Barry Goldwater’s Revenge And Other Republican Myths

David Frum thinks that Republicans, especially activist conservative Republicans, are in the throes of a very powerful myth:

The myth is the myth of the Goldwater triumph of 1964. It goes approximately as follows:

In 1964, after years of watered down politics, Republicans turned to a true conservative, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Yes, Goldwater lost badly. But in losing, he bequeathed conservatives a national organization – and a new champion, Ronald Reagan. Goldwater’s defeat opened the way to Reagan’s ultimate triumph and the conservative ascendancy of the 1980s and 1990s.

This (the myth continues) is the history we need to repeat. If we can just find the right messenger in 2012, the message that worked for Reagan will work again. And even if we cannot find the right messenger, losing on principle in 2012 will open the way to a more glorious victory in 2016.

History, Frum contends, tells quite a different story:

goldwater1964posterWhat happened in 1964 was an unredeemed and unmitigated catastrophe for Republicans and conservatives. The success that followed 16 years later was a matter of happenstance, not of strategy. That’s the real lesson of 1964, and it is the lesson that conservatives need most to take to heart today.

1964 was always bound to be a Democratic year. The difference between Barry Goldwater’s 38.5% candidacy and the 44% or 45% that might have been won by a Nelson Rockefeller or a William Scranton was the effect on down-ballot races.

Republicans lost 36 seats in the House of Representatives in 1964, giving Democrats the biggest majority in the House any party has enjoyed since the end of World War II. Republicans dropped 2 seats in the Senate, yielding a Democratic majority of 68-32, again the most lopsided standing in any election from the war to the present day.

This huge congressional majority – call it the Goldwater majority – liberated President Johnson from any dependence on conservative southern Democrats. In 1964, only 46 Senate Democrats voted for the great Civil Rights Act; 21 opposed. Without Republican support, the Act would not have passed. (And indeed while 68% of Senate Democrats voted for the Act, 81% of Senate Republicans did.)

While dependent on southern Democrats, President Johnson had to develop a careful, pragmatic domestic agenda that balanced zigs to the right (in 1964, Congress passed the first across the board income tax cut since the 1920s) with zags to the left (the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 which created Head Start among other less successful programs).

Then came the Republican debacle of November 1964. Goldwater’s overwhelming defeat invited a tsunami of liberal activism. The 89th Congress elected in 1964 enacted both Medicaid and Medicare. It passed a new immigration law, opening the way to a surge of 40 million newcomers, the overwhelming majority of them from poor Third World countries. It dramatically expanded welfare eligibility and other anti-poverty programs that together transformed the urban poor of the 1950s into the urban underclass of the 1970s and 1980s.

Under Frum’s interpretation of history, it was the Goldwater disaster of 1964, and particularly the devastating impact it had on down-ticket races, that led to the unchecked liberalism of the Great Society. Most important is the fact that none of the major changes implemented by Johnson and his Democratic supermajority in Congress have been reversed. Not by Ronald Reagan. Not by the Republicans who controlled Congress from 1994 until 2006.

To support his theory, Frum offers this counter-factual:

Suppose history had taken a different bounce in 1964. Suppose somebody other than Sen. Goldwater had won the Republican presidential nomination. Suppose his narrower margin of defeat had preserved those 36 Republican seats in the House – or even possibly gained some seats. (The big Democratic gains in 1958 and 1962 were ripe for a rollback in 1964 – and indeed were rolled back in 1966, when the GOP picked up 47 seats in the House and 3 in the Senate.)

Under those circumstances, the legislation of 1965 might have looked a lot more like the more moderate legislation of 1964. The Voting Rights Act would surely have passed, and so too would some form of health insurance measure for the poor – a measure supported by the American Medical Association and health insurers as well as by congressional liberals. But Medicare might never have happened, or might have taken a less costly form. The immigration bill might have been more carefully written so as to achieve its declared purpose: eliminating racial discrimination in immigration without expanding the overall number of immigrants from the modest level prevailing in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Not perfect as far as conservatives or libertarians are concerned, but not nearly as disastrous as what actually flowed from the unchecked power of LBJ’s time in office and, to be completely honest, much of what was at the core of the Great Society was the result of social forces that had been in play since the 1950s. It was going to happen anyway, but without a powerful Republican opposition in Congress, it happened in the worst way possible.

Finally, as Frum goes on to note, it wasn’t Barry Goldwater that made Ronald Reagan possible, it was the failures of Jimmy Carter. Had Carter been even a more modestly successful President, he very well could have won re-election in 1980, and there would have been no “Reagan Revolution.”

Frum’s analysis both of the history of the post-1964 political landscape, and conventional Republican delusions regarding the same, is fairly spot on, but I think he’s missing another myth that is prevalent in Republican circles today.

Let’s call it……

The Myth Of The `94 Revolution

Gingrich Clinton

In this story, we start two years earlier, in 1992, when the Republicans suffer a defeat to a young, charismatic Democrat. When that new President takes office he proceeds to move to the left in several policy areas (gays in the military, gun control, health care), has a series of tax problems with his Cabinet nominees, backtracks on a promised middle class tax cut, and essentially bungles his way through the better part of his first two years in office.

Waiting in the background were a new generation of Republicans, both inside Congress and out in the field, led by an enterprising young back-bencher from Georgia, put together a package of policy proposals and did they unthinkable — gave the Republicans control of both Houses of Congress for the first time.

All that Republicans need to do, this myth goes, is repeat the strategy of 1994, wait for Obama to fail, and control of Congress will be theirs once again. As with the Goldwater myth, though, this myth commits several historical errors.

First, the playing field today is far different from what it was on the eve of the 1994 mid-term elections.

In the House, while it’s true that Republicans are in a slightly better position today than they were after the 1992 election, those numbers belie the fact that the seats that Democrats hold today are, if anything, far more stable than they might have been back in 1994. In order to regain control of the House, Republicans would need a net pickup of 40 seats, but those 40 seats would have to come against Democratic incumbents that are, if anything, more entrenched than their counterparts were 15 years ago.

In the Senate, the Republicans are actually in far worse shape than they were in 1992. Back then, Democrats had a six-seat majority, today it’s at least an 8 eight seat Democratic lead, possibly nine depending upon what happens in Minnesota. In 2010, there will be 19 Republican seats up for re-election, compared with only 17 Democratic-held seats. Of those 19, four Republicans have already announced that they will not seek re-election. On the Democratic side there are, as yet, no announced retirements and the seats that are up are, with only a few exceptions, once that are unlikely to go Republican absent a sea-change in politics.

The other myth about the 1994 Congressional elections is that it was in any sense of the word a “revolution.” Yes, it brought Republicans back into power in Congress for the first time in 40 years, but on the policy level the changes weren’t nearly as great as imagined. Yes, there was welfare reform but, on the whole, much of what was in the Contract for America went by the wayside long before the Presidential campaign began in 1996, partly because Republicans had suffered a significant tactical defeat when Speaker Gingrich decided to play a game of chicken with the Clinton Administration over the budget.

Then, when George Bush became President, any hope that a Republican controlled Congress would actually put into practice the limited-government ideas that were set forth in the Contract with America died on the vine as Republicans by and large rolled over as George W. Bush proceeded to spend with wild abandon.

The lessons that can be drawn from the myth of `94 are the same ones that Frum counsels Republicans to draw from the Goldwater myth:

It’s important for Republicans to absorb and remember this history as they prepare to make their next political choices. Right now, Republicans are gripped by a strong martyr complex. They want to stand up for their beliefs, damn the consequences – in fact the worse the consequences, the more it proves the rightness of our beliefs. If this mood persists further into the 2012 cycle, we will pay a heavy price.


As the next presidential cycle begins, our priority should be to identify presidential candidates who can run strongly in every region of the country – not because we expect to win every region of the country, but because we want to help elect Republican congressional candidates in every region of the country. Our present strategy is one that is paving the way not merely to another defeat at the presidential level, but to a further shriveling of our congressional party –and an utterly unconstrained Obama second term that will make LBJ’s ascendancy look moderate and humble in comparison.

The question is whether Republicans will learn from history, or continue relying on their romantic myths.

H/T: Culture 11

Originally posted at Below The Beltway