Reminiscing about the conservative movement of the 1960s

He was considered anathema to progressives; the most conservative member of the Republican Party. The time was the 1960s, and his name was William F. Buckley. He was from New York State and was publisher of the National Review, the voice of the conservative movement.

As conservative as he was, he stayed within shouting distance of the mainstream of the Republican Party. In 1960, he helped his brother, Jim, win a U.S. Senate seat. Jim Buckley ran in the combined parties of the Republicans and the Conservatives (a unique characteristic of New York State where there are actually four parties). As conservative as he was, William Buckley took a firm stance against the extreme John Birch Society, an organization that in many ways was the forerunner of today’s Tea Party. As op-ed contributor David Welch wrote in the December 3, 2012 New York Times, “the Birch Society was an influential anti-Communist group whose members saw conspiracies everywhere they looked.” The biggest challenge that Buckley had with the Birch Society was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he took on the founder of the Birch Society, Robert Welch. “Birchers demanded that the government rid itself of supposed Communists — including, according its founder, Robert Welch (no relation, thank heaven, to the op-ed column in the Times), Dwight D. Eisenhower.” Sound familiar? Keep in mind that the Birch Society was founded shortly after the Joseph McCarthy Army hearings in the U.S. Senate, an exercise that was generally considered to be a false purging of supposed Communists in and out of the U.S. governmen,t including its military.

As David Welch further states,

Fast forward half a century. The modern-day Birchers are the Tea Party. By loudly espousing extreme rhetoric, yet holding untenable beliefs, they have run virtually unchallenged by the Republican leadership, aided by irresponsible radio talk-show hosts and right-wing pundits. While the Tea Party grew, respected moderate voices in the party were further pushed toward extinction. Republicans need a Buckley to bring us back.

While  in 2010, the Tea Party did support candidates  who captured offices at both the federal and state levels, their clout waned quite a bit in 2012. All too often, Tea Party candidates won primary elections and eliminated moderate Republicans who would have had far better chances of defeating the Democratic opponents in the general elections. Perhaps the best example was in Indiana, where Tea Party candidate Richard Mourdock (a member of the so-called “rape caucus”) defeated moderate Richard Lugar in the primary race. Lugar had been the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a true scholar of international issues. He was one of the few Republicans to comfortably work with Democrats and promote bi-partisanship. Tea Partier Mourdock was soundly defeated in the general election by Democrat Joe Donnelly.

As David Welch says in the op-ed,

The absence of a Buckley-esque gatekeeper today has allowed extreme, untested candidates to take center stage and then commit predictable gaffes and issue moon-bat pronouncements. Democrats have used those statements to tarnish the Republican Party as anti-woman, anti-poor, anti-gay, anti-immigrant extremists. Buckley’s conservative pragmatism has been lost, along with the presidency and seats in Congress.

He calls for so-called moderates in the Republican Party to clean up the GOP:

Mr. Christie and Mr. [Jeb] Bush are ideally suited to drive extremists from the party. While some say Mr. Christie’s praise of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy hurt him politically, in fact it cemented his role as party truth-teller. In conjunction with his spirited defense of Sohail Mohammed, a State Superior Court judge who was absurdly attacked for allegedly wanting to impose Shariah law, Mr. Christie should be celebrated by sane people everywhere.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Christie best represent realistic, levelheaded conservatism. Both have crossed the aisle numerous times to the betterment of their states. Yet they enjoy sterling reputations in the party. This occurs when common sense trumps partisanship.

William F. Buckley, who died in 2008, demonstrated that true conservatives could define how far to the right their party could go without making their candidates unelectable or too distant from the mainstream so that it was difficult to take their ideas seriously. It may be coincidence, or it may be cause and effect, that upon his death,  the Tea Party was established and seized control of the right wing. Buckley was successful in silencing the John Birch Society; perhaps he could have done the same with the Tea Party.

About Arthur Lieber:
Since 1969, Arthur Lieber has been teaching and working in non-profit educational organizations. His focus has been on promoting critical, creative, and enjoyable learning for students in informal settings. In the 2010 mid-term elections, he was the Democratic nominee for US Congress from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.