October 27, 1964.
The polls were dismal. And they were accurate. Just over 38% of the American people were getting ready to vote for the first modern conservative to be nominated for president, Arizona’s Senator Barry Goldwater. Nonetheless, a fledgling conservative, actor Ronald Reagan, boldly committed to do a television commercial supporting Goldwater. The commercial was a version of a speech he had begun delivering around the country as he toured General Electric plants in his role as GE spokesman. The name of the talk was “A Time for Choosing,” and it aired the evening of October 27th, forty-three years ago this month. Eventually, the speech made Reagan president.
But why? And what does this have to do with Rush Limbaugh?
To say that Barry Goldwater and the conservative cause got 38% of the vote is another way of saying that Lyndon B. Johnson got 61% of the vote for the liberal cause. He campaigned explicitly on expanding the New Deal, the vast extension of government that was the brainchild of his political hero and role model, Franklin D. Roosevelt. LBJ crisscrossed America that fall of 1964 promising Americans a “Great Society” in which the government would declare war on poverty, spend billions on health care and education and housing and more, more, more. All of this combined with a promise not to send American boys to fight in Asia.
As the 2008 campaign gets under way, it is critical for Americans — and especially for conservatives — to understand what this campaign is — and is not — about.
It is not about Hillary Clinton. Yes, she has a terrible record as spouse of the president in the use-by-proxy of executive power. Yes, she is the only candidate in the race for whom a prosecutor once drew up a draft indictment. But it is the sheerest of follies to think that the decision in 2008 is about her (or for that matter, any other Democrat who may, however improbably, defeat her in the race for the Democratic nomination).
Nor is the 2008 election about Rudy, Fred, Mitt, John or the rest. Yes they individually have flaw A, B, or C. No, none of them are Ronald Reagan. But none of this is the real concern of 2008.
What the 2008 campaign is really about is the next phase in what has become an almost century old argument on the role of government in American life. And conservatism, from the moment Ronald Reagan’s image faded from the television screen that crisp October night, has been winning the argument. Contrary to appearances in 1964, it won then and it continues to win today. Why?
Elections, and 2008 will be no exception in terms of the way the dinosaur Old Media tries to present it to the American people, are not about personalities. On the surface? Sure. There will be much talk about the woman candidate just as there was about the glamorous candidate (JFK) or the extreme candidate (Goldwater) or the smiling candidate (Ike), the plain spoken candidate (Truman) and so on. It has ever been thus.
But all of this fluff masks the very central fact that the idea of more government running things in American life has been tried — and found to be an abysmal failure. FDR and LBJ won the day in their elections — but the downside was exactly just that. They did “win.” Their ideas were tried. In the short run, the American people liked what they saw. But inevitably, life never being static, as a result an entirely unanticipated reality began to come into view of what happens when government runs things in the fashion envisioned by FDR, LBJ, and now Hillary Clinton. Slowly, with that 38% of the American people in 1964 getting it first, the country began to understand what actually happens when liberalism “wins.”
HERE’S A SHORT LIST (a very short list!) of government programs inspired by the liberalism that so animated FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, and their status today.
* Social Security — Reagan horrified liberals on the night he gave that televised speech for Goldwater by pointing out that Social Security, as run by the government, was “$298 billion in the hole.” The 2007 Social Security Trustees Report says the program, is, to use Reagan’s term, now “in the hole” in net present value terms for $6.8 trillion dollars more in benefits than it will receive in taxes. Projection? Massive annual deficits will begin running in just ten years.
* Medicare — The 2007 report from the Trustees of this program states that there is a “Medicare funding warning,” attached to this LBJ signature program and that “fund assets are projected to be exhausted” in a mere twelve years. Fraud is so extensive in the program that Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt recently asked Congress for $1.3 billionâ€¦.that’s billionâ€¦just to try and keep pace with the amount of corruption in the program.
* Medicaid — Estimates of fraud and waste in this program, according to the Heritage Foundation, run between $15-$25 billion annually.
* Education — The Detroit public school system, as pungently noted by Newt Gingrich, is a prime example of the problems that result from the bureaucratic mind-set so favored by liberalism. Run solely by liberals using every last tool of the liberal philosophical playbook, the Detroit system, as reported by the Gates Foundation, manages to graduate only one-fourth of its freshmen on time, with Education Week magazine saying the system manages to graduate 22% of its students. Some version of this problem has crippled big city school systems around the country, all of them using the liberal big-government, big-bureaucracy model. Here in my own state of Pennsylvania the Philadelphia school system was in such dire straits in 2001 (a deficit of $200 million) it prompted a takeover by the state.
* Housing — In 1949, as part of Truman’s Fair Deal, the federal government launched urban renewal as a policy of the federal government. It proved to be a disaster, dislocating tens of thousands of small businesses and destroying neighborhoods. Public housing projects became nothing more than human dumping grounds crawling with, as one report had it, “drug-dealing predators.” Notorious projects like Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, the New Brunswick Homes and the Christopher Columbus Homes in New Jersey, and the Ellen Wilson project in the District of Columbia were so bad they finally had to be destroyed. As a young aide to then-HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, I toured the Wilson project, stunned at what my colleagues and I saw. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, outrageous. And just to show the problem was philosophical and not simply of American origin, then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher faced the same problem with “council flats” — and persuaded Parliament to finally sell them.
There are, needless to say, many, many examples beyond these. One of those examples is the City of New Orleans. With all the on-the-button criticism of big government failure during Katrina (why were all those poor people left behind, went the rant) the critics politely skipped over the obvious: what in God’s name were all those poor people doing there living as they did before Katrina even got up steam? They were there, and had been so for decades, mired in a cesspool of bad education, crime and housing — because, drum roll, the liberal philosophy was running the show from start to finish.
THIS IS THE VERY HEART of the debate to come in 2008. Liberals know it, conservatives know it — and most prominently, Rush knows it.
Hillary Clinton, who in essence abandoned her “Goldwater Girl” roots for the arguments of LBJ has made herself a spokeswoman for a philosophy that hit its high water mark in November of 1964 with Goldwater’s “defeat.” Forty-three years later — five entire decades! — her answers to every major issue is the same as LBJ’s were when Ronald Reagan spoke to the nation for the very first time that October night. Tax, tax more and let the government do it. Clinton on the energy crisis? Take the profits from private sector oil companies and give them to the government. Clinton on health care? Take the one section of the health care economy that works and re-make it in the image of Medicare and Medicaid. No word on how much she believes her program should set aside for the inevitable epidemic of fraud and corruption that will accompany her health care program. Clinton on the capital gains tax? Raise it. The personal income tax? Raise it.
On November 3, 1964, Barry Goldwater was buried at the polls. Lyndon Johnson and the idea of liberalism reigned supreme. The victory had been endorsed by the New York Times, cheered on by the three existing major television networks, and the Congress was embarrassingly lopsided in LBJ’s favor. The entire liberal establishment of the day dismissed Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan as bit players fighting against the inevitably of an age of governmental enlightenment with, of course, liberal elites in charge.
And they got it wrong.
Patiently, brick-by-brick with the help of a growing conservative army, under relentless political and personal attack, the two men went on to lead a stunningly successful movement of ideas. These ideas did not simply produce election victories. They were part of a massively successful intellectual assault that Goldwater and Reagan led in opposition to what once seemed to be the unquestioned wisdom of the ages. They not only began unshackling the American economy to stunning success, Reagan, with help from Goldwater in the Senate and Thatcher and Pope John Paul II abroad, brought about the literal destruction of the evil empire that was the Soviet Union.
That success, inevitably, so angers defenders of what’s left of the tattered liberal flag that they, like their predecessors, will stop at nothing to personally destroy the heirs of Goldwater and Reagan’s victory. They have too much at stake to let go of what’s left in what was once a vast liberal empire that extended as far as the philosophical eye could see. They once controlled the White House, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the media and the handful of think tanks that existed. But beginning that night in October of 1964 they were under siege.
HAVING SEEN CLOSE-UP THE ATTEMPTS to destroy President Reagan, one recognizes instantly what’s at stake here as they go after Rush. Like Ronald Reagan, he is the premiere conservative spokesman of his day. The fact that he draws an audience of twenty million people absolutely terrifies liberal leaders. Terrifies them. Ronald Reagan gave one televised speech that October and lit up Goldwater’s switchboard with new found conservatives. Rush speaks for three hours, five days a week. Precisely like Reagan he patiently and with great good humor (as, of course, the sole occupant of “the prestigious Attila the Hun Chair at the Limbaugh Institute for Conservative Studies”) walks listeners through the foundations of conservatism and the real world effects of liberalism.
Reagan used to draw gales of laughter from increasing crowds in his career as he said the most dangerous words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” In Rush’s hands this point gets illustrated with the tale of New Orleans Mayor “School Bus” Nagin. Combined with television’s visual images of a flooded parking lot filled with government-run school buses rendered completely ineffective in the life-or-death task of rescuing residents, in three words Rush illustrated with unerring and stinging accuracy exactly what a floundering, bureaucratized liberal attempt at help looks like — and its deadly effects. If you, to cite one not-so-stray example, are defending the idea that government can run health care in America better than the private sector, Rush becomes one formidable man with a microphone. But if you hope people will forget you have trashed the troops as ignorant murderers and Nazis, and Rush calls you out with sound-bite chapter and verse, playing back your words to millions, Rush becomes one very dangerous man indeed.
One year and a month away from the 2008 election the stakes are clear. Liberals are not fighting for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or John Edwards or anyone else. They are in the fight of their lives to defend a way of life that has become the indefensible. Beginning with contempt for the military, they have become the epitome of pacifism abroad and failure at home. Yet make no mistake. In this fight they will, as they have in the past, say and do anything — anything — that they believe is necessary to win.
Today Rush Limbaugh stands in their way, just as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan once did. But like Ronald Reagan, Rush is not alone — and unlike Barry Goldwater in 1964, we’re not 38% anymore. Whatever happens in 2008, conservatives are here to stay, Rush will keep talking, liberalism will keep unraveling, and Americans will keep listening. And the men and women in uniform? It doesn’t even have to be said what they think of Rush Limbaugh.
That’s the real Goldwater-Reagan victory.