I recently read William Middendorf’s A Glorious Disaster: Goldwater's Presidential Campaign and the Origins of the Conservative Movement, which provides an interesting behind-the-scenes look at Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential run. While the book focuses primarily on campaign strategy, it is impossible to ignore the bigger picture — that is, the many parallels that exist between Goldwater’s era and today.
For instance, the Republican Party of the early 1960s faced an ideological struggle between small-government and big-government conservatives that closely mirrors the GOP infighting we have witnessed in the past few years.
Middendorf’s book notes a 1965 newspaper column by Goldwater in which he lashes out at a newly formed liberal Republican group that “is roughly dedicated to the proposition that the best way to be a Republican is to be a frugal or efficient Democrat, to follow the same philosophy, advocate the same bureaucratic solutions, but promise to do it better or for a few cents less.”
Similarly, in his forthcoming book, Leviathan on the Right, Michael Tanner notes how roughly four decades later, the GOP is embroiled in essentially the same fight:
Goldwater and Reagan-style conservatism is increasingly being supplanted by a new trend in conservative thought, which might loosely be termed big-government conservatism. This type of conservatism believes in a strong and activist government that intervenes in many areas of our lives, from dealing with issues such as poverty or health care to protecting the cultural institutions of our society. Increasingly it has come to resemble contemporary liberalism in its means, if not its ends.
While Middendorf does not really address current politics in his book, the 1964 election appears to share some odd similarities with the 2008 race. In ’64, the frontrunners for the GOP nomination included a maverick senator from Arizona (Goldwater), a governor named Romney (George of Michigan) and a moderate executive from New York (Nelson Rockefeller). The early front runners in 2008 are once again a maverick senator from Arizona (John McCain), a governor named Romney (George’s son, Mitt of Massachusetts) and a moderate executive from New York (Rudy Giuliani). Of course, in 1964 Goldwater won the nomination and was trounced in the general election by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
While I’m not sure he’s a proper heir to the limited government legacy of Goldwater, McCain is arguably the frontrunner for the ’08 GOP nomination. And it might well be time for the senator from Arizona to take note of the failures of his predecessor’s campaign. Goldwater made his fair share of blunders during the campaign, but in the end he was beaten handily primarily because the general public believed his foreign policy views were too hawkish and could lead America into World War III — not because he espoused a reduction in the size and scope of the federal government. If McCain fails to learn from history, his success in the general election may mirror that of Goldwater.