While the fringes of American politics might not have the sheer numbers, they have massive influence. In a political firefight, embattled centrists can be weakened and even done in by flanking fire.An analysis in the New York Times by Sam Tanenhaus (biographer of Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley, Jr.), makes clear that the right's distrust of Nixon (which had some sinister aspects as well) was actually, pace Perlstein, the genesis of today's culture wars. Tanenhaus argues that the same dynamic, but with an essential theological coloration, is now dogging Barack Obama. Here's an extended excerpt, but please read the whole thing:
It happened to Richard Nixon during 1973-74. The left had always hated him for his crusading anti-communism. Their antagonism was magnified by his Vietnam policies, which many so-called neoconservatives, ironically, vastly underrate to this day. But we sometimes forget that many on the right also disliked his domestic and economic policies as well as his rapprochements with China and the Soviet Union.
During Watergate, no one was surprised when leftist antiwar firebrands such as Robert Drinan and Bella Abzug demanded his resignation. But the political earth moved when they were joined in March 1974 by conservative GOP Sen. James Buckley. Buckley warned that if RN didn’t resign, Republicans would be wiped out in that November’s mid-term elections.
After learning in August 1974 that conservative lions such as Barry Goldwater had also abandoned him, President Nixon gave up the fight, even though he hadn’t yet been impeached. Republican House and Senate candidates took a massive hit in November. Indeed the party did so badly that it’s reasonable to speculate it would’ve fared better in 1974 if the President had stayed in office until the House could impeach and the Senate try him.
Perhaps remembering what had happened to Republicans that dark November, during 1998-99 most leftist Democrats, many of whom despised President Clinton, stuck by him through his impeachment crisis. Suffering no left-wing defection comparable to Buckley’s and Goldwater’s was the key to his political survival.
The dynamic was subtly different during and after Watergate. For many conservatives, after the Goldwater debacle in 1964 the issue wasn’t so much whether the GOP would dominate politics but who would dominate the GOP. Perhaps some conservatives anticipated that MR (moderate Republicanism) would be discredited along with RN.
I doubt many Republicans intentionally moderated their support for President Nixon to help pave the way for President Reagan. But their profound antipathy to many of his policies might have kept some from fighting as hard as they would have for someone they considered a true-believing conservative.Whatever conservatives’ calculations at the time, Watergate and its aftermath unquestionably revived the prospects of the Goldwater-Reagan wing of the party.
Tanenhaus's analysis rings instantly true to the practicing pastor. Rusher's crusading early-1970s Protestantism has long since burst most denominational constraints. As an Episcopalian in Orange County, California, I do ministry along the edges of the chasm that's opened between mainstream Protestantism (what Obama has been practicing as a member of the United Church of Christ) and neo-evangelicalism. Rick Warren and Saddleback Church (a Southern Baptist church that tries hard to look fashionably post-denominational) are just two miles up the freeway from St. John's, after all.
To an early supporter like the writer Andrew Sullivan, Mr. Obama’s religious journey offered possible deliverance from decades of ideological strife. “He was brought up in a nonreligious home and converted to Christianity as an adult,” Mr. Sullivan observed in a celebrated essay in the December 2007 issue of The Atlantic. “But — critically — he is not born-again. His faith, at once real and measured, hot and cool — lives at the center of the American religious experience.”
In retrospect the idea seems not only mistaken, but perhaps misbegotten, for it was premised on a misreading of America’s ideological warfare, in particular the influence of evangelical religion on the tenor of American politics....Conservatives disenchanted with the moderate presidencies of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford threatened to bolt the Republican Party, prefiguring the Tea Partiers of today.
[Conservative publisher Bill] Rusher, for one, urged restive conservatives to form a third party, the Independence Party, that would form a “great coalition” composed of “the great bulk of middle-class Protestants.” Its natural tribune, Mr. Rusher wrote, was Ronald Reagan, who would in fact go on to challenge Mr. Ford in 1976 — a campaign that had the crusading atmosphere of a third-party insurgency.
All this signaled that political protest had migrated from the fringes to the mainstream, where it remains today. Seen from this perspective, Mr. Obama, who fits the 1960s idea of a consensus politician, appears to be firmly planted in one camp, with his establishment pedigree and his urban sensibility. He has overt connections to the underclass, through his work as a community organizer, and to the overprivileged, through his Ivy League background, but little to the alienated middle class. To this group he seems not so much the outsider of his actual biography but, rather, a burnished product of “the new elite” or “the new class,” to quote terms that came into vogue in the 1970s.
Mr. Obama’s Christianity also puts him in a particular camp. He is the Christian who seems as deeply immersed in the Social Gospel as in the Gospels, who acknowledges “I didn’t have an epiphany,” and describes his faith as “both a spiritual, but also intellectual, journey.”
Besides that, ask any Roman Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, or indeed UCC congregant how often she's disclosed the name of her denomination only to have a suburban neighbor or coworker reply, "I go to a Christian church." What are we, chopped liver? Just about. Ask the teachers at a Corona, California evangelical school about it. They were fired this summer because their baptisms weren't legitimate -- the school's way of saying they weren't really Christians.
That's just what some are saying about Obama, isn't it? Not a real Christian. As good as a Muslim.
Three cheers for Sam Tanenhaus for nailing this.