Republican national chairman Reince Priebus could take a lesson from history in his efforts to herd his fellow elephants into a big tent. Nobody did a better job of coaxing feuding Republicans to cooperate than Ray C. Bliss, the Akron, Ohio, insurance man who chaired the national committee from 1965 to 1969. His success is worth remembering.
When Bliss became chairman in 1965, the Republicans were in much worse shape than in 2013: President Lyndon Johnson had won a landslide re-election over Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, and the Democrats held large majorities in both houses of Congress and the statehouses.
The party was deeply divided between “moderates,” such as New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, and “conservatives,” like Goldwater. The latter appeared to bless strident voices when he famously proclaimed: “Let me remind you that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Although best known as a “nuts-and-bolts” party mechanic, Bliss used a two-step approach to address these ideological rifts.
The first step was to challenge voices that made Republicans look extreme to voters. On Nov. 5, 1965, he issued an even-handed critique of “radicals” on the left and right, singling out a staunchly anti-communist firebrand Robert Welch:
“One of my major concerns in the matter of extremism of the radical right is that honest, patriotic and conscientious conservatives may be misjudged because of irresponsible radicals such as Robert Welch, who has accused President Eisenhower of being a ‘dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.’ ”
“We’ve got to get this (party) in the middle of the road,” Bliss explained. “Eisenhower and his people have taken enough.”
There was a sharp backlash. One letter writer called Bliss “sneaky” and further:
“You recently asked all Republicans to get out of the strongest and most effective anti-Communist organization in the United States. I question your motives.”
Bliss wasn’t bothered by the criticism. “I don’t have the fixation I have all the answers,” he told reporters. “Everything is compromise.”
His second step was leading Republicans to common ground.
The means was the Republican Coordinating Committee. Its members were a cross-section of the party: Eisenhower and four former presidential candidates – Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Alfred Landon and Thomas Dewey – as well as governors, members of Congress, state legislators and party leaders.
Eisenhower was a key to the committee’s work.
“He backed me up in the early days of my chairmanship,” Bliss reported. “He had the respect of all factions.”
The method was face-to-face dialogue.
“You don’t say anything nasty, at least not publicly, about somebody you’re going to dinner with tonight,” Bliss said.
The committee eventually produced 48 policy proposals, offering an alternative to President Johnson’s “Great Society” program.
In the end, Bliss got the results he wanted: The GOP made a huge comeback in the 1966 elections, and in 1968, it won back the White House.
Of course, 2013 is not 1965, Mitt Romney is no Barry Goldwater, nor is the party division identical. And the GOP may lack an Eisenhower to rally around.
Still, Chairman Priebus could take a lesson from Chairman Bliss’ success in herding the elephants into a big tent.