Political Hay

The Vindication of Barry Goldwater

The man who made Reagan possible.

By 7.24.14

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How did our national government grow from a servant with sharply limited powers into a master with virtually unlimited power?
Senator Barry Goldwater writing in The Conscience of a Conservative (1960)

July, 1964. Fifty years ago this month. The Republican Party nominates Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater for president. The resulting uproar was somewhere north of hysteria. And that was just from the GOP establishment of the day. Followed famously by a November landslide Goldwater “defeat” in which the Arizonan carried a mere five states in his race against Democratic President Lyndon Johnson.

Goldwater was the first conservative Republican to win nomination since the 1924 selection of Calvin Coolidge (the vice president who had succeeded Warren Harding after his death). From 1928 all the way through 1960, every GOP nominee from Hoover to Nixon was drawn from the progressive/moderate wing of the party.

In the battle for the 1964 nomination Goldwater was pilloried by prominent members of his own party — including liberal GOP governors Nelson Rockefeller (N.Y.), William Scranton (Pa.), and George Romney (Mich.). Goldwater accused liberal Republicans of supporting a “dime store New Deal” — liberalism on the cheap. Goldwater in turn was accused of being an extremist, anti-Social Security, anti-federal aid to education, and anti-civil rights — the latter charge a particular slur against a founder of the Arizona NAACP who had helped integrate Phoenix schools. When it came to foreign policy he was said to be flat-out dangerous, a man who believed the United States shouldn’t co-exist peacefully with the Soviet Union, but rather win the Cold War outright. And this was before he faced off with LBJ, whose campaign simply picked up the themes of Goldwater’s intra-party rivals and drove them home.

All of this uproar came about because Goldwater believed — really believed — in what the Republican Party said it believed in: limited government. In today’s terms he was something of a libertarian, the Rand Paul of his day. In 1960 he had published a surprise bestseller (ghost written by Brent Bozell, the brother-in-law of National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr. and father of today’s Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center). The Conscience of a Conservative made the conservative case that modern-day liberalism had not only set the federal government on the path to an unlimited (and unconstitutional) expansion, but that both political parties had signed on to that expansion. 

Wrote Goldwater/Bozell:

The New Deal, Dean Acheson wrote approvingly in a book called A Democrat Looks At His Party, ”conceived of the federal government as the whole people organized to do what had to be done.” A year later Mr. (Arthur) Larson wrote A Republican Looks at His Party, and made much the same claim in his book for Modern Republicans. The ”underlying philosophy” of the New Republicanism, said Mr. Larson, is that ”if a job has to be done to meet the needs of the people, and no one else can do it, then it is the proper function of the federal government.”

Here we have, by prominent spokesmen of both political parties, an unqualified repudiation of both political parties, an unqualified repudiation of the principle of limited government. There is no reference by either of them to the Constitution, or any attempt to define the legitimate functions of government.

And there it is: the central argument between conservatives and the GOP establishment (or, as the latter was once called, the “New Republicans” or the “Modern Republicans”) as clearly defined by Barry Goldwater. It's an argument that has gained even more potency today.

At its core, Goldwater’s argument was that the original Republican Party (to quote the very first Republican platform of 1856) was founded on “the maintenance of the principles promulgated in the Declaration of Independence, and embodied in the Federal Constitution” and that said principles “are essential to the preservation of our Republican institutions, and that the Federal Constitution, the rights of the States, and the union of the States, must and shall be preserved.” By 1960, the GOP in Goldwater’s view had been taken over by those so-called “Modern Republicans” or “New Republicans” who had taken the party increasingly astray of its founding principles. Principles centered on “the Declaration of Independence and embodied in the Federal Constitution.”

Here we are fifty years after Goldwater’s nomination — fifty-four years after the publication of his book — and every word of Conscience of a Conservative is even more politically relevant than it was when the book was written. A better rationale of the political success of today’s Tea Party could not be written.

In his acceptance speech, the media focused on his declaration that “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” This infuriated Rockefeller, and even Eisenhower privately expressed upset. Goldwater responded by saying the Eisenhower-led invasion of Europe was an act of extremism. A stunned Ike had to agree. But the heart of Goldwater’s acceptance speech, indeed his entire career, was a warning that America was getting mired in what he called the “swamp of collectivism.” It was precisely this argument that made Goldwater so “dangerous” in the eyes not just of the American Left of the day but to liberal Republicans as well. 

Today? From Obamacare to the IRS to the VA, from the looming bankruptcy of Social Security to Medicare, Goldwater’s warnings have come to pass. The federal government is running our health care and imposing its will on education, business, labor, agriculture, housing, transportation, the environment, energy, and more. Now, $17 trillion in debt and counting, the nation has also been saddled with $90 trillion in unfunded liabilities. The American people are up to their necks in the “swamp of collectivism” — and they are mightily unhappy. Many of them may not know who Barry Goldwater was, but their experience is vindicating Goldwater’s argument exactly.

One of Goldwater’s not-so-incidental accomplishments was the introduction of Ronald Reagan as a national political figure. Reagan delivered a thirty-minute televised speech towards the end of the 1964 campaign. “A Time for Choosing” (seen here) as it was titled launched Reagan’s career from the ashes of Goldwater’s defeat. And not to go unnoticed, the Goldwater campaign launched a young woman from Illinois who wrote her very first book. Fifty years ago — long before leftist feminist icons appeared — a young Phyllis Schlafly burst on the scene with A Choice Not an Echo (here’s a link to the new fiftieth anniversary issue). Today, the book has sold three million copies, with author Schlafly having spent a career as one of the most influential activists of her day. Among other things, Schlafly organized the “STOP ERA” campaign that successfully stopped the so-called “Equal Rights Amendment” in its tracks.

Fifty years later it is apparent that Goldwater’s nomination was far from a “defeat.” It signaled the arrival of conservatism as a serious political force, moving it from the realm of scholarly books and the pages of Buckley’s small magazine to the corridors of power in both politics and the media. His friend Reagan would be elected governor of California two years later, winning a landslide presidential victory sixteen years later — and just as Goldwater advocated, win the Cold War outright. Over time Newt Gingrich would reclaim Congress for the GOP after forty years in the minority. Talk radio and Fox News would bring the powerful voice of conservatism to radio and cable television. The Internet would provide a home to vibrant conservative voices. And three years after Goldwater’s “defeat” a young R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. would start what has become The American Spectator. Politically speaking, Goldwater was conservatism’s Moses. He never made it to the promised land of the presidency, but he made conservatism politically respectable, enabling Reagan and others to triumph, modernizing and energizing the GOP. Along the way he earned his own niche as a powerful and respected senator.

Fifty years ago, Barry Goldwater won the Republican presidential nomination as a man of controversy. Today, he can be seen as something else entirely: vindicated.

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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.