In search of the ‘Republican establishment’
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has accused “the establishment” of rallying behind his chief rival for the Republican nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
“Governor Romney has the money, he has the establishment, he has the internal structure,” Gingrich recently told Fox News. “He’s clearly way ahead of us in all the things that an establishment brings you.”
Rush Limbaugh and other conservative commentators echoed the charge, suggesting that the “establishment” is working against Gingrich and the other GOP presidential contenders in support of Romney.
But what, exactly, is this “establishment” they speak of?
“Well, you’ll also hear talk about the Loch Ness Monster, but I don’t believe in it and I don’t believe in a Republican establishment, which once was real, exists in any meaningful sense as a coherent and effective political force,” conservative commentator George Will told The Daily Caller, dismissing the entire notion that there even is an establishment.
American Enterprise Institute resident fellow Michael Barone concurred with Will’s assessment.
“My understanding is that ‘the Republican establishment’ was a term coined to refer to the mostly New York, WASPy types — lawyers, journalists — who swung the Republican presidential nominations to Wendell Willkie in 1940, Thomas Dewey in 1944 and 1948 and Dwight Eisenhower in 1952,” he explained to TheDC.
“They were fiercely internationalist on foreign policy and willing to accommodate the New Dealers and unions, somewhat, on domestic policy.”
But, Barone added, “It’s been a long time since people like this made decisions for the Republican Party. I think it’s hugely anachronistic to refer to ‘the Republican establishment’ any more.”
Many conservative commentators and political observers, however, staunchly disagree.
“Some people claim the Republican Establishment does not exist,” Washington Times columnist Milton Wolf told TheDC. “We have a name for those people: Establishment Republicans.”
“The Establishment is a real thing with amorphous and mutable borders,” political strategist Mary Matalin said. “Ostensibly, it is the members of formal structures (party leaders, Congressional leadership, funders, top line strategists, ideological big thinkers and opiners, etc.).”
Conservative talk radio host Mark Levin scoffs at the notion that there is no such thing as the Republican establishment.
“It is interesting that no one wants to be characterized as part of the establishment, even when they run the instrumentalities of the GOP and have never endorsed a single tea party candidate out of the gate,” he said.
“Besides, if there was not an establishment, there would be no need for the tea party.”
In TheDC’s search for “the establishment,” one name kept popping up from those who ardently believe the so-called GOP establishment is alive and well: Angelo Codevilla.
A Boston University professor emeritus in international relations, Codevilla is the author of “The Ruling Class.” In a 2010 interview with TheDC about the book, Codevilla explained that America is split not between Democrats and Republicans, but between what he terms the “Ruling Class” and the “Country Class.”
“People define themselves as ‘the ruling class’ by tying their livelihoods and hopes to government, and above all by a certain attitude toward the rest of the country,” he said.
“Neither money nor even professional position defines a person as part of the ruling class or not. Rather, membership is all about drawing one’s livelihood from one’s connection with government power, from believing that this is proper, and above all from sensing that sharing a certain set of attitudes and tastes makes one superior to ordinary Americans.”
In many ways, it seems like what Levin, Matalin and others refer as the “Republican establishment” could be seen as analogous to, or at least a subset of, Codevilla’s “Ruling Class.”
“The most revealing moment of our time, the defining event of our Establishment, came in September-October 2008, when everybody who was anybody agreed solemnly that some $800 billion to purchase big banks’ ‘toxic assets’ would save the US economy,” Codevilla told TheDC last week, arguing that he believes an establishment certainly exists.
“Three fourths of Americans disagreed and were deemed Neanderthals. But once the money was appropriated, the united geniuses changed their minds and used the cash for bailouts of favorite banks and industries. National Review and The Wall Street Journal, and Fox News signed on.”
“In sum,” he added, “these and similar worthies have agreed, mutatis mutandis, to the policies of the last generation that have given us a bloated public sector at home and no-win wars abroad.”
Will rejects the idea of an all-powerful Republican establishment, arguing that “[the establishment] died at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in 1964 when it did exist and threw its full might behind trying to get Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton to stop the Goldwater steamroller and got steamrollered instead.”
“I just don’t see the coherence, the muscle, anything else,” he said.
He said some conservatives invest so much power in what he views as a mythical establishment because they “they are cultivating a sense of grievance.”
“I am afraid that conservatives as well as liberals like to cast themselves as victims and this is what they’ve decided to be victims of which is this nameless, faceless, shadowy establishment,” he said.
“You know, there is a certain kind of person who argues about the Kennedy assassination that the very absence of evidence of a conspiracy is proof of how cunning the conspiracy was.”
“Where are they going to meet?” Will asked of those who believe a meaningful Republican establishment exists.
“They actually don’t have to meet at all, although some are undoubtedly social friends,” answers Levin. “Hell, maybe they even go on cruises together, so I’ve heard. But given that they are presumably competent with cell phones, emailing, and, most of all, can read what each writes, and maybe link to them, they don’t have to meet at all.”
“This isn’t a conspiracy, it is the nature of things,” he added.
One can’t help but get the sense that in some ways the two camps are talking past each other. What Levin, Codevilla and others seem to be talking about is more a mindset than political bosses and moneyed men deciding nomination battles in smoke-filled rooms.
“[W]hen you hear the disparaging about the establishment, I think people are generally talking about, you know, kind of that beltway mentality of people that have lost touch with what people across the country are thinking,” Tea Party Express leader Sal Russo told TheDC.
“I think there tends to be a collective thought that emerges out of Washington.”
“It is a governing class, which has its supporters and opponents, as well as a mind-set protective of its power over the individual,” said Levin. “I am talking about a mind-set that is not limited by presidential terms or incumbency and that generally accepts or is resigned to the inevitability of a big, centralized government, or in some cases encourages it.”
Pat Buchanan, a conservative commentator and former advisor to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, agrees with Will and Barone that what was historically referred to as the Republican establishment was essentially defeated in the 1960s.
“What exists of it is really less an establishment than basically the Washington based party, the leaders in both Houses of Congress, the K-Street lobbyists, many of the big fundraisers,” he told TheDC. “These are all various power bases I think. But there is nothing like what was that establishment that used to be able to impose its nominees on the party.”
“I think a Washington Consensus is probably a good term,” he added. “If you want to see this consensus, let Ron Paul win Iowa and New Hampshire.”
Asked to name names, Codevilla said to find the establishment, all you have to do is use Google.
“Just Google attacks on Newt Gingrich over the last week,” he said.
“Gingrich is neither Goldwater nor Reagan. But he is the only person left standing to challenge the certainty that, as the New York Times’ Bill Keller put it, the 2012 elections will be held between two ‘certifiably sane’ people. The folks who come up on your Google search deem themselves to be the arbiters of sanity. It does not occur to them that elections are to decide between COMPETING VERSIONS of sanity.”
“Today as in the last two generations,” he added, “the Republican Establishment’s message for Republican voters is something like ‘shut up and do as you’re told.’”
Wolf, who is incidentally the second cousin of President Obama, pointed to Will, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, conservative columnist Ann Coulter and the National Review as examples of members of the GOP establishment for attacking Newt Gingrich along the same lines.
“They’re singing the same hymn whether they’re sharing the hymnal or not,” he said. “It’s an unprofitable use of my time to figure out why they flock together — groupthink? Washington social pressure? It doesn’t matter; the end result is the same. They’re enthralled with the emperor’s new clothes and mock those who disagree.”
To Matalin, identifying who and who is not apart of the establishment isn’t exactly a science.
“[I]t is really less specific and more like pornography, that is, you know it when you see it,” she said.