little Suzie with her nose pressed against the window watching the fancy people at the party. You’ve arrived and you know it. Forget the obsession with Georgetown cocktail parties. There hasn’t been a good one since Allen Drury’s wake.” Taft paused: “You can Google him. He wrote a book.”
Most important? “I don’t like saying this but be less gullible. Many of your instincts are right but politics is drowning in money. A lot of it is spent trying to manipulate you, by people who claim to be sincere, who say they’re the only honest guy in the room. Don’t be the fool of radio stars who rev you up for a living. They’re doing it for ratings. Stop being taken in by senators who fund-raise off your anger. It’s good you’re indignant, but they use consultants to keep picking at the scab, not to move the ball forward, sorry to mix metaphors. And know your neighbors: Are they going to elect a woman who has to explain she isn’t a witch, or a guy who talks about ‘legitimate rape’? You’ll forgive politicians who are right in other areas, but your neighbors and the media will not. Get smart about this. Don’t let the media keep killing your guys in the field. Make it hard for them. Enter primaries soberly. When you have to take out an establishment man, do. But if you don’t, stick with him but stiffen his spine.”
What should the establishment do?
“Wake up and smell the Sanka! Listen, reason, talk. Advise in friendship. Be open to debate and get broader, ask yourself questions. Deep down, do you patronize those innocents on the farms, in the hinterlands? Or perhaps you understand yourself to be a fat, happy mosquito on the pond scum that is them? You had better get a mind adjustment on that, and soon. You’re better than nobody. You had a good ride for 30 years. Now you’re going to have to work for it.”
How will a big merge happen?
“Day by day, policy by policy, vote by vote, race by race. On both sides they’ll have to keep two things in mind. A little grace goes a long way, and ‘A kind word turneth away wrath.’ ”
Ted Cruz ? Here Taft paused. “That fellow is a little self-propelled.” Another pause. “We had a saying, ‘Give him time and space to fall on his face.’ ” Others with him on the Hill, however, are “good, smart, intend to make America better, and will be a big part of the future.”
And don’t forget, Taft says, “the first Mr. Republican. Abe Lincoln. First inaugural: ‘We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies.’ Members of the party should wake up every day saying those words.”