In his marvelously insightful book, A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr., Alvin S. Felzenberg recalls the 1960 presidential contest when the National Review founder saw then-candidate Richard Nixon as “less the leader of the GOP than as the ‘amalgamator’ of all the forces that composed it.” More than a half century later, a sensible survey of the Republican Party reveals that Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and President Donald Trump are, likewise, “amalgamators.” They share similar Nixonian propensities.
Despite the differences in their personalities and philosophies, Baker and Trump understand 2017 politics: Recalcitrant Republicans — particularly conservatives — can be circumvented in the political process, and more importantly, in the creation of public policy. Baker and Trump exhibit a marked disdain for real conservatives. As did Nixon.
Writing for National Review in 2013, commemorating Nixon’s 100th birthday, John Fund reasoned that the president “governed more as a liberal than anything else.” Nixon, he wrote, “didn’t really like or trust conservatives, even if he hired a bunch of them.” Furthermore, “he used them and freely abandoned their principles when convenient.”
Fund cited Nixon’s numerous liberal domestic initiatives, such as creating the Environmental Protection Agency and calling for universal healthcare. These initiatives also included sweeping regulations on the economy (wage controls), affirmative action (employment quotas), and massive increases in welfare (Food Stamps). And international initiatives (opening up to China). Such actions reflected Nixon’s own background and association with what Nixon himself called the “progressive” wing of the party.
Fund concluded that “at best, it’s the record of a progressive Republican who, in the end, didn’t view conservatism as a valid governing philosophy — even though it was the basis of the republic created by the Founding Fathers.”
Today, a political amalgamator is understood as one who feels compelled to forge bipartisan coalitions with the hope that it produces suitable progress for those believing that government — at all levels — is dysfunctional. The urgency for bipartisanship is especially acute for Baker and Trump, neither of whom who hold a core political philosophy other than a kind of modulating progressivism, which floats from one issue to the next. They must know — especially Baker — that while this may be a glamorous way of governing, it is a hazardous way for securing their future. For Baker, this is strategic; for Trump, it is more tactical.
But the message is clear: Amalgamate Republicans incinerate conservatives.
Last year, Robin Price Pierre, writing in The Atlantic, believed that Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign bore a “striking resemblance to the 2016 presidential race: Both have highlighted primal American fears.” The 1968 election, Pierre suggested, offered insight into why Trump’s supporters identified themselves as the “Silent Majority,” a term that Nixon employed to describe the electorate “whose fears and insecurities he successfully rode into the White House.”
Both elections ultimately signaled that “America, its values, and its power structure were under threat by a violent, liberal agenda.” Like Nixon in 1968, Trump in 2016 came into office after eight years of progressive governing. And those respective elections heralded shifts in political power and rhetorical discourse.
This past March, conservative commentator Mark Levin, on Facebook, asked, “Is Trump channeling Nixon?” On his syndicated radio show he said that there is a “Nixonian aspect to this administration.” Massive spending proposals on infrastructure and family-leave entitlements, coupled with talk of severe protectionism have fed Levin’s frenzy. He bemoaned the lack of any constitutional conservatives in Trump’s most senior policy and political circles. Those closest to the president include nationalist populists and progressive liberals, he noted. But no conservatives.
In the wake of Trump’s Sept. 6 agreement with Democrats — not Republicans — on spending (the continuing resolution), the debt ceiling, and Hurricane Harvey aid, Levin again spoke of the president’s “Nixonian habits.” Trump’s recent actions were “lurching left,” raising fears that he would continue in that direction.
Levin warned that “radical progressives,” including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, with whom Trump has suddenly and surprisingly become friendly — “have absolutely no intention of supporting bipartisan government.”
At the White House, on Sept. 13, with Trump speaking to a “bipartisan group” and working in a “bipartisan fashion” (his phrasings), the real news wasn’t a purported deal he sought on DACA, over dinner with Pelosi and Schumer. The real news was Trump declaring, in response to a reporter’s question about skeptical conservatives: “Well, I’m a conservative,” and “if we can do things in a bipartisan manner that will be great.”
Like Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency, Trump is a cryptoconservative: virtual, speculative and fleeting. A novelty. But the megalomaniac Trump is intent on using cryptographic techniques to strike any deal; whether or not a good deal, whether or not with Republicans, is irrelevant.
Baker suffers no such grandiose illusions. But he also tears a big page out of the Nixon playbook. Only more emphatically.
His first attempt at purging the party of conservatives began during the 2014 primary season, at the Massachusetts Republican Party nominating convention, in a nasty fight with Tea Party member Mark Fisher. The party ultimately settled a lawsuit in early 2015 with Fisher, for which he was paid $240,000.
The lawsuitcame from this situation: In Massachusetts a GOP candidate must receive 15 percent of the vote of delegates at convention to secure a position on the primary ballot. Baker’s people say that Fisher never achieved that threshold but Fisher’s people asserted that Baker suppressed convention votes on Baker’s favor, effectively manipulating the vote against Fisher. So Fisher sued. He ultimately got on the primary ballot but it made no difference. The settlement was reached after the 2014 gubernatorial general election.
In the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic, Molly Ball called Baker a “technocrat” who, during the 2014 gubernatorial election, “aggressively promoted his liberal stances on hot-button issues.” Boston liberals, Ball wrote, “seem grateful to Baker for being a Republican they can get behind.” Shortly after Baker’s victory, he assembled a bipartisan cabinet “that included several Democrats and independents.” No mention of conservatives. (A Boston area blogger observing the transition said Baker’s team took “a nonpartisan approach to state government and its problems.”)
Ball wondered if Baker’s election augurs a return to liberal Republicanism reminiscent of Nelson Rockefeller. But the governor did not see himself as a model for others. He is not a model. Rather, he is an anomaly: A progressive masquerading as a Republican, who enjoys a 71 percent approval rating (higher than Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s) in a progressive state with a legislature dominated (over 80 percent) by Democrats.
That characterization now needs a thorough reassessment. Today, Baker resembles a Nixonian conservative, which is to say progressive Republican. Which is to say not a conservative.
In retrospect, Baker is about as affectionate to conservatives as sharks are to seals; his lurch left over the last 12 months has been remarkable. He appointed a progressive, Rosalin Acosta, as labor secretary. He angered conservatives for vowing to replace Planned Parenthood funding with state dollars if Washington pulls its support for the program. And incrementalism will not fix the troubled MBTA transit system or the state’s towering indebtedness and unfunded pension obligations. These problems were indeed created by partisan progressives over decades, who certainly did not consider bi-partisanship while committing such grand malfeasance. These problems desperately need definitive conservative solutions. What happened to fiscal conservatism?
There are worrisome challenges looming on Baker’s horizon.
Just last month, Joe Battenfeld in the Boston Herald alarmingly reported that some leading conservatives simply won’t vote for Baker in next year’s gubernatorial race. And last June, Jim O’Sullivan, in The Boston Globe, wrote that the governor “recently told his fund-raisers that he wants nearly a third of Democrats and almost three in five independent voters to support him.” Baker, O’Sullivan admitted, “holds greater appeal among moderates and less among the GOP base.” He won in 2014 by a margin of only 40,000 votes, or less than 2 percent. His political calculus may discount Republicans and conservatives in 2017 but Baker will need every one of the state’s 479,237 registered Republicans, who still account for nearly 11 percent of all registered voters, in 2018 to win reelection.
With perverse irony, it is possible that Baker and Trump might, at their peril, galvanize conservatives. Classical conservatives, furious at being sidelined, could coalesce with libertarian progressives to forge a new political partnership, a disruptive third party. There is still time in Massachusetts to do this as a form of protest, to punish Baker’s leftward drift. He surely loses with substantial vote-splitting.
Conservatives could simply stay home, too. As Felzenberg summarizes Bill Buckley’s thinking during the 1960 presidential election between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon: “‘We actually increase our leverage,’ Buckley told a friend, ‘by refusing to join the parade’.”