COLUMBUS: It took two Republicans to reply to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday, not a good sign for a party that had trouble speaking with one voice during last year’s presidential campaign.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a rising GOP star, provided the party’s prime-time response in English and Spanish.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, like Rubio a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016, gave the second response. Paul’s rebuke, however, was specifically on behalf of the tea party and included a few swipes at Republicans as well as a denunciation of Obama.
The two responses suggested that Republicans haven’t solved the identity crisis that helped Obama win re-election.
Mitt Romney courted the tea party to win the presidential nomination but never convinced general election voters that he was part of the mainstream.
It’s not a new problem for Republicans, and it’s one that Ray Bliss, the Akron insurance man, overcame when he became chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1965.
Bliss, who died at 73 in 1981, took the national job after 16 years as chairman of the Ohio Republican Party and also had been Summit County GOP chairman.
Bliss’ challenge made the dilemma currently facing Republicans look like a walk on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The 1964 GOP candidate for president, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, won the nomination as a far-right conservative and didn’t move to the center during the general election.
Democratic President Lyndon Johnson walloped Goldwater with more than 61 percent of the popular vote, a record high percentage. Goldwater won just six states.
Democrats controlled the House and Senate, and Johnson, a former Senate majority leader, was a master with Congress, unlike Obama, who’s better at soaring rhetoric than twisting arms.
After the 1964 disaster, Republicans inhabited a political Tower of Babel. They talked past each other with competing ideas and insults. Goldwater’s backers and GOP moderates and liberals couldn’t stand each other.
There was fear that Goldwater’s defeat meant the end of a competitive two-party system.
Bliss, a fiscal conservative who liked to pitch a big political tent, was brought in to save the party, with support from Goldwater, the moderates and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Bliss borrowed good ideas. One of the best came from U.S. Rep. Melvin Laird of Wisconsin. Laird came up with the idea of a Coordinating Committee to represent Republicans of all persuasions.
“Republicans are becoming over-organized into splinter groups and as a direct result badly organized as a political party,” Laird said in 1965.
Bliss jumped at the idea and the Republican National Committee approved creation of the Coordinating Committee.
Membership included former President Eisenhower, who also was the retired general who led the Allies to victory in World War II, and four former presidential candidates — Goldwater, Richard M. Nixon, Alf Landon and Thomas E. Dewey.
Governors, Republican members of the House and Senate and representatives from state legislatures and the Republican National Committee were on board.
Eisenhower became Bliss’ enforcer.
“He backed me up with deep intensity in the early days of my chairmanship,” Bliss said later. “I mean, one thing he had, he had the respect of all factions. They were scared to death of him.”
Bliss used the committee to come up with alternatives to Johnson’s ambitious “Great Society” agenda on civil rights, the creation of Medicare and the War on Poverty.
The committee proposed ideas that all Republicans could embrace, even if the GOP didn’t have the clout to win legislative passage. The important thing to Bliss was uniting the party and speaking with one voice.
“I felt the party should be able to live with a Jake Javits (a liberal GOP senator from New York) … and a Barry Goldwater. … The thing is to keep it congealed enough so that you move forward and you field candidates and you get a platform,” Bliss said.
Generally, the Coordinating Committee’s recommendations called for fewer prescriptions dictated by the federal government and more choices for state and local governments.
After Nixon was elected president in 1968, he activated the committee’s idea for revenue sharing — sending blocks of federal money back to the states and cities to use as they chose, not as Washington dictated.
The impact of the committee’s work was felt long after Nixon forced Bliss out as national chairman in 1969. The committee’s ideas foretold the Republican embrace of “school choice.”
Newt Gingrich embraced much of the thinking in the committee’s recommendations and the ideas helped Republicans win a majority in the U.S. House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years.
Most of all, however, the committee brought the Grand Old Party together just when it seemed to have fallen apart.
Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He also was the Columbus bureau chief of the Dayton Daily News. He is writing a biography of Ray C. Bliss with John C. Green, the director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. Hershey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org