Barry Goldwater was a gentleman compared with Donald Trump, but it didn't do him much good. He was the deeply conservative Republican candidate for President in 1964, and the last to so divide the party that a good many moderate Republicans refused to campaign for him.
His Democrat opponent, Lyndon Baines Johnson, won 61.1 per cent of the vote, the most lopsided popular vote in US history. Yet four years later, a more moderate Republican, Richard Nixon, won office. There could be a lesson in that even for Australian conservatives of the no-quarter winner-take-all persuasion. Half a loaf is sometimes better than none.
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Johnson depicted Goldwater as a dangerous extremist, mentally and morally unfit to be anywhere near the nuclear trigger. Goldwater sometimes seemed eager to help accentuate the impression, first created, in any event by Republican opponents in the primaries. The Goldwater forces had campaigned, like Trump and Ted Cruz as outsiders, not insiders – in effect against their own party. In his nomination speech, he declared that "extremism in defence of liberty is no vice … and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." He opposed Johnson's Civil Rights Act, and stood for smaller government, lower taxes, reduced welfare and selling off the Tennessee Valley Authority.
One of Goldwater's campaign slogans was "In your heart, you know he's right". A popular, if unofficial, counter-slogan, was "In your guts, you know he's nuts." Among Johnson campaign advertisements, Wikipedia reminds me, were images of a little girl counting backwards petals picked from a daisy, which morphed into a launch countdown and a nuclear explosion.
Another, titled "Confessions of a Republican" featured a monologue in which a man spoke of having voted for previous Republicans such as Eisenhower, but was now worrying about how the party had been taken over by fringe groups, people with weird ideas and the head of the Ku Klux Klan.
Like the Australian Liberal Party, the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, was a broad right-of-centre church. It included moderates of broadly liberal economic outlook, markedly less statist and market-interventionist than the Democrats but comfortable enough about the broad size and activities of government. People with such ideas had been engaged in turn and turnabout government for a century, without ever much frightening the horses. Republican moderates were more numerous on the north eastern seaboard.
In the mid-west and south-west, Republicans tended to be more religiously and economically conservative. They were individualists and anti-big government, keen on reducing the size and reach of the state, particularly with welfare programs. They were, at the time, less keen on civil rights, though they were only beginning a process of capture of the white working class vote, and the votes of southern Democrats. Moderate Republicans, many of these thought, were no better than Democrats.
Until then, moderates had usually defeated conservative standard-bearers in Republican primaries. But Goldwater, and his organisation campaigned hard against moderates such as Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton. The luck seemed to run Goldwater's way.
Prescott Bush, father of George H.W. and grandfather of George W and Jeb, helped doom Rockefeller. When Nelson divorced his wife and married another woman, Senator Bush asked, "Have we come to the point where the governor of a great state [New York] – one who perhaps aspires to nomination for president of the United States – can desert a good wife, mother of his grown children, divorce her, then persuade a young mother of four children to abandon her husband and four children and marry the governor?"
The conservative Goldwater crusade campaigned against moderates, arguing, (much as Tea Party-influenced candidates and non-establishment Republicans have in 2016) that many elected moderate Republicans were little different from Democrats. The vehemence and bitterness of the campaign, and the desperation of moderate Republicans to find a candidate – any candidate – to beat Goldwater inflamed the differences. It made reconciliation at the Republican Convention impossible.
Goldwater did not go in with an absolute majority of votes, but could not be headed off. He won easily on the first ballot. The response of moderates, essentially, was to walk away from the campaign, essentially refusing to lift a finger for it. Millions of people who would normally have voted Republican could not be bothered to vote on election day.
In theory, holding primaries followed by a convention first divides, then unites a party around the winner. But Goldwater's personality, tactics and philosophy had completely alienated half the party. As now, some preferred that their party lost than that Goldwater became president. Even many whose opposition was not ideological thought any campaign based on Goldwater's attitudes could not win popular support. Goldwaterism had no more time for moderates than Democrats.
Principles are all very well, but one gets no chance to put them into practice until one can get power. As Gough Whitlam once remarked, only the impotent can afford to be pure.
But the Goldwater Republican Party was under the domination of people who couldn't see the point of fighting for, or winning power, if one had to compromise on principle.
It's an approach that a fatalistic Tony Abbott, rejecting reconciliation with his critics before getting the sack from his caucus last year, summarised as "death before dishonour."
The Republican mutiny of 1964 had other consequences. Popular presidential candidates have "coat tail" effects. Their popularity causes their supporters to vote for other party people standing for the Senate, House of Representatives, state governorships, and state and country elections, including for sheriff and dogcatcher.
But Goldwater produced headwinds, not tailwinds. Four Republican senators lost to Democrat challengers; so did 36 Republican congressmen. LBJ effectively had a two-thirds majority in each house.
It was a Democrat high water mark, and the tide went out quickly.
Johnson, who had effectively portrayed himself as the steady and anti-war candidate, was soon committing more and more American troops to war in Vietnam. He suffered the political consequences as defeat loomed, 50,000 soldiers were killed and the American population tired of the futile carnage. Within three years, he was defeated by an anti-war candidate at an early primary, and decided to retire rather than recontest the presidency.
Moreover, Johnson's enthusiasm for civil rights and his war against poverty tore the Democratic Party apart, particularly in the old South. Until 1964, Democrats "owned" the old Deep South. "Yellow Dog" Democrats – those who would vote for a yellow dog rather than a Republican – had helped resist voting rights for African Americans, a century after the Civil War. The Republicans, the party of the successful northern states and Abraham Lincoln, was still deeply unpopular there.
But those rebuilding the Republican Party after 1964 discovered a south that was angry and alienated by the extension of voting rights to African Americans, and the removal of the trappings of segregation, including by busing. It found words, and dog whistles, for articulating this resentment, and was able to capture this vote. That many Democrats, particularly from the north and east, responded with condescension and scorn to the screams of working class whites as they lost their privileged place, doubled up the success of the tactic. Republicans have, more or less, owned the "Yellow Dog" vote since.
Democrats tend to win if they can mobilise a high turnout. Republicans tend to win if the turnout is low. Effective Democrats, such as Bill Clinton and Barak Obama, have been able to neutralise the Yellow Dog vote by forming coalitions of African Americans, Latinos and organised labour to counter the coalition building of Republicans.
Four years after Goldwater dragged the Republican Party to record lows, a Republican, Richard Nixon (in today's terms relatively moderate) became president. He was re-elected in a landslide, if not one of 1964 proportions, in 1972, four years later. Nixon's resignation in scandal brought in another Democrat, but did not greatly cramp the Republicans, who won the next three terms. Two of these involved Ronald Reagan, an unabashed conservative and hero of the old Goldwater factions. It's hard to say that the abandonment and defeat of Goldwater did the Republicans lasting harm.
Donald Trump is certainly not a conservative in the Republican mould. He may not be a conservative, social or economic, at all. He may be a mere opportunist and not one at all. But his appeal during the primary season has been essentially to conservative Republicans and to those who have felt disenfranchised and betrayed by political parties. A good many have come, belatedly, to understand that many of the economic policies advocated by small-government anti-interventionist rich business types have not been in the interests of an undereducated and underpaid working class.
But Trump has campaigned outrageously. He has completely dominated the airwaves, and made most of the campaigns about himself. Outrageous would be terrible if it was unsuccessful, but, so far, it has worked. To the frustration of the Republican establishment, and its old mainstream, the man is beyond shame, consistency, or even fidelity to what he said yesterday. Moreover, he mocks and derides everyone of that establishment and mainstream. A good many Republicans honestly believe that it would be better, both for America and their party, if he lost.
No one believes that he has any coat tails, and an additional fear is that Republicans could lose control of the Senate if he is leading the campaign. The Republicans have a 55-45 majority in the Senate, but, this year, 24 Republican places are up for grabs and only 10 Democrat places.
Every conventional tactic, and vast sums of campaign money, have been thrown against Trump, without success. He has demolished any candidates capable of being called moderate, and his only viable opponent, Ted Cruz, looks every bit as unsuitable and unfit for office, only dumber and worse. With Trump or Cruz, support turns more on emotion; reason has been of little avail.
The commentary is filled with discussion by desperate "traditional" Republicans about whether Trump can be stopped, and if so, how. Should the "party", somehow, "intervene" by, somehow, expelling Trump and choosing a candidate more acceptable to mainstream Republicans?
Endless permutations of convention tactics can be rehearsed. But it seems impossible that the mainstream party take the party back, for now anyway. It has made a virtue of loose organisation and the primacy of primaries, and can hardly overrule results. The party is, for now, in the hands of crazies.
The Donald has enthused millions of people, particularly of the male, white, working class. But even if every one of these mobilised to vote, their votes fall well short of a majority of the electorate, or even that part of the electorate disposed to vote. Even less so if many Republicans are not enthused about Trump. Or if Democrats can be made so frightened about what he might do in office that they would rush out, in any weather, to vote against him. The scarier a Republican crusade, the more easy to mount a counter-crusade.
Many Tea Party folk and not a few Christian fundamentalist groupings – some of those whose Republican activism and enthusiasm has driven out people of more moderate persuasion – are not deeply keen on Trump.
The realists believe that Trump simply cannot unite the party, and extend its appeal into the middle and Democrat territory. They doubt he can attract substantial black and Latino support, or votes in traditional Democrat states. He has already been damned by almost all of his Republican opponents, but now faces a barrage from his left, again on his character and personal credibility, as much as his philosophy (if any) and his "plan" for making America great again.
Hillary Clinton is a very able campaigner. She may share the deficiency of many of the unsuccessful 2016 Republicans – of being unable to excite people, except to dislike. But she has, or ought to have, a galvanising cause – of keeping Trump out of power.
If anyone could blow it, it would be Hillary, but I expect she won't. Just in case, those who want her might think of another one of the good 1964 campaign badges: "Even Johnson is better than Goldwater."