Writing about what he describes as the “Goldwater myth,” David Frum is right that Barry Goldwater’s 1964 landslide loss hurt Republicans in down-ballot races, creating liberal Democratic supermajorities that enacted lots of bad legislation in 1965-66. Some of that legislation is a lot more enduring than anything the conservative movement has ever managed to accomplish through its influence on the Republican Party.
All true, but not exactly complete. Goldwater’s nomination ensured that different Republicans were in a position to react to eventual libeal overreach than would have been the case had the party nominated Nelson Rockefeller. We don’t know for certain what would have happened in an alternate universe where Rockefeller, Scranton, or (George) Romney was the 1964 nominee. I suspect Frum is right that it would have meant a better 1965-66 for conservatives, but would it have meant a better next 20 years?
Maybe, if Medicare and the Immigration Act of 1965 had never been enacted in their current forms. Maybe sans Goldwater the GOP would have gotten a little more credit for its role in the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s. But it is just as easy to imagine everything that happened in 1965-66 happening over a longer period of time, with no immediate liberal excess, no Ronald Reagan, and perhaps if we’re lucky a President Howard Baker by 1984. The domestic policy of an eventual Rockefeller Republican president probably wouldn’t have looked much different than the Great Society — after all, the domestic policy of the marginally more conservative Nixon administration didn’t.
Just as it’s difficult to recreate an alternate history, it’s hard to predict the future. The president who proved most disastrous to the Democratic Party wasn’t the liberal equivalent of Goldwater. It was Jimmy Carter, a putatively moderate Southerner who was nominated in reaction to the excesses of George McGovern and was not terribly popular among the most liberal elements of his party. Similarly, the president most responsible for the Republican Party’s current problems wasn’t Goldwater reincarnated. George W. Bush was a “compassionate conservative” and “reformer with results,” a Republican who trying to react to the excesses of the Gingrich Congress and ape the Democratic Leadership Council’s “small ball” playbook.
Bush had a better relationship with the right wing of his party than Carter had with the left wing of his. (Though this is partly because conservatives despised John McCain, the man Republicans nominated to replace Bush, and partly because of 9/11.) It’s hard to imagine Tom Coburn challenging Bush in 2004 the way Ted Kennedy ran against Carter in 1980. But Rush Limbaugh Dubya was not.
Yes, political parties are foolish to deliberately throw away elections running suicide missions instead of campaigns, because you never know what battles will be forever lost while the other party is in power. But political movements have to concern themselves with the rightness and wrongness of various ideas and policies. Sometimes those things are in conflict. That’s why we read our Adam Smith and learn about the division of labor.
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