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Republicans Should Look Back to the Future

When Republicans met at a governors' conference recently to consider their party's future, many of them complained that conservatives had lost their way. They pointed to Ronald Reagan's victories in the 1980s as the best model for rebuilding the GOP after its 2008 defeat. Reagan proved successful, they argued, because he stressed bedrock conservative principles.

But they're wrong. This isn't the Reagan era. Republicans would be better off looking for a model more relevant to our times.

In the 1980s, conservatism brought fresh ideas and ideology to deal with the nation's troubling economic and diplomatic crises. Not today. Anyway, the American electorate is now distrustful of ideological stands.

The example of a more pragmatic leader from the past, Dwight D. Eisenhower, looks like a much better example for a Republican revival than the ideological Reagan. Eisenhower rescued the party in the 1950s by calling for "Modern Republicanism," a term that connoted moderate and flexible conservatism.

Before Eisenhower's 1952 presidential victory, Republicans were frequently battered in national elections by their association with the Great Depression. The popularity of Franklin D. Roosevelt's political reforms also hurt their cause. During the 1930s and 1940s, many Americans thought Republicans were too wedded to a stuffy, traditionalist ideology. Voters repeatedly denied them the presidency.

Eisenhower brought new energy to the GOP by presenting himself as both a conservative and a progressive. Not many of today's leaders offer that combination. At the recent governors' conference only a few suggested that the current political situation called for truly new thinking about the meaning of conservatism.

Ike championed basic concerns of the right such as limited government, cuts in federal spending, and fiscal responsibility, including a balanced budget. As a popular general who led the Allies to victory in Europe during the Second World War, he projected an image of strength on national defense.

Yet Eisenhower recognized that the American public welcomed FDR's New Deal reforms that helped the aged, the unemployed, union workers and farmers. He stated bluntly, "Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history."

Eisenhower also rejected the laissez-faire approach of ideologues on the right. He spoke often of "freedom" and wanted to reduce the intrusions of government into the activities of individuals and businesses. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that government had an important role to play in American life.

He liked to quote Abraham Lincoln, who stated: “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves -- in their separate, and individual capacities. In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.”

Today's Republicans are so committed to anti-government convictions that they seem uncomfortable endorsing the balanced outlook of America's first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln.

The Republicans' turn away from moderation appeared most dramatically four years after Eisenhower retired from the White House. At the GOP's 1964 convention, enthusiasts for Barry Goldwater's presidential bid packed the hall. Nelson Rockefeller, a New Yorker who had also been a Republican candidate for president, believed radicals were seizing control of the party. He made a last-ditch effort to stop them by warning of "the extremist threat, its danger to the party, and danger to the nation." The crowd shouted "Boo!" and "We want Barry!" A thunderous roar drowned out Rockefeller's words. Goldwater later received his party's nomination for president, and he pleased the delegates by proclaiming that "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice."

The association with extremism contributed to Goldwater's defeat in the 1964 presidential election. Yet in later years the GOP moved farther and farther in the direction of a militant right-wing ideology. That shift eventually produced some notable political gains, but it also created grave problems that now haunt the party. Goldwater himself eventually became irritated by the Republicans' attachment to emotion-laden "social issues." In recent years other Republicans have expressed dismay over the extremes to which their party's leaders have promoted aggressive foreign policies and radical versions of laissez faire.

Most GOP leaders assessing their party's recent electoral disaster are claiming that the Republicans' mistake was not to remain conservative enough in recent years. They want a return to basics and claim that Ronald Reagan showed them how to do it.

But a better model for political reform lies in the pragmatic approaches advanced by Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s. Ike recognized that the political environment was changing. He responded successfully to new conditions by promoting moderate conservatism and modern Republicanism.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.