The thing about Americans not knowing their own history? It’s true even for family history, apparently. From the pages of the New York Times comes John G. Taft, pretending that his grandfather Robert was a Reasonable Republican:
As I write, a photograph of my grandfather, Senator Robert Alphonso Taft, looks across at me from the wall of my office. He led the Republican Party in the United States Senate in the 1940s and early 1950s, ran for the Republican nomination for president three times and was known as “Mr. Republican.” If he were alive today, I can assure you he wouldn’t even recognize the modern Republican Party, which has repeatedly brought the United States of America to the edge of a fiscal cliff — seemingly with every intention of pushing us off the edge.
Throughout my family’s more than 170-year legacy of public service, Republicans have represented the voice of fiscal conservatism. Republicans have been the adults in the room. Yet somehow the current generation of party activists has managed to do what no previous Republicans have been able to do — position the Democratic Party as the agents of fiscal responsibility.
Taft (John G.) compares the Ted Cruz-led GOP to the radical Republicans of the McCarthy era and concludes that just as Very Serious Republicans, like his grandfather, eventually suppressed and eliminated the stain of McCarthyism from the Republican Party, so must today’s Very Serious Republicans marginalize Cruz and his ilk:
There is more than a passing similarity between Joseph McCarthy and Ted Cruz, between McCarthyism and the Tea Party movement. The Republican Party survived McCarthyism because, ultimately, its excesses caused it to burn out. And eventually party elders in the mold of my grandfather were able to realign the party with its brand promise: The Republican Party is (or should be) the Stewardship Party. The Republican brand is (or should be) about responsible behavior. The Republican party is (or should be) at long last, about decency.
This is the Reagan Reinvention slightly adapted for an earlier generation of right-wing radical. You cannot remove politicians and ideologues from their social, political, and ideological context and imagine that they would somehow hew to exactly the same principles if they were alive today, in this political landscape. Ronald Reagan was an extremist for his time, not a moderate, and there’s no reason to assume he would not also be an extremist today. As far as Taft was concerned, Corey Robin did the honors (please go read the whole thing):
First, it’s important to remember that in 1946, the year McCarthy was elected to the Senate, Taft was the leader of the conservative Senate Republicans who were eager to use redbaiting to help Republicans get elected. Taft had no compunction about claiming that the legislative agenda of Democrats in Congress “bordered on Communism.”
In addition, the anticommunist provision of Taft-Hartley was one of the more potent pieces of legislation contributing to the developing atmosphere of Cold War hysteria around communism. That provision mandated that all unions seeking the protections of the Wagner Act had to have their leaders take an oath affirming that they were neither members nor supporters of the Communist Party or any other organization seeking the overthrow of the United States government. That provision provoked a wave of red-baiting and red-hunting within and around the labor movement, which proved to be a kind of social corollary to what the government was doing in and around the executive branch.
Taft was not the opponent or even just the helpmate of this repression; he was a leading agent of it. More than three years before anyone outside of Wisconsin had even heard of Joseph McCarthy.
But on the question of McCarthy himself, the record is clear: Taft did not merely “allow” the man and the ism to dominate; Taft actively coddled, encouraged, and supported him and it at every turn.
I imagine that John Taft’s fond recollection of his grandfather’s Serious Centrism and his glorious retaking of the GOP from the McCarthyite fringe is part wishful reminiscence/family lore, part conscious political myth, and part ignorance. But it would be great if the rest of us knew the real story.