by Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – President Donald Trump’s new target for Tweet Ire – at least for a couple of days last week – is the Freedom Caucus, the two-or-three-dozen conservative lawmakers who work in a coalition which regularly meets off-the-record.
In a March 30 tweet, the nation’s chief executive said, “The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!”
The response to this has been … not good among most conservatives.
I can’t help but contrast the behavior of the nominal head of the Grand Old Party during certain recent events with Ronald Reagan’s behavior when he was in power. I particularly remember something that happened when Reagan was running for president in 1980.
One of the other GOP hopefuls (there were several) was U.S. Rep. Phil Crane of Illinois, a former chairman of the American Conservative Union. Crane ultimately served a total of 35 years in the U.S. House. He has faded from the memories of many, but he earned his shot at the presidency. He was an important figure in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, and wrote stirring essays (and books) on issues during the last four decades of the Twentieth Century. He was a “player,” in his day and in his own way.
In the early stages of that 1980 campaign, Crane worked hard to position himself to the “Right” of the Gipper.
Truth be told, those who were active in politics remember that on some issues, Crane actually had a point. But Reagan was Reagan, and his conservative bona fides were secure.
When reporters or presidential primary voters pressed Reagan to respond to Crane’s criticisms, the former California governor occasionally responded briefly but with no hostility. His answers were sometimes substantive, sometimes not, but always genial.
And then there were those times Reagan would just grin and observe, “Well, you know how Phil is. Sometimes the right hand doesn’t know what the far-right hand is doing.”
Crane couldn’t help but smile along with everyone else, and the point had been made.
Before long in that memorable 1980 cycle, Crane stepped back and supported Reagan (whom he had backed robustly in the 1976 cycle).
Speaking of Phil Crane, when I was a young conservative activist in the 1970s while attending Oklahoma State University, I encountered him on several occasions during trips to the nation’s capital area (where my wife and I went to live in 1980). Phil and his wife Arlene (who died in 2012) had seven children. He used to quip, “Right now we can’t outvote the liberals, so Arlene and I have decided to out-produce them.” Occasionally he would add with a big grin, with his arm around her: “It’s kind of fun working on that.”
Like many other leaders, Crane might have tried to hold on to power too long.
In 2002, Democrat Melissa Bean ran a strong campaign against him, saying he’d grown too comfortable taking lobbyist-funded trips and similar perks in D.C. In the next election, she defeated him narrowly. He lived out his remaining years quietly.
When Crane died in 2014, The Chicago Tribune fashioned a respectful news obituary about his long career, the influence he had on family and friends, and his unrelenting conservatism. And, the reporters treated with kindness the struggles with alcohol that contributed to his political decline.
Phil was pro-free-trade and meant it, helping to craft laws that expanded access for U.S. and Illinois businesses to world markets. Like many in the Libertarian Party, the Tea Party of recent years and the Freedom Caucus of the present, he doubted the efficacy of government action on damn near everything. Still, he was a happy warrior who opposed the Left cheerfully. He gave his floor speeches for or against, cast his votes, then sat and talked things over with friend and foe alike.
And, there’s this: He voted no on every tax hike proposal he considered while in Congress.
Crane and Reagan. Consistent. Thoughtful. One perhaps a bit more “pure” than the other.
Faulted men like us all, but decent and respectful of allies, potential allies, and even critics.
A couple of guys who made a difference, and who look better every day.