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Daniel Schulman: Kochs might help moderate Republican Party

  • Washington Post
  • Published Thursday, May 29, 2014, at 12 a.m.

It seems hard to fathom now, but the Republican establishment once viewed Charles and David Koch as a threat. In the late 1970s, National Review – now a reliable defender of the brothers – devoted a series of articles to eviscerating the libertarian movement and its angel investor, Charles Koch.

Now the Koch brothers, thanks to their sprawling political and fundraising network, are the toast of the GOP, while Democrats have taken up the cause of demonizing them, even placing them at the center of their midterm election strategy. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, recently suggested that Senate Republicans should “wear Koch insignias to denote their sponsorship.”

But their fiercest critics on the left may be surprised to learn that the Kochs actually share a host of views with them, particularly on social issues (though emphatically not on economic ones). And now that the brothers wield significant influence within the Republican Party, they have an opportunity to push it closer to the center on issues that have caused members of many key voting blocs – women, Latinos, youths – to shun the GOP.

For a party undergoing an identity crisis, a Koch-style makeover may not be such a bad thing.

The brothers have achieved political infamy for bankrolling the tea party movement, leading the charge against Obamacare, stoking skepticism about climate change and carpet-bombing the airwaves with ads targeting vulnerable Democratic lawmakers via their advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. But lesser known are the issues on which they are at odds with the conservative mainstream.

The Kochs generally disapprove of foreign military interventions and were no fans of the Iraq War. As a young man, Charles strongly opposed the Vietnam War, even though this position was highly unpopular in his hometown of Wichita, headquarters of military contractors such as Beech and Cessna that supplied the war effort.

His activism so angered the leadership of the conservative John Birch Society, which his father had played a role in founding and of which Charles was a member, that he was forced to part ways with the group in the late 1960s after placing an anti-war ad in the local newspaper.

David has criticized U.S. drug policy and victimless-crime laws. “I have friends who smoke pot. I know many homosexuals. It’s ridiculous to treat them as criminals,” he said in 1980. He supports same-sex marriage and abortion rights – positions that risk his standing in the GOP.

Charles seemingly shares these views. “What a spectacle it is for the same people who preach freedom in voluntary economic activities to call for the full force of the law against voluntary sexual or other personal activities,” he wrote in a 1978 magazine article. “What else can the public conclude but that the free-market rhetoric is a sham – that business only cares about freedom for itself, and doesn’t give a damn about freedom for the individual?”

The Kochs have largely remained quiet on these issues in recent decades. They may fear jeopardizing their newfound power by actively supporting issues that could rile the GOP base. Yet they stand to more than make up for that with new supporters the GOP has traditionally turned off or written off.

But it all depends on whether the Kochs are willing to take on the Republican Party once again, this time as insiders.

Daniel Schulman is author of “Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty.”

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