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Remembering the Goldwater Campaign

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Remembering the Goldwater Campaign"

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Edmund Andrews writes:

I am tempted to think that the revulsion expressed Crittenden is part of a bigger ferment among Republicans. I’d like to think that there is a group of young Turks or moderates who agree with Frum that the GOP health-care rejectionism will turn out to be the party’s Waterloo. I’d like to think that there is a new generation GOP that is ready to take a chance on constructive engagement.

But my good friend Bruce Bartlett is skeptical. Republican leaders think their strategy since the 2008 election has been a great success. If they win back House and Senate seats this fall — as they almost certainly will — they’ll argue that their strategy has been vindicated. And the truth is, the Young Turks are among the most fervent of the hard-liners — the Jeb Hensarlings, Paul Ryans. The moderates are disappearing faster than ever, and the ones who stay are disdained.

I think that to understand what’s wrong with the conservative movement today, you need to think about Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential campaign. In ’64, the GOP establishment felt that Goldwater was too radical. They said that nominating a hard-rightist like Goldwater would be counterproductive. But conservative activists worked hard, and they did it. Goldwater got the nod. And, just as the establishment predicted, Goldwater got crushed. And just as the established predicted, it proved to be counterproductive. The 1964 landslide led directly to Medicare, Medicaid, Title I education spending, and the “war on poverty.” In the 45 years since that fateful campaign, the conservative movement managed to gain total control over the Republican Party and to sporadically govern the country. But it’s only very partially rolled back one aspect of the Johnson administration’s domestic policy.

Which is just to say that the conservative movement from 1964-2009 was a giant failure. By nominating Goldwater, it invited a massive progressive win that all the subsequent conservative wins were unable to undue. But the orthodox conservative tradition of ’64 is that it was a great success that laid the groundwork for the triumphs to come.

Which is to say that it’s not just a movement incapable of thinking seriously about the interests of the country, it can’t think rigorously about its own goals. 2009-2010 has already seen the greatest flowering of progressive policy since 1965-66. No matter how well Republicans do in the 2010 midterms, the right will never fully roll back what the 111th Congress has done. And yet, as Andrews suggests, if they win seats in 2010, conservatives will consider their behavior during 2009-10 to have been very successful.

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