It’s hard to know how to respond to the Republican candidates for the presidential nomination – should you feel horrified, entertained, amused, disinterested? It would seem that none of the potential candidates are qualified to be president, and that each of them has such serious flaws that their election could cause extraordinary harm to the country. It seems, further, that the situation this year is unique – and that it goes beyond ingrained partisan positions, that it does go directly to qualification for the job.
But, hold on, perhaps things are not so different this year. Remember 1968 (if you can), when the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, right wing, conservative Arizona senator, who led his party to an extraordinary defeat, carrying only six states (Arizona and 5 states of the deep south) and receiving only about 36% of the popular vote nationwide. How did the Republicans choose such an unelectable candidate, and was he in fact unelectable or did they make a series of mistakes during the campaign that sealed Goldwater’s fate?
A surprisingly interesting and readable book on the subject was published about five years ago. Written by J. William Middendorf II, the treasurer of the Goldwater campaign, and later American ambassador to the Netherlands, titled, “A Glorious Disaster”, the book describes (accurately, I would think) the Goldwater campaign as a disastrous campaign for the presidency in 1968, but as the genesis of today’s Republican party, a party dominated not by the traditional moderate eastern elite (Rockefeller, Scranton, Eisenhower, Javits, etc.), but by a new breed – ideological conservatives. Middendorf shows how so much of today’s Republican party’s ideology and organization are based on changes, in personnel and positions, developed during the Goldwater campaign.
When you look at the ideological positions of the Goldwater campaign, you see the ideological positions of many of today’s main line Republicans. When you look at campaign techniques – how funds are raised and accounted for, how polling is conducted, how public relations are handled – you see today’s mechanisms have their origins in the Goldwater campaign. When you look at the Conservatives criticism of the policies of the Democrats in 1968, you see they concentrated on the same ‘big government’ issues that resonate today. When you look at the personnel who first got involved during the Goldwater campaign – including Bill Buckley, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan – you certainly see the course the Republican party adopted and how it continued (and became so successful) to the present day.
Middendorf’s position is that Goldwater lost the election, but that the lessons learned in this loss have served the Republicans well, and led to the future victories of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and to the way the party relates to American voters today. At the same time, Middendorf is quite critical of the way the party handled this ideological transformation in 1968, the general sloppiness of so much of the campaign, the personal in-fighting that went on. He is equally critical of Goldwater’s campaign tactics. Gingrich-like, Goldwater had a hard time sticking to the message, and not going off on his own, giving off the cuff responses to questions with answers that came back to haunt him, often being misinterpreted and distorted, but always giving the Democrats fodder for their own campaign. Most harmful was not Goldwater’s position on civil rights (abhorrent as it might have been), which the moderate base of the country could probably ignore in 1968, but rather Goldwater’s perceived position as being nuclear slap-heavy, with a series of statements that appeared to broaden the number of situations where Goldwater thought tactical nuclear weapons would be available for use, including situations where the President would not personally have to approve their use. Whether or not Goldwater really was advocating an expanded potential use of nuclear weapons, or whether he was simply carelessly restating existing federal policy, was irrelevant – the damage was done.
The lessons for today (for Democrats and Republicans) are clear.