The Presidential Election of 1964 was a turning point in American history. Lyndon Johnson, who had lost the Democratic Nomination in the last election to the eventual President, joined the administration and was set once again to run for the presidency that year. Despite being an early favorite, he had opposition from the left wing of the Democratic Party at the Convention and a brewing scandal involving an attack on American interest overseas that threatened the legitimacy of his candidacy. Sound a little familiar?
On the Republican side, however, their primary contest was a fight over the future direction of the conservative movement. The “Eastern Establishment” wing of the Republican Party, which had dominated the GOP for decades, was receiving a challenge from Arizona Senator, Barry Goldwater. Goldwater whose opposition to “New Deal” liberalism and unionism and a heavy-handed foreign policy ushered in a new brand of staunch conservatism. Winning primaries in the South and the West, Goldwater entered the 1964 Republican Convention a surprising favorite over establishment Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney and William Scranton. They, along with many other Republicans including former President Dwight Eisenhower, believed that Goldwater’s brand of conservatism was too extreme for America. This would inspire Goldwater to echo the rather famous line during his acceptance speech, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice… moderation in the in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Senator Goldwater and the GOP embraced extremism and began the general election by turning away from the moderate voices within their party. That said, during the general election, the prominent Establishment Republicans refused to endorse or campaign for him. And while other Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower and his Vice President, Richard Nixon, eventually backed his candidacy, they also had to distance themselves at times and call for repudiation of certain parts of Goldwater’s platform.
This too should sound familiar.
Well, the sides were set. Lyndon Johnson vs Barry Goldwater. And in one of the more lopsided elections in history, Lyndon Johnson beat the brakes off of Barry Goldwater, 486 Electoral Votes to 52. A 61-39% margin. The “Eastern Establishment” also known as the “Rockefeller Republicans” were right about their fears of Barry Goldwater’s strict and hardline conservatism. They knew the country would reject it and that is exactly what the country did. Resoundingly. Eventually Barry Goldwater would go back to the Senate and continued to be the standard bearer for conservatism. Until of course his lukewarm acceptance of choice on abortion rights in the 1970s and deeply critical stance on the emerging “Religious Right” in the 1980s put him out of the mainstream of where his party was. In 1986, Goldwater decided not to run for his sixth term and was replaced in the Senate by three-term Congressman and war hero John McCain.
Since then, John McCain has served rather admirably in the senate. There have been a few bumps in the road, but with his penchant for speaking plainly and, like his predecessor, willingness to stand up to the Religious Right, McCain is easily one of the most well liked and respected men in American politics. However, that reputation is in serious jeopardy. Senator McCain has his toughest re-election campaign in his career and his opponent’s greatest weapon is the Republican Nominee for president, Donald Trump.
This election year, Republican candidates nationwide will face the same fight over the direction of their party as they did in 1964. For the last few years, the Republican Party has had a bit of an identity crisis. While being lead by elected leaders like Senators McCain, Mitch McConnell, House Speakers like Paul Ryan and John Boehner and of course President George W. Bush, the base, or electoral foundation of conservative voters, have rebelled against that leadership for what they saw as a lack of adherence to their conservative principles. Although this rebellion did not happen when President Bush was spending hundreds of billions of dollars in wars we could not afford while cutting taxes making them even more unaffordable(they inexplicable waited until Barack Obama came into office), the conservative base launched movements like the Tea Party in response to government overspending. Coupled with social conservatism, the absolute backlash to the nation’s first African American President and a utter rejection of compromise, the conservative movement has been moving in two divergent paths once again. And this time, those following the more extreme path has a Presidential nominee on the ballot in November. Because it worked out so well for them last time they did back in 1964.
Now, Donald Trump can deny the realities of how elections work. He has after all given thousands of dollars to Hillary Clinton throughout her political career. But the reality is he’s on the top of the Republican ticket. Every other conservative will have to run with his name and reputation attached. And anyone running against these Republicans will do everything they can to tie Donald Trump and his extremist rhetoric and behavior to their opponents. Which is exactly what’s happening to John McCain. Nationally speaking, McCain’s home state of Arizona, which has voted for a Democrat for president ONCE in nearly 70 years is a polling toss up. Georgia, which has been equally paltry for Democratic candidates has been polling in favor of Hillary Clinton in recent polls. Similar trends have been shown in other states and with other candidates.
I do have to admit, I write this with the full knowledge that many Republicans, and possibly most Republicans disagree with Trump’s candidacy. I know many cannot identify with his extremism. But they will be identified as being culpable and responsible for him, no matter how they may feel. Succinctly speaking, his actions speak louder than their words. On the other side of the conservative coin, I get it. I really do. The conservative base feel frustrated and ignored by the “Establishment ” that has taken them for granted at best and at worst used them. Now they want revenge by throwing a wrench into the Establishment machine to turn things upside-down or to bring balance back to the GOP. But while the GOP wrestles with the direction of their party, they have rather lost sight of the bigger picture or do not care. The Republican Party is currently losing this election. While most polls have Clinton up anywhere from 4 to 9 percent, one polls actually has her up by 15%. The largest lead in any poll President Obama had in 2012 was 13% and no time in the age of polling has a candidate with any lead as large would go on to lose the general election.
Back in 1964, eventual Governor and President ronald reagan spoke in defense of Senator Barry Goldwater. In talking about the role of government he spoke the famous line “So we have come to a time for choosing.” And while at the time reagan was referencing the role of government in relation to the Democrat Lyndon Johnson vs the Republican Barry Goldwater, this year I suggest there is a new time for choosing. Again as reagan suggested, not left vs right, but they can choose to stand up for limited government and hoping for the best in humanity, principles even I know that the GOP is about. Or choose to have you and your party represented by a glorified slum lord turned reality TV star emboldened by a vein of extremism and nationalism that history has clearly shown to be unacceptable even when we’re at our most divided. An argument can be made that in 1964, Goldwater and the Republican Party could not have foreseen the electoral cataclysm they were headed for when they decided to embrace the more extreme side of their ideology. But as Shakespeare wrote, “what’s past is prologue.” Barry Goldwater’s perceived extremism defined his election. And while it may ultimately also doom his senatorial replacement, John McCain, it definitely is a road map that the GOP is also headed down, full bore, in 2016. Will you be the party of principles that picks it’s love for their country more than their hate for Hillary? Or will you be the party that ignores history and embrace extremism? It is not worth the price, especially when what you’re buying is damages you in the process.
Be that as it may, the choice is yours. Choose wisely.