Political Hay

The Goldwater Lesson

As CPAC gathers, pollster John Zogby's warning and a look back at 1964.

By 2.24.09

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"The Republicans have a simple choice. If they want to continue to define themselves as conservatives, they'll be defining themselves into oblivion. If they want to save themselves, they may have to create a third party of moderates."
-- Pollster John Zogby, November 16, 2008

"The Republican Party has paid a shatte ring price for the erratic deviation from our soundly moderate 20th century course. That ill-advised, badly-led swing to the extreme right has been decisively vetoed by the American voters, hundreds of thousands of Republicans among them."
-- Fred Young, NY GOP State Chair, November 5, 1964

"The undertakers are premature"
-- William F. Buckley, November 5, 1964

By now, the refrain insisting conservatism is a loser is, well, embarrassing.

To people like John Zogby.  

Yet with the all-out assault of the Obama-ites on capitalism and the core tenets of a free market system, it is vital to remember the very relevant history of modern conservatives and liberals and just how we got here. It is important to look back to understand how to move forward.

The latest election of the day lost by Republicans is always said to be lost (as Mr. Zogby has done) because conservatives insisted on, well, conservatism. With the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Committee upon us, this year's gathering  headlined by Rush Limbaugh, let's spend a moment documenting just how old and how very routine these anti-conservative diatribes are. Mr. Zogby is far from alone.

In 1964 the modern conservative movement is born as Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater captures the Republican presidential nomination. The moment is transformative for both conservatives and the shocked moderate establishment of the Republican Party, which watched two of its standard bearers (New York's Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Pennsylvania's Governor William Scranton) lose to Goldwater. In the process, the grass roots party machinery is ripped from the control of the Republican moderates, whom Goldwater scalds as advocates of a "dime store New Deal." 

The 1964 election was set to be a difficult one for the GOP. It followed by less than a year the traumatic assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the successful stabilizing transition to JFK's vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson. There wasn't much of an appetite for a third president in four years regardless of who was nominated by the GOP. Yet Goldwater's overwhelming loss to LBJ was, in retrospect, of vital importance to the future success of the conservative movement. 

Within minutes of Goldwater's loss, Republican moderates, media and polling analysts -- the Zogbys of their day -- were insisting that conservatism was dead. And if it wasn't dead, it should be, since it had so damaged the image of the Republican Party it was likely the GOP would be kept from power for generations.

Here's some of what was said at the time, captured forever in the bold print of the New York Times in the first days after Goldwater's defeat. 

• Eisenhower-era Republican National Chairman Meade Alcorn, described in the Times as a "modern Republican" (meaning an enlightened moderate), grimly insisted the GOP needed an immediate "rebuilding job" because the "Republican Party's image has been badly disfigured" by conservatives. Said a furious Alcorn: "we cannot hope to shape future party victories if that rebuilding" is entrusted to conservatives, who brought us the "most devastating defeat party has ever suffered."

• Kentucky moderate Republican Senator Thruston Morton (whose congressman brother Rogers Morton would head the Ford campaign against Ronald Reagan in 1976) said "we have got to change the party's image, by broadening the base of the party's appeal."

• New Jersey's moderate Republican Senator Clifford Case agreed with Alcorn and Morton, telling the Times that "this immaturity [of conservatives] is not going to succeed any better in the future than it has in this campaign."

• New York moderate Republican Congressman John Lindsay (later Mayor of New York) was adamant in telling the Times that as a result of the GOP's move to conservatism the Republican Party had been "extinguished" and "reduced to ashes." Said Lindsay:  "My job now is to help rebuild the Republican Party out of the ashes and to help give it proper direction." (Note: Lindsay lost his re-nomination as the GOP candidate for mayor in 1969 to a conservative state senator. He was re-elected narrowly on the Liberal Party line. He left the GOP in 1971 and ran for president as a Democrat in 1972. He lost.)

In what must now be regarded as a classic political book of the period, reporter Robert J. Donovan, a bestselling author of the day with admiring books on Eisenhower and JFK, wrote a quick post-1964 election book published in December of that year called The Future of the Republican Party. Then Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, Donovan is described on the book's cover as "one of the foremost political analysts" in the country. Quite unwittingly, Donovan sets the template for just about every future criticism of the conservative movement that would be repeated endlessly over the next forty years, including lately by John Zogby. Right up front in his foreword, Donovan expresses his real fear that Goldwater and his band of conservatives "reversed the liberal trend of Republican presidential nominations that had prevailed for a quarter of a century." (He glosses over the fact that all the moderate nominees excepting the military hero Ike -- Hoover, Landon, Willkie, Dewey and Nixon, the latter campaigning in 1960 as a moderate -- lost.)   The newly powerful conservative movement, Donovan asserted, can only open "the floodgates of factionalism" and "put the party once more on the road to defeat."  Conservatives have so damaged the Republicans, he insists, that the GOP will never regain the White House "at least until 1988" -- then 24 years distant.

In the face of all of this Goldwater meets the press a few days after the election. On November 15, chatting with reporters over a beer in Montego Bay. Calmly he says that it's time to change the two-party system as it is currently structured (in 1964). America needs, he says, "two new teams" called liberals and conservatives. There must be recognition of two vastly different approaches to America's problems. Focusing on the election returns that had him winning only six states, Goldwater says that "this year, obviously, millions of Republicans decided socialism and central-decided socialized government is all right. I want to find out why this, all of a sudden, has been embraced by so many." He goes on to say flatly that he believes "the time has come for a real realignment of the two parties."  

His remarks are greeted with fury by GOP moderates. Former UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, the losing 1960 GOP vice presidential nominee and a prominent moderate, tells the Times the next day that Goldwater's idea is "totally abhorrent to the American two-party system." Governor Rockefeller reiterates that he has a vast difference with conservatives "over principle." 

In remarks that fairly leap from the page decades later, the Times itself says that  Goldwater lost because he presented "disturbing questions" to voters that challenged liberal assumptions. While a Democrat just elected in LBJ's landslide, Congressman-elect James Scheurer, a Bronx Democrat, says that the complete control of Democrats in Washington means there are "no excuses for not doing a good job."

Disturbing questions and no excuses for doing a good job. Indeed.

Four and a half decades later the results of liberalism's "good job" make it crystal clear why Goldwater's "disturbing questions" were so angrily dismissed. Donovan was not alone in insisting that a Goldwater administration "might somehow lead to war" or that Goldwater's idea to cut taxes by 25% was "suspect." The Goldwater notion that the New Deal was, in fact, a failure infuriated liberals. The idea that LBJ's just-promised "Great Society" could ever possibly be considered a bad idea drove them crazy.

What happened, of course, was that liberals inserted the U.S. into Vietnam -- sent half a million troops -- and yet refused to win the war outright. Thus, disaster. Fifty thousand American boys killed, and millions of Southeast Asians mass murdered when liberals abandoned the war. Liberalism was left with a searing ever-lasting image as the team that always favors appeasement if not isolationism itself, mass murder or American national security be damned. The idea that conservatives could possibly be more irresponsible than LBJ and Robert McNamara vanished.

Domestically, the insistence on injecting the federal government into every crack and crevice of American life from health care to education has, decades later, resulted in the imminent bankrupting of Medicare and one urban school system after another that produces platoons of badly educated kids. Understanding exactly that Goldwater got it right about socialism all the way back in 1964,  all but three Republicans in the entire House and Senate refused to back the Obama "stimulus" bill that is widely seen as nothing less than a massive repeat of LBJ's failures that will doom whole generations -- a Great Society on steroids.  

Yet in spite of the lessons learned from Barry Goldwater, there are still moderates aplenty who echo the 1964 voices of a John Lindsay or a Henry Cabot Lodge or Meade Alcorn. In fact, the 1964 "blame the conservatives" pattern is so standard as to be little short of a joke.  Sure enough, following the 1976 defeat of Gerald Ford by Jimmy Carter, Mary Louise Smith, the outgoing moderate GOP RNC chair, pleaded that the GOP not make a "fatal lurch" to conservatism (meaning the looming figure of then ex-Governor Reagan). Moderate Michigan Governor William Milliken called an "emergency session" to fight off the conservatives, while another moderate governor (Thompson of Illinois) proclaimed the Party "ill…with grave problems."  The Times, just as Donovan did in 1964 and Zogby would do in 2008, proclaimed that the prominence of conservatives meant that the GOP in 1976 was "fighting for its survival."  

In 1992, after George H.W. Bush abandoned the conservatives who elected him in 1988, up popped moderate Iowa GOP Congressman Jim Leach to insist that the 1992 Bush loss to Bill Clinton was all the conservatives' fault. Leach insisted to the Times that "the party has become too co-opted by narrow [conservative] groups." In 1996, Democrats chortled that they had won because they portrayed the moderate Bob Dole as a conservative "extremist." Now, after the 2008 McCain loss in which the nominee, like Willkie, Dewey, the 1960 Nixon, Ford, and the 19992 Bush and 1996 Dole, ran as a moderate, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis ( a former colleague of mine) updates this game to blame…Rush Limbaugh.

There are two lessons from all of this that CPAC attendees will doubtless know well.

First, conservatism is a political winner. The Donovan nightmare scenario that predicted a straight line of GOP presidential losses from 1964 to at least 1988 was laughably wrong. Nixon, campaigning as a conservative in 1968 and 1972, won. Ford the moderate followed the Donovan prescription in 1976 and lost. Conservative Reagan won two landslides in 1980 and 1984, while George H.W. Bush, under the tutelage of Lee Atwater, ran as a conservative and won the 1988 election.

Second, as CPAC-ers will also know, Goldwater was right about the results of liberalism. As practiced since 1964 it has been shown to be nothing less than an unending series of public policy disasters. From the Great Society's misspent trillions to the bankruptcy of Social Security, Medicare and now Wall Street and the U.S. housing, banking, and credit systems. From school busing to Vietnam to the Detroit public schools to the entire recession-drenched state of Michigan, the policies that Goldwater -- and later Reagan -- warned about have proven themselves over and over again to be little short of unmitigated disasters.

The gathering at the end of this week of the Conservative Political Action Committee will be, without doubt, a serious moment in the next forward march of the conservative movement. Looking back at the lessons of Barry Goldwater can only help underscore that there is nothing new under the sun in the Obama era. Not its policies, and certainly not the dire warnings that conservatives should abandon conservatism for some "moderate" version of those policies. In spite of John Zogby and the ghosts of Zogby's past, the conservative future -- a bright future of ideas and victories -- begins now.

As usual, William F. Buckley got it right. Forget the undertakers.

 

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.