We're Coming for You, John Boehner
I've been a GOP insurgent for 50 years. And I'm not done yet.
By RICHARD A. VIGUERIE
April 17, 2014
The GOP has been hijacked. That’s right, hijacked. Over the past 100 years, an elite progressive minority has taken the Republican Party far afield from its conservative platform and the interests and values of its grassroots conservative base.
I’ll admit that, in the aftermath of the disappointments of the 2012 elections, conservatives like me are angry.
We are angry at being blamed for Mitt Romney’s defeat, when we argued from the beginning that he was a Big Government establishment politician and that if he ran a content-free campaign, he would lose.
We are angry at the disrespect shown to limited-government constitutional conservatives who were delegates to the 2012 Republican National Convention. We are angrier still when members of Congress, whom we elected, and who want to use the democratic process to push policies based on conservative principles, are told to “get their ass in line” by Speaker of the House John Boehner, and to go along with the Republican Party leadership’s betrayal of conservative principles—or else.
It’s time for conservatives to channel that anger. It’s time to take our party back.
In some ways, I was a Tea Partier before there was a Tea Party.
I vividly remember back in 1952 when, as a 19-year-old kid too young to vote (you had to be 21 at that time), I sat in a polling place in Houston, Texas, from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., trying to help “Mr. Conservative,” Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, win the Republican nomination for president. It mostly ended up being a “family values” moment, when the only people to vote that day in my precinct were my mother and father.
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Republicans were rare birds in Texas in 1952, and I’m sure plenty of my college friends thought I was nuts for spending my time on politics, particularly Republican politics.
Since Reconstruction, no Republican in Texas had been elected governor or senator. Republican elected officials in Texas were few and far between, with the GOP existing largely as a patronage party to claim federal appointments during the times when there was a Republican in the White House.
From my perch out in Houston’s Harris County, it looked like Taft had it wrapped up. After all, he had won the most votes in the primaries, had the most delegates going into the Republican National Convention, and despite frontrunner Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s status as a war hero, Taft was the favorite of the grassroots activists of the GOP.
But Taft was not the favorite of the Eastern establishment leaders of the National Republican Party; they worked all out to hand the nomination to Eisenhower, and when Senator Taft was defeated, I was surprised and disappointed, but I was not dissuaded from my interest in conservative politics.
Making sure that I was on the winning side wasn’t what interested me; making sure the right side won did.
Fast-forward to Sept. 11, 1960, and a meeting at the family home of William F. Buckley, Jr. in Sharon, Connecticut: The Sharon Statement, primarily drafted by author and educator M. Stanton Evans, and still one of the most compelling statements of conservative principles and values ever written, was adopted and signed by the 90-some young attendees.
The Sharon Statement, in its eloquent homage to liberty and limited government, has stood the test of time. With the exception of its provision regarding international Communism (for which we might today substitute radical Islam), it is still relevant. Young Americans for Freedom was launched, and with it began the modern conservative movement we know today.
Less than a year later, in August 1961, I became executive secretary of Young Americans for Freedom, and because we needed to raise money to build the organization, I began to learn how to market the conservative ideas, principles and values for which we stood.
For those born in the Internet age or after the advent of cable TV, it may be hard to imagine how difficult the job of marketing conservatism and conservative ideas was in 1961. To this day, the New York Times carries on its front page the motto “All the news that’s fit to print,” and in 1961, as it is today, liberals were largely in charge of deciding what was fit to print in the establishment press and what wasn’t.
The conservative print media was small; Human Events was an eight- to 12-page newsletter, the National Review was just getting started, and YAF’s publication, the New Guard, first edited by Lee Edwards, now a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, had just a few thousand subscribers.
It was hard, if not impossible, to find the conservative point of view on television. Walter Cronkite of CBS and his establishment media colleagues at ABC and NBC would go on air at 6:30 p.m., and by 7:00 p.m. America would have been told what to think— and it wouldn’t be that communism was evil and dangerous and that lower taxes, less government and more freedom were good ideas.
This remained true into the 1970s and 1980s, even as Ronald Reagan rose to national prominence and won two landslide elections.
If you were a conservative on a college campus or in a suburban neighborhood reading the newspapers and watching TV, you were marooned in a world where the elite opinion makers of New York and Washington found your ideas fit to be ignored or attacked, but not printed or aired.
The one means we had to get our message out, to share ideas and to bypass the establishment media filter was direct mail—the first and longest-lived form of new and alternative media.
I didn’t set out to change the media or the media culture by applying the techniques of commercial direct marketing to conservative politics; we simply needed money to run Young Americans for Freedom and it was my job to raise it—a job that became all the more urgent after our conservative standard-bearer, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, was obliterated in the 1964 election.
Goldwater—the candidate of the New West and conservatives— had won the Republican nomination over the strong objections of the Eastern establishment Republican leaders. Once he had the nomination in hand, they did little to help him and much to hurt him, and when he went down in flames, they were quick to blame conservatives for the party’s defeat and do their best to purge Goldwater supporters from the GOP.
If things look bleak for conservatives today, trust me: Conservatives were in a darkness of biblical proportions after Goldwater’s defeat.
The long knives of the Republican establishment were out for anyone who had supported Goldwater or who questioned the “go-along, get-along” attitude of the party’s congressional leaders whose failure to stand for conservative principles had assigned Republicans to what appeared to be the status of a permanent minority on Capitol Hill.
Plenty of conservatives then, and throughout the early years of the rise of the modern conservative movement, thought that the only way to advance the cause of conservative governance was to form a third party.
William F. Buckley, Jr. disagreed. Buckley argued that conservatives should take over the Republican Party, while others, such as the author Ayn Rand, argued for a separate movement and a third party.
Angry as we were about the criticism verging on sabotage Senator Goldwater received from the Republican establishment, and as insulted as some conservatives were over the personal attacks they received at the hands of establishment Republicans, we had a sense that even though Goldwater had lost the election, his grassroots support demonstrated that millions of Americans thought he was right on many issues.
Believe it or not, to many of us in the conservative movement, Buckley’s plan to take over the Republican Party made more sense than ever—even after Goldwater’s defeat.
We saw the establishment leadership of the Republican Party as intellectually bankrupt, and we believed that if we could just get the message out, we could, as the late Margaret Thatcher allegedly said, “First win the argument and then win the vote.”
So rather than bolt the Republican Party, most conservatives cinched up their belts; started new publications, think tanks, policy advocacy organizations and newfangled political committees (called political action committees); and began to build a new conservative coalition around the two issues that attracted those millions of grassroots supporters to Goldwater’s cause: anti-Communist national defense conservatism and economic conservatism, or what the Sharon Statement called economic liberty.
In 1961, when I became executive secretary of Young Americans for Freedom, I soon began to learn the power of fund-raising and marketing through direct mail.
As executive secretary of YAF, I came into contact with people like Bill Buckley, Bill Rusher, Frank Meyer, and other luminaries of the conservative movement. I tried to get as caught up as I could in the classics of conservative thought, but it didn’t take long for me to realize I’d never really catch up.
This led me to recognize that while we conservatives had some talented thinkers, writers, candidates and elected officials, what we didn’t have were marketers. I made a conscious decision to fill that niche—that hole in the marketplace—by immersing myself in the study of marketing for the next 10 years, and to this day I still spend two to three hours a day six days a week studying marketing.
In the aftermath of Goldwater’s defeat, I launched my own direct-mail company. With $4,000 in savings to back the venture—and a firm belief that those anti-Communist national defense conservatives and economic conservatives who had supported Goldwater could be motivated to support other conservative candidates, organizations and causes—I formed the Richard A. Viguerie Company, Inc. and began the journey of pioneering ideological/political direct mail on behalf of the conservative movement.
My first client was Young Americans for Freedom; however, in one of the frequent upheavals typical of an organization run by a bunch of college kids, I lost the account within six weeks. But other business soon came along.
From the start, the company grew quickly, and I came to work with many of the key organizations and candidates of the New Right and the modern conservative movement, including the Conservative Caucus, the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, the National Conservative Political Action Committee, the National Right to Work Committee, the American Conservative Union, Sen. Jesse Helms’s National Congressional Club and Gun Owners of America. We also helped market many of the early stars of the conservative movement who sought elective office, such as congressmen Phil Crane and Bob Dornan, Ron Paul, John Ashbrook, Sens. Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, California state senator H. L. “Bill” Richardson, and candidates Max Rafferty, Howard Phillips, Jeff Bell and G. Gordon Liddy.
The coalition of national defense conservatives and economic conservatives appealed to millions of voters whom the Viguerie Company reached and energized through direct mail to create what you might call a “two-legged stool.” It could, and did, win some elections, but with only two legs it wasn’t yet a stable, winning national coalition.
It was Reagan who had the insight—perhaps genius is a better term—to create his winning political movement by adding a third leg: social conservatives.
Reagan didn’t originate the idea. Astute observers of national politics, such as Tom Ellis of North Carolina, had already seen the unharnessed political potential of Evangelical Christians, but the idea of organizing the Religious Right into a political committee perhaps formed first in the minds of Paul Weyrich and Rev. Jerry Falwell.
Their vision came to fruition at a meeting between Bob Billings, Ed McAteer, Howard Phillips, Weyrich and Falwell, who came together at Falwell’s office in Lynchburg, Virginia, to brainstorm what eventually became the “Moral Majority.”
Led by Reverend Falwell and run by his executive assistant Ron Godwin, the Moral Majority quickly became the largest and most effective conservative organization in the country.
Still, the combined political power of the marriage of the California free market-oriented entrepreneurs, advocates of a strong national defense and socially conservative pastors and social commentators who led the Reagan coalition wasn’t obvious in the beginning, and it certainly made establishment Republicans uncomfortable.
But it worked, and as long as Republicans hewed to the principles that held it together, they won three landslide presidential elections: 1980, 1984 and 1988.
Later, when they set those principles aside as they did in 1992, 1996, 2008 and 2012, they lost—big-time. Many observers will be tempted to blame external factors for these election defeats, but the common thread that ran through all of these lost elections was that Republicans failed to define themselves as the party of less government. Cut through all the insider commentary and what really distinguishes the Republican establishment from conservatives is that establishment Republicans like big government and the spending, taxes and regulations that go with it. And if the choice is between Big Government Republicans and Big Government Democrats, the Republicans almost always lose.
In 2009 a fourth leg was added to the Reagan coalition—the limited-government constitutional conservatives of the Tea Party movement, who were unfettered by ties to the old Republican establishment and represented the forgotten men and women of America whom Angelo Codevilla identified as “the Country Class” in his essay “America’s Ruling Class—and the Perils of Revolution” in the July-August 2010 issue of the American Spectator.
As a result of adding this fourth leg to their coalition, the GOP was swept back into control of the House of Representatives and came within striking distance of a Senate majority. A reenergized Republican Party elected thousands of down-ballot candidates.
Unfortunately, unlike the wise conservative leaders who built the Reagan coalition, men such as Nevada senator Paul Laxalt, Lyn Nofziger, Dick Allen, Ed Meese, Marty Anderson, Jeff Bell, Tom Ellis and William Clark, between 2010 and 2012 today’s establishment Republican leaders did their best to alienate and marginalize the new conservative voting bloc of the Tea Party movement.
For many on the right, these frustrations have boiled over into new calls for the formation of a third party, especially from some Tea Party movement supporters and libertarian-minded conservatives who were attracted to the presidential candidacy of Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
However, the arguments against a third party are the same now as they were when Bill Buckley and Ayn Rand first jousted over where conservatives should find their political home a half a century ago. The bottom line is that although third-party movements, such as Libertarians, have gained some recognition and added to their numbers, they haven’t actually been electing candidates to office. Limited-government constitutional conservatives running as Republicans win, but the same candidates, with the same ideas, running as Libertarians, lose.
Ron Paul admitted as much when he said no one would have paid any attention to him or his ideas if he had run as a Libertarian, and there is no doubt that his son Rand would not be a U.S. senator if he had run as a Libertarian instead of as a Republican.
But there is good news and bad news in Libertarian ideas. The good news is that, while as yet imperfectly realized, Libertarian ideas have had a powerful influence on the 21st-century conservative movement, and due in part to Libertarian influence, the Republican Party may truly become the party of less regulation, lower taxes and more personal freedom. This certainly hasn’t always been the case; consider that fewer than 40 years ago the EPA was established and wage and price controls were instituted under Republican President Richard Nixon.
The bad news is that many in the national and state Libertarian parties actually pride themselves on being destroyers, and when they lose a primary or otherwise don’t get their way, rather than selling themselves and their ideas harder, they try to “teach Republicans a lesson” by running a third-party candidate and thereby causing the Republican candidate to lose, as happened in the November 2013 Virginia governor’s race, when Ken Cuccinelli, one of the most principled limited-government constitutional conservatives ever to seek statewide office in America, was defeated because a Libertarian candidate siphoned off enough conservative votes to elect Terry McAuliffe, a radical liberal Democrat.
This is a bad way to sell your ideas in the best of times; it is dangerous to the future of the country if a splintering of the conservative coalition returns conservatives to permanent minority status in America.
Yes, Ron Paul and his delegates to the 2012 Republican Convention were treated in a ham-handed way by Reince Priebus and other establishment Republicans.
Yes, it makes all of us angry when John Boehner, who was made speaker of the House through the efforts of millions of Tea Party movement voters and volunteers, refers to limited-government constitutional conservatives as “knuckle-draggers.”
But the future of this country is more important than the personal slights and short-term wins or losses that any candidate and his adherents might suffer.
It’s important to focus on the big picture. Movement conservatives have been steadily working the plan envisioned by “the Buckley generation” for over 50 years. We have made great progress in the Republican Party, and more important, in public opinion at large.
For more than 20 years, polls have shown that Americans, by a two-to-one margin, self-identify as conservatives. Today, a record number of Americans—60 percent according to the Gallup Organization’s governance poll—say that the federal government has too much power. This follows on an earlier Gallup poll in which 64 percent of those responding said the greatest threat to freedom is Big Government—and the biggest jump in that fear is among Democrats. Conservatives and libertarian-minded voters should see that as a sign that American opinion is moving in our direction.
In the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat, and the discrediting of the Republican establishment that tied the future of the Party to Romney’s content-free campaign, now is not the time for conservatives to give up on the Republican Party and bolt to a third party. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to finish the job we started more than 50 years ago and complete the takeover of the GOP.
In large measure we conservatives have accomplished Baroness Thatcher’s first step; we are winning the argument. Now is the time to take over the Republican Party and start winning the vote.