Now we are about to test whether one picture is worth a thousand words.
The picture is a group portrait of five Republican presidential candidates precisely one-third of a century ago. The thousand words are the ones that follow here.
In this picture, which appeared in last week’s New York Times obituary of former Gov. Pete du Pont of Delaware, is a substantial part of the history of American politics since 1988.
Only two of the five are still alive — former Sen. Bob Dole (97 years old) and the Rev. Pat Robertson (91). Former President George H.W. Bush died in 2018, and former Rep. Jack F. Kemp died in 2009.
Though the politics they practiced is long in the past — 33 years truly is an eternity in our civic life — the lessons of their lives remain.
Du Pont appears second from right in the photograph and was a plutocrat running for president as a self-proclaimed populist. I liked du Pont enormously — he was smart and fun — but in my youth (age: 32) I thought his political posture was preposterous. I demonstrated an unseemly sense of satisfaction with the first sentence of the profile I wrote about him: “The Republican Party’s newest populist carries a leather briefcase. On its side is gold embossing: P.S. du P. IV” (Wall Street Journal, April 2, 1986).
What an idiot. (Me, not him.) I thought those with huge fortunes could not be populists. We have just concluded four years that disproved my conviction, though both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt should have jogged my complacency.
To du Pont’s right is Dole. He personified Washington, its peculiar culture, and the nostrums of fiscal austerity and balanced budgets that were the calling cards of Midwestern Republicans. Newt Gingrich, then a pugnacious House backbencher, ridiculed Dole as the “tax collector of the welfare state.” Establishment Washington dismissed that remark and Gingrich himself as peripheral and essentially meaningless. Both establishment Washington and the notion of a balanced budget would be passe within years.
At the far left is George H.W. Bush. A Yale baseball captain, striped-pants diplomat, CIA spymaster, vice president and the son of a senator, he was the beau ideal of the patrician Republican, and the ascent of his two sons to governors’ mansions in two important states would only affirm that sentiment. But the repudiation of Jeb Bush in the 2016 GOP presidential race and Donald J. Trump’s disdain for dynastic Republicans signaled the end of their dominance of the party.
Right there in the middle (of the picture, not of the political spectrum) stood Kemp, a onetime Buffalo Bills quarterback who later would be secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Bush administration and Dole’s running mate in the 1996 presidential election. He was a relentless crusader for his economic prescriptions. “We’d have a Cabinet meeting,” Secretary of State James A. Baker III recalled, “and he’d want to talk about the gold standard.” The foremost advocate of supply-side economics, he pressed the notion of tax cuts onto the Reagan agenda.
That view remains at the center of the modern GOP — both George W. Bush and Trump won massive tax reductions — but one of Kemp’s other magnificent obsessions would fall to the wayside in the Trump years. In his 1979 book “An American Renaissance,” Kemp wrote:
When someone’s approach to politics is even slightly undemocratic, as the GOP has been as a party, his outlook becomes elitist and patronizing. For years I have been hearing fellow Republicans ... talk about “broadening the party’s base.” This has a nice democratic sound to it. But the programs that flow from the idea are almost always patronizing ....
The rate of Blacks describing themselves as Republicans — the party that they embraced for decades because of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and as a reaction to Democratic actions during and after Reconstruction — fell precipitously after the FDR presidency. And it dropped from 9% the year Kemp ran for president to 3% the year Trump first ran for president, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the Pew Research Center. Indeed, Richard M. Nixon (1968 and 1972), Gerald R. Ford (1976), Reagan (1980) and Dole (1996) ran stronger among Blacks than did Trump. Though he made inroads among Latinos last year, Trump’s rate was lower than that of Reagan (1980 and 1984) and George W. Bush (2000 and 2004).
Second from the left stands Robertson. His very presence in this picture — in the GOP political picture — stands as a symbol of the rise of religious conservatives in the Republican Party.
In a long-forgotten 1984 essay in The Brookings Review, the distinguished political scientist James A. Reichley wrote that white evangelical Protestants traditionally split along regional lines, with those in the South being strongly Democratic while those in the rural Northeast and Midwest and in Southern California leaned Republican. These voters, comforted by Jimmy Carter’s identity as a white evangelical Protestant himself, voted Democratic in 1976 but by 1978 were sufficiently alienated by the 39th president’s views on abortion, school prayer and gay rights that they began their long slide toward the Republican Party, a movement accelerated in 1979 with the formation of the Moral Majority. Indeed, Jerry Falwell said he would mobilize religious conservatives for Ronald Reagan “even if he has the devil running with him.” In the 1980 election, these voters sided with Reagan over Carter by a margin of nearly 2-to-1.
By the old thinking — the thinking that animated so many political commentators five years ago — these voters would be repelled by a thrice-married libertine who spoke in vulgar terms of sexual conquests, didn’t go to church and consorted with porn stars. But they stuck with a ticket that had religious conservative Mike Pence and, as Falwell might have put it, “the devil running with him” in both the 2016 and 2020 elections, when about four-fifths of them voted for the Trump ticket.
That generation-old picture is both a period piece and a piece of evidence of the way our politics have changed. It leaves us with one question: What will future commentators think of a picture of the 2020 Democratic candidates that includes Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders?