The Moderate as Mensch: Jack Danforth’s 50 Years in Politics

By | 2018-11-10T01:17:37+00:00 November 10th, 2018|
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As Humpty Dumpty told Alice, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

For some time now, the mainstream liberal media have hijacked the words “moderate” and “centrist” to stand in for what they really mean, which is“left-leaning.” The words are used especially often to describe nominal Republicans who support abortion on demand and the outermost extensions of gender bending and identity politics.

If one depends on the reporting of the New York Times, Washington Post, or CNN, therefore, one will be told repeatedly and without exception that a Republican sympathetic to the farthest-left social policy dogmas of the Democrats is a centrist—neither more nor less.

What exactly is moderate about being pro-abortion?

Today’s soi-disant centrist Republican is a passionate virtue-signaller, hasty to adjudge fellow Republicans with strong conservative convictions as homophobic, racist, even anti-Semitic—notwithstanding lack of evidence of the alleged offenses. The contemporary Republican politician described as moderate seeks acclaim for the righteousness of bipartisanship, usually when that means scorning the fundamental values of most other Republicans and doing something Democrats want without getting anything in return.

Ask a conservative today what is a moderate Republican and you’ll hear complaints about a “Republican in Name Only” whose pastime is throwing conservatives beneath public transportation vehicles.

Yet once upon a time, there was a moderate Republican who devoted a great part of his career to mentoring and empowering generations of the highest caliber of conservative Republicans.

He’s still very much alive and well and active. He is John C. Danforth of Missouri.

Jack Danforth is not a movement conservative, not a conservative according to any familiar contemporary definition. But neither is he a liberal pretending to be a centrist. While consciously choosing not to be a right-winger, he has fought the Left forcefully and successfully.

A patrician heir to the Ralston-Purina fortune, Danforth is a pragmatic doer of good who avoids the sappiness of the do-gooder. A graduate of Princeton and both the law and divinity schools of Yale, he was ordained an Episcopal priest and admitted to the bar. Briefly he practiced law on Wall Street with Davis Polk & Wardwell.

Looking back to his home state, he perceived that being a one-party state had made Missouri a backwater.

He returned home and exactly half a century ago, in the 1968 general election, he launched a campaign for the office of state attorney general. Both the rural and urban wings of the state Democratic machine scoffed at the privileged preppy. To their surprise and that of most others, he won. John Danforth ended an era of the Democratic Party’s monopoly on Missouri statewide elections. He was the first Republican to win a statewide election since 1946, when James P. Kem won a single term in the U.S. Senate. The last time a Republican had won the Missouri governor’s office was 1940. Before Danforth, the last Republican attorney general was elected in 1928.

Danforth was 32 years old. He hailed from the wealthiest suburbs of St. Louis—seldom a provenance for Missouri statewide offices, where rural Democrats were dominant. Probably his family’s ownership of the big livestock feed company gave him some affinity with the farm community not enjoyed by the average suburban Ivy Leaguer.

As attorney general, just as in all of his offices, Danforth hired outstanding talent. Among his team of assistant attorneys general were Clarence Thomas and two future governors and senators—Kit Bond and John Ashcroft. These were conservatives, always to the right of the moderate Danforth. Yet Danforth respected them, mentored them, and indeed was in large part responsible for their political careers.

Danforth served three terms in the U.S. Senate. A defining moment in his career was his campaign for a second term, when he had to overcome a powerful challenge by left-wing feminist Harriett Woods, a cousin of Ohio’s Howard Metzenbaum. For his reelection that year, he owed a big debt to conservatives and pro-lifers.

There’s often been something of a disconnect between Danforth’s rhetoric distancing himself from the Right and his patronage of strong and remarkable conservative protégés. Conservatives should be thankful for that.

In 2006, the Washington Post ran a puff-piece lauding Danforth as “Saint Jack.” This was at a time when Danforth was especially outspoken against what he called the transformation of Republican party into the “political arm of conservative Christians.”

Last year, during the early months of Donald Trump’s presidency, Danforth declared his distaste for the president with expressions of horror and loathing so intense that they might have been uttered by a pearl-clutching Michael Gerson.

But let it be noted that Danforth is a fighter, and he is loyal to his friends and protégés.

When Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court was under attack in 1991, and the Anita Hill smear campaign was wreaking its worst damage, Danforth led the successful fight to confirm Thomas. Danforth was fearless and unflinching. Today’s outgoing senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker actually have policy positions and ideological inclinations to the right of Danforth’s. The key difference is that Flake and Corker are fainthearted while Danforth is stouthearted.

Another difference with Danforth is that he kept his key promises to the pro-lifers who were key to solidifying a Republican majority in Missouri. After leaving the Senate, he slipped into joining in advocacy for embryonic stem-cell research that violates pro-life criteria. But during his Senate service, he remained faithful to the pro-lifers who were essential to his election victories. And he continues to this day to promote the careers of staunchly pro-life younger politicians.

In this year’s election, Danforth put into practice his essential pragmatism and his lifelong cause of building, virtually from scratch, a Republican majority in Missouri. At the age of 82, he is still one of the most influential kingmakers in Missouri Republican politics. Many younger people and many conservatives resent that. Still, they should be grateful that he is the discerning and loyal talent scout that he is.

Before the 2016 election, Danforth was instrumental in recruiting and electing a 36-year-old Kansas Citian in an open seat race for Missouri attorney general. This Danforth protégé is very much in the mold of conservative Wunderkinder John Ashcroft and Clarence Thomas.

Josh Hawley is an Evangelical Christian with a Catholic education from Kansas City’s Jesuit prep school. He graduated summa cum laude in history from Stanford and in law from Yale. He clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and, before returning to the heartland to teach at the University of Missouri Law School, he worked for four years at the esteemed Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Hawley is no RINO. If Leonard Leo were the talent scout for U.S. Senate nominees, his choice for Missouri almost certainly would have been Hawley.

Danforth and his allies in the Missouri Republicans’ clubbier back rooms may be refined and well-manicured, but politics ain’t beanbag for them any more than it was for Mr. Dooley.

Danforth used his muscle to elbow aside worthy rivals so that young Hawley might be anointed as Senate nominee without a primary contest. One of those elbowed was solid, pro-life conservative U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner of the St. Louis suburbs, who would be superb as a senator—and she’s young enough to become one when senior senator Roy Blunt retires.

As a mark of the complexity of Danforth’s calculations, Wagner resembled Danforth in having openly expressed discomfort with Donald Trump’s coarseness, while Danforth’s new Ivy League protégé decided to campaign all out in embrace of Trump and the MAGA movement.

The nominee’s mission would be not just to win a Senate seat but to slay a dragon. Democratic incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill was the most cunning and devious and successful Democratic Missouri politician of her generation. In a gesture more reminiscent of the game of politics down the river in Louisiana, McCaskill had bragged about funding commercials in the 2012 Republican primary to engineer the nomination of the weakest GOP contender in the field. Her brazen tactic had worked.

Hawley’s Senate candidacy limped off to such a weak start that some Missouri Republicans considered dumping him before the primary. In February 2018, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported accurately that the candidate was “facing vague but widespread rumors of buyer’s remorse in the party.” This was echoed throughout the national political media.

While some other senior Republicans expressed open doubts about Hawley’s viability, Danforth wasted no time and redoubled his support for Hawley. The Post-Dispatch reported that Danforth “hinted…that he believes those rumors might stem from incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.—who has shown in the past a talent for scrambling the home turf of her enemies.”

Beginning in January 2018, Hawley’s campaign was overshadowed by the scandal and self-destruction of the other Republican golden boy elected to statewide Missouri office in 2016—Governor Eric Greitens. For months Greitens was mired in credible accusations of sexual abuse, blackmail, and campaign finance violations that included theft of a veterans nonprofit group’s donor list for illegal political use. As the months wore on, a bipartisan legislative investigative committee found Greitens guilty of misconduct. Republican legislative leaders—and Attorney General Hawley—called on Greitens to resign.

Greitens stepped down in May, but only after weeks of defying his own party leaders’ demands for his resignation.

By this time, Missouri Republicans were divided and despondent. Conventional wisdom held that Hawley’s chances of winning against McCaskill were slim to none. Old hands in the state capital muttered that, oh well, no Republican ever would be able to beat McCaskill anyway.

Danforth never wavered in his support for Hawley, and while he avoided Donald Trump, he did not dissuade his protégé from aligning himself tightly with the president.

Backlash against the attempted character assassination of their fellow Yale Law graduate Brett Kavanaugh gave Danforth and Hawley new energy for the campaign. The polls began to move, and McCaskill’s re-election no longer seemed a sure thing.

In televised debates, Hawley’s performance was strong. He surprised skeptics by putting McCaskill on the defensive.

Late at night on election eve, Hawley was the beneficiary of Trump’s final MAGA rally of the campaign. This was only the last of several rallies Trump carried out for Hawley in Missouri. Trump extolled Hawley with much the same language he had used about Brett Kavanaugh, much the same language that Jack Danforth would have used about Hawley.

In conservative Cape Girardeau, following a rousing introduction by native son Rush Limbaugh, Trump propelled the Hawley campaign across the goal line. Jack Danforth came nowhere near the MAGA fiesta.

Hawley would not have won without Trump’s efforts. He would not have won without the Kavanaugh impetus. Crucially, he would not have won—nor even would he have been the nominee—without the patronage and unstinting support of Jack Danforth.

Fifty years after his lonely challenge to the Democrats’ monopoly in Missouri, the state is teeming with Republican officeholders. In 1968, Republicans were an inconsequential mini-minority in the state legislature. Today they hold veto-proof supermajorities in both the House and Senate. All elected statewide constitutional offices are held by Republicans, except for state auditor, whose election is always in an off-year from the others. Josh Hawley joins Roy Blunt to make Missouri’s U.S. Senate delegation all Republican. All of them are conservatives.

No one is more deserving of credit for this transformation than Jack Danforth. Conservatives may not like some of the things he says, but if we appreciate anything about Ashcroft, Thomas, Bond, and Hawley, we owe Danforth our deepest appreciation. At a time when conservatives rightly perceive Republican “centrist” to be liberal code for what we’d rather call pushover, squish, or Fifth Columnist, it is refreshing to recognize a genuine moderate who is also a mensch, Missouri’s John Danforth.

Photo Credit: CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

About the Author:

Joseph Duggan
Joseph Duggan, a former White House speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush and a former Reagan State Department appointee, is an international business and public affairs consultant. He recently moved home to his native city of St. Louis.