The Indiana GOP: Catching a Slippery Pig

January 25, 2014

“The 17 percent of voters (both Republican and Democrat) who now say most of Congress deserves re-election is well below the roughly 40 percent threshold that has historically been associated with major electoral turnover. With this in mind, Congress could be in for a major shake-up.” — Gallup’s annual Mood of the Nation poll, conducted Jan. 5-8

(For the use of the membership only.)

When some at the foundation were challenged to identify the intellectual bearings of the Indiana GOP, we were warned it would be a slippery task — slippery as a greased pig. We were warned that it is largely a party of slogans today, not ideas, with leaders who can’t distinguish between the public good and their own good. A friend, a founder of the conservative movement here, spelled it out:

“In pursuit of such good as may seem to them convenient, they recognize no restraint as a matter of constitutional law, sound judgment or good taste. They are clueless as to how the policies they often embrace are indistinguishable in theory from those they frequently oppose. They are at heart meddlers who are compelled to impose their personal dispositions on people whose lives they rarely understand. Their saving grace is that they aren’t Democrats.”

But we proceed regardless. Tom Charles Huston, an influential blogger who is a veteran of both Indiana and Washington politics, provides a list of tendencies at work here under the cover of “conservatism.”

Neoconservatism, which Mr. Huston addresses in the lead article of our upcoming quarterly journal, is the most dynamic, but only because it is the loudest, with the most aggressive and articulate spokesmen. Silent is a Whig or countryman tendency, perhaps because there are not enough small farmers and small merchants left in the state to put up a shout. Others tendencies on the list:

We learn that the Indiana party has always been less conservative ideologically than most assume, especially at the Wall Street Journal or in the Washington salons where there is a yearning for a great conservative personality to rise up from the Midlands and save us all.

The truth turns out to be that the GOP in 2014 still is the party of Robert Orr. His Vanderburgh County organization, decidedly liberal by even Indiana standards, was insignificant when Orr picked up its reigns. But he rode it to the governor’s office on a simple trick, one that GOP chairmen in strongholds like Allen County would never risk — he slated candidates, building enthusiasm and influence when he won even as he would have garnered ignominy had he lost.

And yet, as a young editor sitting down with Orr for the first time, even I realized that he was an unreconstructed Mercantalist, a nice way of saying crony capitalist. He believed government was our chief wealth creator. And there were other troubling signs. An avid tennis player, Governor Orr would not call his line shots in or out. That told some of us all we needed to know about the man — that and a press release during his second term commanding reporters to thereafter refer to him as “Robert” rather than “Bob.”

We are told by the ancients that from 1934 to 1964, the GOP’s debate was more spirited. It split between the Halleck and the Jenner factions, which corresponded to the Eisenhower-Taft split at the national level. The two groups rallied around Goldwater in 1964 although they bitterly fought over the gubernatorial nomination. Later, Nixon was strong here but pockets of Rockefeller enthusiasm sustained an organized campaign in the 1968 primary.

In summary, our modern Republican governors have been moderates or moderate-conservatives, with Ralph Gates, George Craig, Otis Bowen, Orr and the much-lauded Mitch Daniels on that moderate side. The assumption that this is the “reasonable” side, the right side of history, salts the dinner-party conversation of the current Indianapolis bunch. But mention Harold Handley or Edgar Whitcomb, the only hardcore conservatives produced by Indiana Republicans in six decades, and watch the forks drop and the eyes roll.

Indeed, it would be difficult to find a GOP politician anywhere in Indiana who does not profess to be a “conservative.” But the claim, as Mr. Huston has noted, generally lacks sufficient elaboration to detect what is meant (other than a “good Republican in the Reagan tradition”). We join him in lamenting this “vapid lip service” to an intelligible political philosophy. It, sad to say, is the hallmark of Hoosier Republicanism today.

Fortunately, elections still matter — and so do events, whether they be economic or social. And you can be sure that both elections and events will be reflected in the next set of Republican tendencies. Realpolitik will catch up with the Indiana GOP.

The pig is slippery but not that slippery.



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