Extremist No More
Barry Goldwater for being ahead of his time, another for
having won the future in 1964, when he lost the presidency to
Lyndon Johnson by a landslide.
These are odd compliments. Conservatives arent supposed to be ahead of their times. They are supposed to hang back, insisting on the heritage of the past, not because it is old, but because whatever has endured is likely to have proved its merit and shouldnt be discarded lightly in favor of the untried.
At his best, Barry Goldwater was defiantly behind the times. He was commendably fad-resistant in opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act as unconstitutional. How many conservative politicians are willing to say that in 1998? He disliked the Tennessee Valley Authority and compulsory Social Security, legacies of the New Deal.
But he wasnt far enough behind. A predilection for the old-fashioned and a suspicion of novelty arent the same thing as principled conservatism.
By the late 1970s Barry Goldwater, Mr. Conservative, was voting against airline deregulation the most Goldwaterite option that had come before the Senate in a generation. He also voted for the Lockheed bailout, a fine specimen of socialism for the rich.
When Ronald Reagan displaced him as the leader of American conservatism, Goldwater became spiteful toward those who had once supported him, insulting the Religious Right, venting his enthusiasm for legal abortion, and joining Bill Clinton in favoring homosexuals in the military.
Liberals who had once smeared Goldwater as an American Hitler began to find him a refreshing contrast to the more effective conservatives who were coming to dominate American politics by 1980. He settled happily into his role as the liberals pet conservative an American original, in the words of David Broder of the Washington Post.
Lest we forget, the term extremist was first deployed by President John Kennedy in 1962 against the threat of a Goldwater candidacy. The content of extremism was never specified; you were invited to fill in your own nightmare.
When Goldwater got the 1964 Republican nomination, Jackie Robinson said he now knew what it must have felt like to be a Jew in Hitlers Germany. Such talk was fair game, in the minds of people who made McCarthyism the eponym for political slander. The most famous TV ad of the 1964 campaign implied that Goldwater would nuke little girls.
Cuddling up to Goldwater in his later years was the liberals way of obliterating the memory of the names they had called him in 1964, names they now found it expedient to call others.
But Goldwater was as much a victim of his own ineptitude as of his enemies cynicism. He wasnt ahead of his time; he mishandled some themes that were already strong, traditional, and popular, which Reagan would later use with far more skill.
More to the point, neither Goldwater nor Reagan made nearly as much difference as their partisans give them credit for. Federal spending doubled in the twelve Reagan-Bush years; the country is still light years to the left of where it was under Lyndon Johnson. Only the rhetoric has changed, reflecting the helpless frustration of Americans with the liberalism that still reigns.
Nobody runs for office promising bigger government now, but that is because government is already so much bigger than it was when Barry Goldwater ran against Big Government.
We have lost our illusions without changing our habits. So even though our political rhetoric is more conservative today, power keeps accumulating in Washington as steadily as if a Socialist Party were the dominant electoral force. Conservatives who think they have won because Bill Clinton now adopts anti-government poses are like sheep congratulating themselves because the wolf has been forced to wear sheeps clothing. It might be reassuring, if only the old wolf werent still eating so well.
Barry Goldwater could claim to be the founding father of the conservative revolution if only there had been one. But there hasnt. There have merely been a few Republican victories when the Democrats got a little too far ahead of their time.
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