There’s an old saying–often attributed erroneously to Mark Twain–that has it that when the world ends, a man should want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always 20 years behind the times. As a resident of the Queen City(1) for the majority of my life, I can say that there’s more than a kernel of truth to that statement and I think that most born and bred Cincinnatians would say the same thing. Sure, there has been a pretty massive effort to gentrify the downtown and Over-The-Rhine neighborhoods and attract young professionals over the last 10 or 15 years, but the fact of the matter is that Cincinnati is a deeply conservative town. It is not a coincidence that the wealthy suburban Cincinnati enclave of Indian Hill was second only to Manhattan’s Upper East Side in donations to the Bush/Cheney re-election campaign in 2004, nor is it coincidence that Cincinnati has the 10th highest rate of income inequality in the nation.
As one of my friends who moved to Cincinnati from the west coast once said to me,“never have I seen so many people with so much money who are so unwilling to spend any of it.” That’s not to say that the entirety of the city’s well-to-do are a bunch of unrepentant Scrooges, but I would imagine that a fair number of them may find themselves nodding in agreement during their annual viewing of A Christmas Carol when old Ebeneezer proclaims that he can’t afford to make idle people merry. Very few would ever accuse Cincinnati of being a hotbed of moderate Republicanism, but there aren’t many cities in America that have stronger ties to the measured, isolationist conservatism that characterized the GOP’s right wing for much of the 20th century, at least until Barry Goldwater and his raving, ideologically rigid loonies popped up in the 1960s.
If Cincinnati had a first family, it would be undoubtedly be the Tafts. Despite having fallen out of favor with many modern historians and all but vanishing from public memory save for an apocryphal story about William Howard Taft getting stuck in a White House bathtub, the Tafts are one of the most influential families in US history. For the first half of the 20th century, the Tafts were the backbone of the stalwart, rank-and-file section of the Republican Party and, in different ways, helped define what it meant to be a conservative in America. The family patriarch, Alphonso Taft, was one of the founding members of the notorious secret society of Skull & Bones at Yale in the 1830s, served briefly as Secretary of War and Attorney General in the Ulysses S. Grant administration and was a key figure in ending Reconstruction when he organized the commission that would hand Republican Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency in 1876 in exchange for the removal of Federal troops from the South.
In 1839, well before he ascended to national prominence, Alphonso moved his family from New England to Cincinnati, where his son, William Howard Taft, would grow up before going on to be the only person in American history to be elected President and serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Taft, who began his presidency as a bit of a trustbusting progressive in mold of his predecessor Teddy Roosevelt, moved farther and farther to right over the course of his 4 years in office, eventually becoming the GOP establishment candidate in the 1912 election opposite Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt, who was running as a progressive in the short-lived Bull Moose Party. Taft’s presidential legacy is a muddled one, as he left behind a mixture of conservative and moderate/progressive achievements, which is evidenced by his creation of the US Chamber of Commerce to combat the rising tide of the labor movement and his penchant for trustbusting that even Teddy Roosevelt found excessive.
However, it is not Alphonso or William Howard Taft that helps explain Cincinnati’s–and a sizable chunk of America’s–particular brand of conservatism, but William Howard’s son, Robert A. Taft. Widely considered one of the most influential members of Congress in American history, Robert Taft, or “Mr. Republican”, as he was sometimes known, was the epitome of the Old Right conservative. Like the New Right of today, Taft and his followers were strongly opposed to New Deal reforms and took very pro-business, small government stances on domestic policy, but that, more or less, is where the comparison ends. As opposed to the New Right, which has been characterized by obscene bellicosity and the absurd notion that military spending is categorically different than all other government expenditures, Taft was a strict anti-interventionist, going so far as to vote against US involvement in World War II. The idea of actively pursuing armed conflict in Afghanistan or Iraq, much less the prospect of selling a war under false pretenses, would have been as alien to Bob Taft’s political character as supporting universal healthcare or the Tennessee Valley Authority. Similarly, Taft would have been appalled by the fact that so many members of his party were pledging to never raise taxes, regardless of the circumstances, because he was a staunch opponent of deficit financing and believed in the necessity of raising taxes to cover the costs of government.
Unlike many contemporary Republicans, Robert Taft was not a very religious man and eschewed the kind of socially conservative populism that has become the bread and butter of the Tea Party. Taft also had a degree of ideological fluidity that is lacking in most of today’s GOP, showing a willingness to work with President Truman on a select few of his Fair Deal policies, like The American Housing Act of 1949. If there is anyone in the 114th Congress who might compare favorably to Taft, it may be Senator Rob Portman. Not coincidentally, Portman grew up in Cincinnati and he and his family still reside in the affluent suburb of Terrace Park, a stone’s throw away from Robert Taft’s final resting place at the Indian Hill Episcopal Church Cemetery. No one would ever mistake Senator Portman for a moderate Republican, but–like Taft–Portman has a flexibility on social and economic issues that many of his colleagues lack, which may explain why he’s one of the most well liked members of Congress. Portman served on the bipartisan Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction back in 2011 and, two years ago, the Senator publicly switched his stance on same-sex marriage after his teenage son came out to his family, backing up his statements by beingone of only 10 Republican Senators to vote for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Growing up in an upper-middle class household in Cincinnati, I have a sizable number of friends and family who live in affluent, conservative neighborhoods like Indian Hill and Terrace Park. I rarely agree with them on political matters, but I still love and respect most of them. And, what is perhaps most important, I can discuss issues of social and political import with them without wanting to puncture my tympanic membranes with a cocktail fork. Regardless of how divergent our views may be on welfare policy or foreign intervention or anything else, we are capable of having a reasonable discussion about them with each other and maybe–just maybe–coming to some sort of agreement. This sort of casual conversation may seem trivial, but it is not. In the two party system we live with today, the health of our federal, state and local governments is predicated on an open exchange of ideas between parties in the pursuit of compromise and, at the very least, the pretense of understanding. Bob Taft and his fellow true blue conservatives in Congress were willing to work with liberals like President Truman in a way that the modern GOP would never consider, and that is precisely the reason the past two Congresses have been the least productive in history. If we want the 114th Congress to be any different from the two that came before it, we better hope that conservatives in Washington wind up being a lot less Tea Party and a little more Cincinnati.
(1) Cincinnati is the original Queen City of America. All y’all down in Charlotte need to quit your bellyaching because when you guys were a 1,000 resident twinkle in your antebellum daddy’s eye, Cincinnati already had 115,000 people and was one of the largest cities in the country. When it comes to nicknames, it’s first come, first serve.