Conservatism triumphed in the GOP in 1964, and in the nation in 1980, because Goldwater and Reagan unapologetically championed the ideas — and reflected the fighting spirit — of the army on the ground. But even the staunchest defenders of the leaders of this Congress cannot say they are doing that today…
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive – but to be young was very heaven!” So wrote Wordsworth of how his generation felt on first hearing news of the French Revolution.
And so it was when news came the night Barry Goldwater defeated Nelson Rockefeller in the California primary of 1964 and was now the certain nominee of the Republican Party.
From the day following Richard Nixon’s defeat in 1960 until the coup at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in ’64, where the Arizonan was nominated, the Goldwater movement was the conservative movement. It was the political expression of conservative revulsion at the “Me, too” Republicanism of the 1950s and of our dream of a new fighting faith that would one day drive the New Deal liberals out of Washington and lead America to victory in the Cold War.
It was not to be. Barry Goldwater was crushed in November, after having been demonized by the press as a hater, a racist, a fascist and a nut. But inside the GOP, Goldwaterism had triumphed.
In 1960, Nixon had traveled to New York to make his peace, and platform concessions, to Rockefeller in a “Pact of Fifth Avenue” that Goldwater would call “the Munich of the Republican Party.” But by 1965, Nixon knew that the center of gravity in the party had shifted south, west and to the right and that now the crucial endorsements were those of Strom Thurmond and Barry Goldwater.
If there was a single cause that united and propelled the new conservatism, it was anti-communism, the belief that the United States was floundering in its Cold War with a hostile ideology and empire on the march. “Why Not Victory?” Goldwater asked in the title of one of his slim books, and it perfectly reflected the sentiment of the conservative movement.
Soon after Goldwater’s crushing defeat, the title of “Mr. Conservatism” passed to the man who had best given voice to the Goldwater philosophy in that ’64 campaign: Ronald Reagan, who in 1980 would lead the movement to power and adopt the policies that would win the Cold War for the United States and the West.
With the death of the patriarch, it is time to inquire of the condition of the movement Goldwater called into being in Chicago in 1960, when he stood before the Republican Convention and roared, “Let’s grow up, conservatives … we can take this party back.”
Today, that conservative movement is not only a house divided, it is a house shattered, almost a spent force.
For upon what do conservatives any longer agree? They both supported and opposed expanding NATO and intervening in Bosnia. They are divided on whether the NAFTA and GATT trade deals are good for America. They disagree on immigration and term limits. On abortion, the heart of the Republican Party is strongly pro-life; Goldwater was laissez-faire. Social and cultural conservatives hold that a society that legitimates the homosexual lifestyle is neither moral nor healthy. Goldwater came to favor gays in the military.
To rekindle the old unity and spirit, Republicans have lately sought to rally around the core causes of conservatism: limited government, low taxes, free markets, a strong national defense.
Yet Senate Republicans voted 19-1 in committee for the $516 billion tobacco tax, and not a single government agency, not even the National Endowment for the Arts, has been closed by this Congress. Federal taxes are at record levels; the GOP is under pressure from its big-business financiers to produce $18 billion more in bailout money for the International Monetary Fund; and the size and strength of U.S. armed forces continue to dwindle.
Conservatism triumphed in the GOP in 1964, and in the nation in 1980, because Goldwater and Reagan unapologetically championed the ideas — and reflected the fighting spirit — of the army on the ground. But even the staunchest defenders of the leaders of this Congress cannot say they are doing that today.
Before conservatives can recapture America, they will have to answer basic questions: What does it mean to be a conservative in America in 1998? What are we willing to go down to defeat fighting for, as Barry Goldwater did so very long ago? The original conservatism sprang up in angry protest against the bipartisan establishment that was indifferent or hostile to what it believed. Thus, the successor of the conservative movement of 1960 to 1990 must surely rise the same way. To find it, we should be listening to the country, not looking to Washington.