The Goldwater Myth
Right now, the conservative movement is in a state of transition. The Bush (father and son) era is over, the influence of the Gingrich-Armey-Dole Republicans of the Nineties is fading, and the Republican party seems unsure of what ideological direction to more towards. The GOP nominee is John McCain, who, depending on your feelings towards him, is at best a maverick, or at worst a conservative apostate. Many conservatives don’t know which way to turn.
Many are looking to the past for guidance. The conservative movement became a political force in 1964, when Barry Goldwater was nominated instead of the very liberal New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. Understandably, many on the Right look to this episode for guidance. But sadly, the whole affair has become shrouded in myth and urban legend.
It seems that many, perhaps most, conservatives think that in 1964, the Republicans nominated the conservative paragon Barry Goldwater in a hopeless, quixotic effort to defeat Lyndon Johnson. He lost, but directly paved the way for Reagan’s victory, so Goldwater’s loss was a good thing for conservatives.
If that’s your view of the Goldwater candidacy, then everything (maybe not everything, but a great deal) that you know about Barry Goldwater’s 1964 candidacy is wrong.
Goldwater was one of the most important conservatives of his day (although a lack of competition helped his standing). During a time when conservatism was viewed as a losing cause, Goldwater stood his ground, and attracted many, many people to the Right. However, it is often forgotten that Goldwater was a Republican first, and a conservative leader second. He supported the party man, Richard Nixon, in 1968 over Ronald Reagan, the conservative choice. In 1976, he gave his support to Gerald Ford, jilting Reagan once again. Incredibly, he once declared that the uber-liberal Nelson Rockefeller would be a good president (and he evidently meant it—in his 1979 autobiography With No Apologies, he reiterated the sentiment, putting the relevant quote prominently on the back cover). Goldwater did a lot for the conservative movement—but he was nothing like the conservative leader Ronald Reagan was.
Another misconception about Goldwater is the idea that he was the sort of perfect conservative the present-day GOP needs. He wasn’t. If he ran in today’s GOP, he would almost certainly not be nominated—because he would be too liberal.
Goldwater supported an aggressive foreign policy (“extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”), a balanced budget, low taxes—and abortion. Social conservatives make up an integral part of the GOP base, and it’s hard to imagine any Republican winning without them. And as the Rudy Giuliani candidacy proved, they won’t vote for a pro-choice candidate. Goldwater represented the next wave in American politics—but he didn’t wholly represent the conservative revolution..
A third Goldwater myth is the idea that he was nominated only to make a point; that he stood absolutely no chance against the Democratic nominee. By the time Goldwater was nominated, that was in fact true—he stood no real chance against Lyndon B. Johnson. But at time the Draft Goldwater movement formed in 1961, the president was John F. Kennedy, who was a much easier target. He was a polar opposite of Goldwater—rich, privileged, Northeastern, and liberal, while Goldwater came from Arizona from a less advantaged background. A Goldwater-Kennedy match-up would have been challenging, but Goldwater would have had a definite chance.
Unfortunately for Goldwater, Kennedy’s assassination changed all that. Overnight, Kennedy became a legend, and Goldwater’s opponent became Johnson, whose background was similar to Goldwater’s. Given that fact, and the fact that many Americans didn’t want to change leadership so quickly after Kennedy’s assassination, Goldwater (and probably any Republican candidate) was doomed. But it is important to note that Goldwater’s supporters didn’t deliberately nominate a losing candidate—they nominated a conservative candidate whom they thought could win.
(This myth is often used as a justification for voting for Ron Paul, Bob Barr, Pat Buchanan, or any other unelectable candidate. Supporters of this type of candidate often cite the Goldwater nomination as a flawed precedent.)
George Will famously said that “it took 16 years to count the votes [of the 1964 election], and Goldwater won.” That is wrong—Goldwater was no Reagan. His electoral strategy was flawed, and his vision of conservatism would have almost certainly been almost been a losing one.
Reagan’s great victory lay in the fact that he attracted working-class social conservatives—who up to that point had often voted Democrat—to the Republican banner. The influx of social conservatives pushed the GOP over the top, and created a new Republican majority (at least for a while). Goldwater’s vision was essentially different—it didn’t the crucial social conservative bloc. Goldwater deserves credit for his contributions to the conservative cause, but he wasn’t Ronald Reagan, and in fact disagreed in large part with Reagan’s ultimately successful conservative vision. For all of Goldwater’s virtues, his strategy was, and always would have been, wholly ineffective.
Why is Goldwater important today? Because the conservative movement must choose a new direction today, and as the cliché goes, the past is the key to the future. The Goldwater candidacy holds many lessons for conservatives, and it is crucial that conservatives know what actually happened in 1964.