GOP’s history repeats itself

In the lead-up to the 1972 elections, then-Vice President Spiro Agnew headed up something called “Operation Switch” at President Nixon’s request. His mission was to help get Southern Democratic elected officials more comfortable with Republican conservative values than their own party to switch and urge their supporters to follow.

Most Southern elected officials at the time were Democrats, and the Republican parties in the region tended to be small, elitist groups that couldn’t win elections that were often referred to by cynics as “Post Office Parties.” They were comfortable little groups of elitists eligible for patronage jobs when Republican presidents occupied the White House. Most Southern GOP leaders were quite comfortable as big fish in very small ponds and felt personally threatened at the prospect of admitting new members to their small and exclusive club.

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I served as Agnew’s chief political assistant back then, and shortly after Operation Switch launched, then-Rep. Lou Frey of Florida came to see me. He was furious. “We don’t want these people in our party,” he (literally) yelled, “because if we let ’em in, the next thing you know, they’ll be primarying us and taking over.”

That White House scene has often come to mind as newly energized voters with new concerns have, in the process of moving to the GOP, threatened the comfort level of the establishment in charge.

Panic swept the Republican establishment in 1975 as it became clear that Ronald Reagan and millions of conservative activists were threatening their comfort. They resisted in the name of keeping the “kooks” out, but eventually bowed to the inevitable. In a few years, many of those “kooks” were running a larger, more vibrant and much more successful GOP.

When Pat Robertson brought evangelicals into the party, the establishment of the time rushed to the barricades to protect their party and their positions from the new wave of “barbarians” at the gate. One GOP national committeeman famously described the new Republicans as reminiscent of “the bar scene in Star Wars.” Within a few years, many of these new recruits were part of a new establishment — and again the party benefited.

In 2008 it was the “Ron Paul people” who threatened the establishment status quo. Some party leaders schemed to marginalize and keep out the young people the maverick Texan brought with him to the party. This year it’s the Tea Party people. They are new, there are a lot of them, and they want a say. That makes the establishment of today as nervous as Operation Switch made Lou Frey more than 35 years ago.

Oh, they want their votes and hope Tea Party activists turn out and support GOP candidates in November, but they wish they hadn’t been so active in the primaries or so insistent that the party they’re joining actually respond to their concerns. Moreover, the establishment insists that where their own kind don’t prevail, the Tea Partiers get on board and support more traditional candidates — though the establishment doesn’t consider itself bound by the same rules.

The fact is that many of today’s elected Republicans are too comfortable, too out of touch or believe the party exists primarily to advance and safeguard their own careers. As their ambitions have gone down to defeat at the hands of this new wave of barbarians, they’re screaming bloody murder, joining liberals and the media to attack the newcomers. Establishment GOP leaders have allowed and even encouraged establishment losers to abandon the party, run as Independents, endorse Democrats or mount write-in campaigns against the upstarts.

All one has to do is listen to Lisa Murkowski, Charlie Crist or Mike Castle to realize that they don’t care about their party, the voters who once trusted them or the policies they say concern them. What they care about is themselves, their jobs and their place in the sun. Their words are enough to convince even the most skeptical that they got what they deserved, because they ended up being as out of touch and as egotistically patronizing as the newcomers challenging them suspected.

Many of the Tea Party-backed candidates will be elected this fall, millions of those who are taking part in the process for the first time will remain active, and many in the present GOP establishment who fought to keep them out will eventually make their peace with them. As history repeats itself, the result will be a stronger and more vibrant party. 


Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental 
consulting firm.