The 1970s was a decade of acute existential crisis for the Democratic party, as ‘New Politics’ insurgents challenged the old guard for control of both the party apparatus and the right to define who a true ‘liberal’ was. Those Democrats who opposed New Politics reformism often found themselves dubbed ‘neoconservatives’. The fact that so many ‘neoconservatives’ eventually made their home in the Grand Old Party (GOP) has led historians to view them as a Republican bloc in embryo. The apostasy of the neoconservatives fits neatly into the political historiography of the 1970s, which is dominated by the rise of the New Right and its takeover of the Republican party. Yet this narrative, though seductive, overlooks the essentially protean character of politics in that decade. This article uses the 1976 Senate campaign mounted by Daniel Patrick Moynihan – the dandyish Harvard academic, official in four presidential administrations, and twice US ambassador – to demonstrate that many ‘neoconservatives’ were advancing a recognizably liberal agenda and seeking to define a new ‘vital center’ against the twin poles of the New Politics and the New Right. A microcosm of a wider struggle to define liberalism, Moynihan's candidacy complicates our understanding of the 1970s as an era of rightward drift.
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