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Posted by on Mar 1, 2009 in Politics | 1 comment

The Goldwater Mirage

David Frum has an excellent essay on the “Goldwater Myth.” He explains the myth this way:

In 1964, after years of watered down politics, Republicans turned to a true conservative, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Yes, Goldwater lost badly. But in losing, he bequeathed conservatives a national organization – and a new champion, Ronald Reagan. Goldwater’s defeat opened the way to Reagan’s ultimate triumph and the conservative ascendancy of the 1980s and 1990s.

This (the myth continues) is the history we need to repeat. If we can just find the right messenger in 2012, the message that worked for Reagan will work again. And even if we cannot find the right messenger, losing on principle in 2012 will open the way to a more glorious victory in 2016.

Frum thinks this myth, will complicate or block any reform that should take place within American conservatism. In essence, it gives justifies the GOP to nominate someone who might be considered a “true conservative,” but that is an all around terrible candidate. Maybe someone like Sarah Palin, who happens to lead the pack for the likely 2012 candidates for the Republican nomination. The end result would be a further damaged GOP and a stronger and seemingly invincible Democratic party.

Frum explains what really happened in 1964:

What happened in 1964 was an unredeemed and unmitigated catastrophe for Republicans and conservatives. The success that followed 16 years later was a matter of happenstance, not of strategy. That’s the real lesson of 1964, and it is the lesson that conservatives need most to take to heart today.

1964 was always bound to be a Democratic year. The difference between Barry Goldwater’s 38.5% candidacy and the 44% or 45% that might have been won by a Nelson Rockefeller or a William Scranton was the effect on down-ballot races.

Republicans lost 36 seats in the House of Representatives in 1964, giving Democrats the biggest majority in the House any party has enjoyed since the end of World War II. Republicans dropped 2 seats in the Senate, yielding a Democratic majority of 68-32, again the most lopsided standing in any election from the war to the present day.

This huge congressional majority – call it the Goldwater majority – liberated President Johnson from any dependence on conservative southern Democrats. In 1964, only 46 Senate Democrats voted for the great Civil Rights Act; 21 opposed. Without Republican support, the Act would not have passed. (And indeed while 68% of Senate Democrats voted for the Act, 81% of Senate Republicans did.)

While dependent on southern Democrats, President Johnson had to develop a careful, pragmatic domestic agenda that balanced zigs to the right (in 1964, Congress passed the first across the board income tax cut since the 1920s) with zags to the left (the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 which created Head Start among other less successful programs).

Then came the Republican debacle of November 1964. Goldwater’s overwhelming defeat invited a tsunami of liberal activism. The 89th Congress elected in 1964 enacted both Medicaid and Medicare. It passed a new immigration law, opening the way to a surge of 40 million newcomers, the overwhelming majority of them from poor Third World countries. It dramatically expanded welfare eligibility and other anti-poverty programs that together transformed the urban poor of the 1950s into the urban underclass of the 1970s and 1980s.

So, the disaster that was 1964 led to a liberalism that was unchecked and created policy that were disasters. Frum notes that if Goldwater had not been the Republican nominee in ’64, but it was some less “pure” like a Nelson Rockefeller, the GOP would have still loss the White House, but they might have held on their numbers in Congress, which might have result in legislation that was not as wildly liberal.

In closing Frum says that the GOP needs to nominate someone that can appeal to the whole country. I think that is his way of saying, they need someone that can do more than excite the base or represent “happy meal conservatism.” The reason, being that they need a strong candidate at the top who can help the Republicans win down ballot:

As the next presidential cycle begins, our priority should be to identify presidential candidates who can run strongly in every region of the country – not because we expect to win every region of the country, but because we want to help elect Republican congressional candidates in every region of the country. Our present strategy is one that is paving the way not merely to another defeat at the presidential level, but to a further shriveling of our congressional party –and an utterly unconstrained Obama second term that will make LBJ’s ascendancy look moderate and humble in comparison.

That is something that the GOP needs to consider as we prepare for 2012. As we can see, Obama is not leading as the moderate that he presented himself to be; he is running to the left. The GOP can either find a candidate that will present an alternative vision of governing, one that can appeal to moderates and independents and call also help candidates in congressional races, or they can look for a conservative “savior” who will lose spectacularly and give Obama and the Democrats a stronger majority that will make what is going on now seem like a picnic.