Barry Goldwater was not one to mince words.
Thus it was that in one news conference circa December 1961 he said this:
“Sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea.”
Ouch. President Dwight Eisenhower took the time to caution on saying things like this, telling Goldwater: “Barry, you speak too quick and too loud.” Goldwater is said to have ruefully acknowledged Ike’s advice, saying: “There are words of mine floating around in the air that I would like to reach up and eat.”
No doubt he did. By the fall of 1964, when he was the Republican nominee for president, Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats were running this television commercial, which depicted the USA floating in water while a saw inexorably began sawing its way down the East Coast. A deep voice intones Goldwater’s words, then asks “can a man who makes statements like this be expected to serve all the people, justly and fairly? Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.” While this wasn’t the only reason for Goldwater’s landslide loss — the shock of the JFK assassination, as Goldwater himself knew, made the election of any Republican a year later almost impossible — it contributed to his image as the guy who shot from the hip and thought later, if at all. The image was unfair — deeply so. But it stuck in the day, and it didn’t help Goldwater or conservatives.
This tale of presidential politics comes to mind as Senator Ted Cruz now faces New York voters — and voters in other Eastern states — after famously saying in an Iowa debate with Donald Trump that Trump “embodies New York values…. You know, I think most people know exactly what New York values are. Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan. I’m just saying.”
As I persist in saying, I think the world of Ted Cruz. I’ve suggested he should be Donald Trump’s running mate. (Trump himself said recently that crazier things have happened.) But I confess that when I heard Cruz say this I winced. Why? Because I thought that eventually he would get to exactly the moment he is right this minute. Having to waste valuable time explaining to New York voters exactly what he meant. And there would be no question that the New York media — not to mention Donald Trump himself — would be laying in wait for him, primed with that quote. Worse, were he to win the presidential nomination or even in my formulation be the second half of a Trump-Cruz ticket Hillary and her minions — exactly like LBJ in 1964 — would be out there with some dopey but relentlessly effective ad that is guaranteed to tell not just every New Yorker but every Easterner between Maine and the Florida Keys that Texan Cruz has a deep-seated animus against them and, just like Barry Goldwater, wishes they could somehow be sawed off and floated out to sea.
In short? Not good. Not good at all.
It is often correctly noted that the Goldwater campaign launched Ronald Reagan, with Reagan famously delivering his “A Time for Choosing” speech for Goldwater that fall of 1964. Certainly true. But what is also notable is that Reagan never had Goldwater’s problem with, as it was in Ike’s formulation to Barry himself, speaking “too quick and too loud.” Reagan never spent a nanosecond attacking the voters he sought to represent. To the contrary, he could give give as good as he got when it came to attacking his opponents. Neither his opponents for governor of California or president could escape scathing criticisms. But the voters? Not a chance.
In Reagan’s case, it is notable that when he ran for president the moderate GOP Establishment of the day insisted repeatedly that Reagan was too extreme to be elected president. In particular it was said that Californian Reagan could never carry New York, Pennsylvania, or other states in the Northeast. In fact, it was Gerald Ford who lost New York and Pennsylvania — and Reagan who won them both. In fact, Reagan twice carried not only New York in 1980 and 1984 but the entire Northeast with, in 1980, the sole exception of Rhode Island. Which means that the conservative Reagan carried New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. (And by 1984 he finally carried Rhode Island.) These being states that lots of what came to be known as Reagan Democrats — Americans who had voted for Democrats not only nationally but at the state level — called home.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Ted Cruz stands no chance of replicating Reagan’s feat with that attack on “New York values.” I know, I know. He meant all those New York libs. Presumably Goldwater meant all those East Coast libs of his day. But in neither case did it come out that way. Goldwater would pay the price for this, as seen in that LBJ ad, and now Cruz is paying the price for his words. The New York Daily News, no friend of Trump’s either, headlines “Take the FU Train, Ted.”
Can this be fixed? Take it to the bank that Donald Trump has zero intention of helping his opponent extract foot from mouth. But if Ted Cruz is ever to be a viable presidential or vice presidential candidate, he needs to work on turning this around.
In a way, Cruz’s mistake with New Yorkers is not unlike Trump’s recent problem with women and abortion. That too is nothing more than ammunition for Trump-hating liberals — not to mention Trump-hating Republicans.
When handed lemons, as the old wisdom goes, make lemonade. The other day I suggested that Trump turn the tables on his opponents by taking a page from Teddy Roosevelt’s campaign against “hyphenated-Americans,” going after the destructive not to mention racist and sexist nature of identity politics. Is there lemonade here in this “New York values” Cruz gaffe? Somewhere in the political universe there must be. But if nothing else, Cruz — and for that matter Trump and every other Republican out there running for everything from president to dog catcher — should recall Eisenhower’s advice to Barry Goldwater: learn never to “speak too quick and too loud.” Otherwise, like Barry Goldwater, they will be eternally wishing they could “reach up and eat” their words — words that can and will be used to keep them from a victory on election day. A victory, in presidential terms for the GOP in 2016, that is there to be had.