The Contenders: A Cautionary Campaign Tale for Republicans

The Contenders: A Cautionary Campaign Tale for Republicans

Why you should care

Because the “creation myth” of modern American conservatism still looms large.

Learn more about Barry Goldwater’s landmark 1964 presidential campaign by watching The Contenders: 16 for ’16, a new TV series from OZY about the men and women who have run the ultimate political gauntlet in pursuit of the most powerful job on Earth. It airs every Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST this fall on PBS.

“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and … moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

It might sound like a Ted Cruz–ism, but really it was another conservative Senate phenom — Barry Goldwater, uttering the most famous lines of his 1964 presidential campaign. Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson — in one of the worst shellackings in the modern presidential era — but this year, conservatives have been celebrating as if it were a victory. “And I say victory because all you have to do … is look at what has happened in the last 50 years to see we really didn’t lose,” onetime Goldwater aide Vic Gold told an audience at the Heritage Foundation in 2014.

Phyllis Schlafly at home in 1975.

Phyllis Schlafly at home in 1975

Source Michael Mauney/Getty

You can certainly hear Goldwater’s ghost in the rhetoric of the Tea Party, and its echoes have been everywhere during the 2016 campaign. But for some in the Republican Party, his quixotic campaign remains as much a cautionary tale as a clarion call.

As an Arizonan, Goldwater was already exotic. (“I didn’t know anybody who had ever been to Arizona. This was pre-air conditioning!” Phyllis Schlafly, the grand dame of American conservatism, recalled at the Heritage event.) And, as OZY explores in a new episode of The Contenders: 16 for ’16, on Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST on PBS, Goldwater was an iconoclast in other ways too. The sharp-tongued, half-Jewish college dropout turned conservative intellectual was among the first to define the GOP by its dedication to the U.S. Constitution. (Today, it’s hard to find a Republican in Congress who doesn’t claim to carry a pocket-size copy of it in his pocket.) And Goldwater was serious about it. Though he backed the NAACP’s chapter, he voted against the Civil Rights Act the very year of his election because, as he said then, it unconstitutionally “tamper[ed] with the rights of association, the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion and the freedom of property,” even as he called segregation “morally wrong” and “economically bad.”

The kingmakers just absolutely dropped a bomb on him, and they wouldn’t let him win.

Phyllis Schlafly

Goldwater’s nomination was the result of a conservative insurrection, a rejection of insider politics as usual. The Washington, D.C., establishment — or “kingmakers,” as Schlafly labeled them in her self-published ’64 conservative war cry, A Choice, Not an Echo — were then, as they are now, pragmatists. They believed the best way to beat LBJ was to nominate liberal Republican New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. The conservative grassroots didn’t buy it. They’d suffered a series of presidential defeats and came to the 1964 convention prepared to upend the machine. And though Goldwater got the nomination, he took a hit — perhaps an incapacitating one: “The kingmakers just absolutely dropped a bomb on him, and they wouldn’t let him win,” Schlafly argues.

But Goldwater’s defeat was just a beginning. In the “creation myth” of modern American conservatism, Ronald Reagan rose from the ashes of Goldwater’s campaign. His speech at the 1964 GOP convention, “A Time for Choosing,” laid out for Republicans the choice between the Great Society’s big government and economic and personal freedom, between appeasing the Soviet Union and “peace through strength” (a phrase he attributed to Goldwater). Those who worked so hard for Goldwater “got our reward in 1980,” Schlafly said.

But the insurrectionists aren’t done. And as the Republican Party experiences another epic internal clash this year with the rise of Donald Trump, they might do well to consider what happened to Goldwater, including whether it’s worth another Goldwater-style defeat to lay the foundation for the second coming of Reagan.

*Sean Braswell contributed reporting.

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