Joe Scarborough’s on ‘The Right Path’

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor

If you were expecting Joe Scarborough’s latest book, The Right Path: From Ike to Reagan, to be a jeremiad against the tea party, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, this concise history of modern Republican politics might just leave you optimistic about the chances that conservatives can govern again.

In reading it, one can’t help but be reminded that the current GOP “civil war” is really nothing new. In many ways, past Republicans (like, say Richard Nixon) had tougher internecine challenges than many of today’s Republican candidates. Nixon, for example, often had to fight a two-front war against the right (Goldwater) and the left (Rockefeller).

And all this talk of tea party folks bolting the Republican Party? Nothing new there, either. Scarborough notes that Reagan contemplated the same thing in 1974. “Do you restore the confidence or do you change the name or something,” he wondered aloud to advisers. (A few weeks later, The Gipper would declare: “I am not starting a third party.”)

Anyone yearning for the halcyon days of a “serious” or pragmatic conservative movement will quickly be reminded that nothing uttered by a Republican nominee in 2016 will likely pose as challenging a rhetorical dilemma as Goldwater’s “extremism in defense of liberty” line.

Why does this matter? Despite all the GOP’s problems in the 1960s and 70s, they were still able to get their act together in 1980. And maybe that could happen again in 2016?

In the world of commentary, we tend to obsess over the quotidian ebbs and flows — assuming that every little bump in the road is a disaster (and it better be a big deal, because we need the ratings and page views!). But there’s something about reading the history that allows one to take a longer view and put things in context. And that’s precisely what this book does very well.

So how might things turn around in 2016? Scarborough doesn’t do a lot of preaching. It’s up to the reader to come to his own conclusions — which is arguably the best way to instruct. But here’s my take: Just as activists who backed Goldwater matured and grew more politically savvy over time (ultimately helping elect Ronald Reagan), today’s right-wing radicals might be tomorrow’s conservative Burkeans.

Of course, it helps if this maturation coincides with the arrival of an inspiring leader, and Scarborough argues that Ronald Reagan greatness partly came from his understanding that “a conservative ideology worked best when married to a moderate temperament.”

Reagan, of course, embodied this viscerally, but Scarborough argues that in 1968, “The New Nixon” (who would later revert to his resentful old self) and even Barry Goldwater moved in a more pragmatic and optimistic direction. Having spent a season proving their purity (and losing elections), after 1964, more conservatives were ready to put the divisiveness behind them.

The lesson may be that this process is cyclical, and, in fact, necessary. And it may be that there’s no way to avoid enduring the painful learning curve. But maybe — just maybe — some of the hardship can be avoided if we learn from the past. And for those who read this book, I suspect the process of revisiting this history will have a salutary effect, whereby readers may intuitively discover some of Scarborough’s lessons — by virtue of studying the trials and tribulations of Republicans like Ike, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush.

On Morning Joe, Scarborough is fond of saying “crazy never wins,” and that seems to be a theme of this book. “We like leaders who point us toward the light, not leaders who try to make us afraid of the dark,” he writes. This, he says, is especially true when it comes to electing a president. This might be his fundamental message. And it strikes me as a very good one for just this moment.