The subject of not one, but two best-selling biographies (this one and this one) published in the last 18 months, the record of Dwight Eisenhower has many historians and political pundits pining for the days of strong, pragmatic leadership. Consider Joe Scarborough’s upcoming book, The Right Path: From Ike to Reagan, How Republicans Once Mastered Politics – and Can Again, where the Republican commentator begs today’s conservatives to favorably compare Ike with Ronald Reagan in their practical approaches to politics.
So it is with added interest that I look at the wall in my office here at Pepperdine to see a copy of a letter from Eisenhower himself, written to my father-in-law who was then the Director of the Claremont Republican Club. It was 1963, and as the newly elected head of the group, my father-in-law wrote to Eisenhower asking for his definition of Republicanism. On his personal “DDE” stationery, sent from Gettysburg, Ike’s reply should be taken seriously by today’s Republicans…particularly those here in California.
To quote from the original letter (here’s a scanned copy of it):
“Republicanism means the untiring support of our Constitutional System of separated and balanced governmental powers and of the retention by the States and people of the powers reserved to them by that instrument.
Republicanism makes the individual its first concern in the making of governmental policy and assures his equality of opportunity with all others. It strives to create conditions in which the citizen’s initiative, ability and freedom of decision can flourish as the mainspring of our economy, rejecting those sophisticated theories that tend to increase governmental control over him and the nation’s economy. It insists that national self-respect can be sustained only when we, except in emergency, pay as we go, refusing to pass on to succeeding generation the bills which we have incurred for our own purposes. It resists financial recklessness in government or the erosion of the values of our currency.
In short, Republicans stand for sound, responsible and always progressive government.”
My guess is that for many Republicans reading this, Ike had your support up until those last three words. It’s unfortunate that in the half-century since Eisenhower typed them, those words have been distorted from their original meaning. But Ike was referring the Republican Party’s significant history of fighting concentrated power in all its forms, and developing mechanisms for greater civic participation.
As Joel Kotkin wrote recently in the Orange County Register, “Historically, progressives were seen as partisans for the people, eager to help the working and middle classes achieve upward mobility even at expense of the ultrarich.” California’s history and political culture have been uniquely influenced by Progressive Republicans who demanded greater public engagement in policy-making through institutions like the Initiative and Referendum.
Remember, Ike was a Republican who – knowing better than anyone the power and importance of the American military – still warned, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex” in his Farewell Address given just two years prior to the above quoted letter.
In this same speech, Ike cautioned against a burgeoning technocracy shielded from the public by the administrative state: “Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific technological elite.” Ike urged that the only two things that can combat this threat are “statesmanship” and “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry.”
Look at California today. What are the major interests influencing policy?
I would point to a “governmental-public sector union complex” that controls most of the major policy and political decisions in this state on issues ranging from economic development to education. To understand its self-centered power, read this piece by my friend Marti Brown in the SacBee. Brown, a lifelong Democrat and retiring council member from the once-bankrupt City of Vallejo, warns, “The Democratic Party has become too dependent on public safety unions to fund its campaigns…this cozy relationship is damaging the good work of every elected official who should be focused on improving the quality of life for all of our citizens not just those who are union members.”
Though rarely viewed in these terms, this “governmental-public sector union complex” is the most anti-progressive force in California politics and policy, fighting against most anything that would bring greater transparency and civic engagement to policy-making whether in the Legislature or through our Initiative and Referendum.
California waits for a Republican Party that once again sees itself as fighting for “all of our citizens” (as Brown pleads) – “refusing to pass on to succeeding generations the bills which we have incurred for our own purposes” – against the entrenched interests of the Sacramento bureaucracy, to “stand for sound, responsible,” and yes, “always progressive government.”