With the possible exception of the late Rep. John M. Ashbrook (R.-Ohio), the principal congressional conservative activist from 1960 to 1982, no Republican House member has championed and embodied the post-war conservative movement as has Rep. Phil Crane of Illinois.
Handsome and articulate, Bradley University (Ill.) history instructor Crane sprang onto the national scene in 1964 with the publication of The Democrats’ Dilemma, which prophetically made the case that Jeffersonian Democrats could no longer remain in a national party that had been taken over by the far left.
Having read and studied the classic conservative works of Friedrich A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman and Russell Kirk, Crane was Illinois research director for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign and an early volunteer in Ronald Reagan’s first bid for President in 1968. A year later, when then-Rep. Donald Rumsfeld (R.-Ill.) resigned his suburban Chicago seat to accept a presidential appointment, Crane mobilized battalions of young conservative volunteers and stunned pundits and pols by winning the Republican primary over nine opponents (including the candidate endorsed by the local GOP organization and the Chicago Tribune).
Ways and Means
Easily elected in the subsequent special election, Crane would go on to serve on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, eventually becoming the most senior Republican in the House. In the late 1970s, he also chaired the American Conservative Union.
For more than a generation, whatever the conservative cause–from keeping the Panama Canal, to the Reagan presidential campaign of 1976, to the efforts to cut taxes across-the-board and abolish the National Endowment for the Arts–Crane was inevitably in the forefront of the charge. As the years went on and a younger generation of conservatives came to Washington, Crane was increasingly looked on as their bridge to the early days of the modern conservative movement.
It is no hyperbole, then, to say that an era ended this November 2, a day before Phil Crane’s 74th birthday, when he met defeat for the first time in his congressional career. Redistricting had removed loyal Republican turf from his 8th U.S. House District and labor unions and other Democratic allies, sensing an opportunity, poured major dollars into his opponent’s coffers, ending Crane’s remarkable career.
On December 6, Crane reviewed both the past and future of American conservatism in a farewell interview with me in the Rayburn Room of the U.S. Capitol.
“The biggest difference between conservatives of today and in the past is that the younger people are almost unaware of the defeats and setbacks we experienced in the early days, when Goldwater lost and the Heritage Foundation, conservative talk radio, and Fox News didn’t exist,” he recalled. “The younger generation doesn’t remember the ancient battles, or that Democrats held the House for 40 uninterrupted years until 1994, or that it was going to take a long time for conservatives to accomplish anything.”
As a result, Crane believes, too many contemporary conservatives grow discouraged and abandon causes when they don’t see quick results. As an example, Crane recalled that, “Jimmy Carter kept his promise to the National Education Association and supported creation of the Department of Education [which the House voted for by four votes in 1979]. We promised to abolish it, we didn’t, and now that promise is no longer in the Republican platform.”
The Illinoisan also cited his more than 10 years of offering “Crane amendments” to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and how the NEA today “has a larger budget than it did under Bill Clinton and [Congress] just raised it by another $2 million. Once they [government agencies] get created, they achieve immortality. ”
“Re-examining all of the federal departments and agencies and whether they should exist is the next great battle for conservatives,” Crane said, warning that this is far more difficult today than it would have been a generation ago because “we’re stuck with the mandated problem” (the percentage of mandated over discretionary government spending in the budget mushrooming so dramatically). But, he insisted, this is a chore that must be undertaken by conservatives.
Any political talk with Phil Crane inevitably turns to 1979-80 and why he chose to run for President, even though fellow conservative Ronald Reagan was expected to run and modern history had demonstrated that House members almost never make viable presidential candidates.
“In 1979, I truly believed that Ron Reagan would make an announcement that ‘Nancy and I are retiring to the ranch,'” said Crane. “Since none of the other [Republican] candidates enthralled me, I felt we needed someone in the race who would carry the conservative banner of Reagan and Goldwater just in case Ron didn’t run.”
Reagan, of course did run and Crane further disappointed fans on the right by remaining in the race. Crane came in near the bottom in a 1980 New Hampshire primary won handsomely by Reagan. Shortly afterward, he withdrew from the contest. The Californian, Crane said, “never held it against me and we talked frequently throughout his presidency.”
Recalling his brief presidential bid as “an interesting experience,” Crane added that he was glad he never became President because his wife Arlene and their eight children “would have never had any privacy.”
The Good Fight
Did Crane regret never running for the Senate and thereby enhancing his chances of becoming a presidential candidate? “No, not at all,” he said. “I don’t want to disparage the Senate, but look, I consider the House the people’s chamber because taxation and spending originates here. When one can do something about taxes, one has real clout.” Along those lines, he recalled one of the earliest pieces of legislation he introduced as a freshman congressman more than three decades ago to abolish the estate and capital gains taxes and the marriage penalty and reduce taxes across the board. What he wanted to do, he explained, was “what Milton Friedman had advocated and get [the income tax rate] down to 10% as a forerunner to a flat tax.” Although Crane’s early proposal “went nowhere,” he said, it helped set the stage for tax cuts to become an eventual pillar of the modern conservative agenda.
In contrast to others on the right who worry that there is a vacuum of national leadership for their movement, Crane voiced strong confidence that “there is a lot of young leadership blossoming to lead conservatives in the 21st Century.” He particularly cited two-term Rep. Mike Pence (R.-Ind.), chairman of the House Republican Study Committee, whom he described as a “committed young man” who fully understands the issues of lower taxes and smaller government.
Crane advises younger conservative to cherish the principles of the movement and keep fighting for them through thick and thin. “I used to tell my history students that while he was a Democrat, I admired Harry Truman because he took tough positions and then stood up for them,” said Crane. “Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan had tremendous influence on generations of American because, even if people disagreed with them, they admired them because they made very strong commitments to things they believed in.”