The Goldwater Myth

February 27th, 2009 at 9:59 pm David Frum | 129 Comments |

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It’s CPAC weekend – the grand rallying of the conservative clan here in Washington. It’s a season where conservatives from across the country meet to compare notes, share stories, and seek political consensus. The consensus forming this year however is an ominously dangerous one – ominously dangerous to conservatives themselves that is.

Conservatives live in thrall to a historical myth, and this myth may soon cost us dearly.

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.

The Goldwater myth shuts down all attempts to reform and renew our conservative message for modern times. And it offers a handy justification for nominating a 2012 presidential candidate who might otherwise seem disastrously unelectable. Altogether, the myth invites dangerous and self-destructive behavior by a party that cannot afford either.

What 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.

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.

True, the liberal triumph of 1964 set in motion the train of disasters that laid liberalism low in the 1980s. But those disasters followed from choices and decisions that liberals made – not from some multiyear conservative grand strategy for success in 1980. It was not Goldwater who made Reagan possible. It was Carter. Had Carter governed more successfully, the Goldwater disaster would have been just a disaster, with no silver lining. And there was nothing about the Goldwater disaster that made the Carter failure more necessary, more inevitable.

And anyway, as the years pass, the consequences of Reagan’s victory look more temporary and provisional, at least in domestic policy – while the consequences of Goldwater’s defeat look more enduring and more consequential. The Reagan tax cuts are long gone. Medicare is still here.

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. 2010 is already shaping up as an inhospitable year for Republicans, especially in the Senate, where the map favors the Democrats. 2012 could be much better – unless we doom ourselves by our own bad choices.

It is this alternative possibility of success or failure down the ballot as well as up that makes it so urgent to disenthrall ourselves of the 1964 myth. Goldwater’s defeat was a prelude to nothing except defeats on the floor of Congress in 1965-66. 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.


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129 Comments so far ↓

  • InTheMiddle12

    jjv: great post but I disagree on one aspect. I think the law has it right protecting on age, race, religion and gender and believe it needs to add sexual orientation too. The law has done a great deal to get us to a more perfect union. I wonder why we never hear the accomplishments of good government from the GOP and conservatives though. It is amazing to me that they so desparately want to control what they most dislike while the Democrats seem to have a genuine appreciation for the power of government and work toward trying to do it better. It feels like the GOP works toward trying to destroy it, well, like the result of the last 8 years seems to reflect.

  • pomeroo

    David Frum’s column gets everything precisely right. But I do want to address an issue raised by InTheMiddle12.

    The judge in the Terry Schiavo case made a determination based on knowledge that he did not have. The woman was hopelessly brain-damaged and could not recover. NO ONE, however, had any way of divining wishes that she kept to herself. An adulterous husband with a massive conflict of interest should not be permitted to consign an inconvenient wife to death. Good grief–what sort of mad precedent have we set? If her parents wanted to assume the thankless task of caring for their vegetative daughter, only a monster would presume to stop them.

    I am indifferent to the theological overtones. The FACT is that we don’t–we can’t–know what Terry Schiavo would have wanted. The court overreached and the nation was subjected to the gruesome spectacle of a helpless woman being slowly executed.

    Bush and his brother were not wrong.

  • ottovbvs

    wrote 2 minutes ago
    ……Unfortunately, 75% of the country didn’t agree with you. I’d say it was this case(see comment below) along with the Republican corruption scandals that were most important factors in the congressional defeats of ’06. And now you want to re-litigate the whole thing. It’s your right of course, but it’s totally counterproductive in political terms. It was basically none of the govt’s business which is the sound conservative position which had substantial majority support.

  • senorlechero

    There is a big problem with your logic Frum. You claim that “if Carter had governed more successfully” Reagan may not have beeen elected. You assume that voters would have seen the buffoonish Carter administration differently had some of his policies been more successful? How then do you explain Bush winning in 2002 after 8 years of successful Clinton policies?

    Besides, I’ve never heard anyone make the claim you make, that Reagan was only possible because of Goldwater. What most people (outside your beltway that is) believe is that Reagan reflected our values while Carter did not.

    Guess what? In 2012 people might have the same choice. It’s only taken a month for Obama to prove those of us right who said “Obama does not share our values”. If the Republicans come up with a candidate who does have our values………Americas values (hard work, pay your own way, lower taxes, smaller govt., no nanny state, the right to bear arms, hunting rights, fishing rights, property rights, free speech rights, religious freedom, the right to life for unborn…except when the mother’s very life is in danger….the right to NOT go to college, a strong military, a secure southern border…you get the idea) that candidate will beat Obama unless the enonomy turns around, unemployment is under 7%, and upper middle class income taxes are not raised.

    Now who might that candidate be? I think I saw a photo of her coming out of a voting booth in Alaska. She was weaing jeans and a Carhart jacket.

  • pomeroo

    Sorry, ottovbvs, you miss the point totally. The country was swayed by the usual leftist propaganda campaign, aided by the chracteristic ineptness of George Bush in explaining his motives. By framing it as another struggle between enlightened, rational progressives and benighted, mouth-breathing fundamentalists, the left conned people like you. Let’s try it again: the court could not possibly determine Terry Schiavo’s wishes, yet it claimed to do just that. For unfathomable reasons, you are satisfied. You suggest, incredibly, that conservatives shouldn’t care when a court orders the execution of a woman who, by unanimous agreement, committed no crime. The public got bogged down in the irrelevant wrangling over whether or not Terry Schiavo had any chance of recovery. If you disagree, then you must be willing to contend that court could, through some form of magic, know her wishes. Please explain.

  • Chekote

    sinz. Who thel has ever said that Fannie and Freddie brought the whole thing down by themselves? But they did securitazed most of the mortgages. Further, anything backed by Fannie and Freddie, i.e. agency paper got an automatic AAA rating giving people the false notion that is was safe. Super safe. That is why those investments were purchased all over the world. Sinz. I want to make you happy so I am going to say that it was those terrible greedy Wall Streeters who got together with Phil Gramm, and probably Rush Limbaugh too, to manipulate regulation in an evil attempt to take over the world. I am sure Halliburton also had something to do with the financial meltdown. Oh yes, I know. They had no bid contracts with Fannie and Freddie to help George Bush finance the Iraq War that was started because GWB wanted to avenge his daddy’s honor. Happy now?

  • Chekote

    Izzy Weird. 100% correct. We cannot underestimate how much the social issues and religious tone has driven voters away. Especially, the issue of abortion. It is such a turn off for women to hear men pontificating about abortion. The overwhelming majoritiy wants to restrict late term abortions. Instead of wasting time on global warming…errr….. climate change (as if we can stop climate change!) or the Hispanic vote. Time would be better spent addressing the social issues and what we should change in the party platform to get the suburban vote back.

  • ottovbvs

    Sorry, ottovbvs, you miss the point totally. The country was swayed by the usual leftist propaganda campaign,

    ….On the contrary I don’t miss the point at all. The country wasn’t swayed by leftist propaganda…the facts were such that a 10 year old could understand them. It was none of the govt’s business and as a consequence of a load of preposterous grandstanding by the Bush’s, DeLay and various others this got hung around the GOP’s neck like an albatross with the electoral outcome I described…Placing the blame on leftist propaganda is essentially a cop out.

  • Chekote

    The Schiavo case – no matter the merits – hurt the GOP. The fact that the federal government was used to get involved in matter of one family contradicted the “limited government” argument. There is no other way to look at it.

  • ottovbvs

    “But they did securitazed most of the mortgages”
    ….Actually they only securitized about 20% of sub prime and Alt A mortgages where most of the problems are concentrated..80% of these riskier mortgage classes were securitized in the private sector. From 2002 to mid 2007 F/F used to securitize about 50% of all mortgages most of which were prime of course. From mid 2007 as private capital dried up their market share increased and under govt pressure they took up the slack until their share of all mortgages was probably about 80% again mostly prime of course.

  • ottovbvs

    As ps to my previous comment I need to check but I don’t think F/F were actually allowed to securitize sub prime, Alt A, or jumbo loans until something like 2007 when as a I say they started securizing about 20%. Because of the accounting scandals which were real but unrelated to the mortgage crisis, they were under huge pressure from OFHEO their regulator and the Republican congress to shrink their market share. It was only when the housing bubble popped which was in late 2006 that they came under pressure to get back in the game and fill the gap being left by private capital.

  • Chekote

    ottovbvs. If Fannie and Freddy did securitized “risky” loans why did the government take them over?

  • Izzy Weird

    On one hand I do not support the GOP position on abortion, nor do I support the GOP position ony marriage. I have no problem withy marriage, but I must say this issue ranks extremely low among my political priorities.

    On the other hand (correct me of I am wrong), a majority of Americans opposes abortion, and opposesy marriage. If this is true I dont see how anyone can argue that these issues do great harm to the GOP in terms of attracting the independent vote.

  • Chekote

    Sorry, I mean did not securitized “risky” loans.

  • Chekote

    “Beginning in 1992, Congress pushed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to increase their purchases of mortgages going to low and moderate income borrowers. For 1996, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gave Fannie and Freddie an explicit target — 42% of their mortgage financing had to go to borrowers with income below the median in their area. The target increased to 50% in 2000 and 52% in 2005.

    For 1996, HUD required that 12% of all mortgage purchases by Fannie and Freddie be “special affordable” loans, typically to borrowers with income less than 60% of their area’s median income. That number was increased to 20% in 2000 and 22% in 2005. The 2008 goal was to be 28%. Between 2000 and 2005, Fannie and Freddie met those goals every year, funding hundreds of billions of dollars worth of loans, many of them subprime and adjustable-rate loans, and made to borrowers who bought houses with less than 10% down. Fannie and Freddie also purchased hundreds of billions of subprime securities for their own portfolios to make money and to help satisfy HUD affordable housing goals. Fannie and Freddie were important contributors to the demand for subprime securities.”

    CDS and speculation were a large part of the problem. But let’s not minimize the role of Freddie & Fannie just because we don’t want to seen as picking on poor people.

  • Chekote

    “a majority of Americans opposes abortion,” That may be so but they opposed having government agents going through people’s medical records even more. I see no problem with the marriage stance.

  • Kaz


    “Out of touch”? lol
    Why don’t you take a good look at Obama’s spending and tax plans if you want an example of out of touch…out of touch with economic reality.

    There’s nothing brave, nothing innovative, nothing brilliant about Obama’s economic proposals. What’s so ballsy about borrowing and spending trillions, spending that makes GW Bush look like a tight wad? What’s so “in touch” with promising taxpayers everything from forcing banks to restructure their mortgages to low cost healthcare? What’s so ballsy about promising to raise taxes only on the top 2%. American’s will eventually learned all of Obama’s promises and goodies will come at a price.

  • InTheMiddle12

    lechero et al: As I’m reading these posts I’m stunned by the denial of what is happening today. The country is in a complete economic meltdown, people, by the 100s of thousands are losing jobs monthly, people, by the thousands are losing houses monthly, people, by the thousands are filing bankruptcy because of health care costs and yet, there continues to be this amazing denial by the don’t tax the rich conservatives on this thread. What I’m reading is exactly what cost the GOP and the conservatives the entire country. Denial about the reality of their own actions. It was Wall Street that invented the deritatives and worked closely with the GOP to remove regulation that would have monitored all of those bad loans, as noted below, 80% of which were in the private sector, as much as you may wish to scape goat Fannie and Freddie. Yet the same voices go on and on about Obama and how he’s destroying America. That’s not reality. The reality is Bush, the GOP, greedy Wall STreeters and the Christian right is what’s brought us to where we are and until the conservative party and the GOP snap out of it, they’ll be left behind.

    The country is looking for solutions to the mess from the policies that are still being spouted here brought. Unbridled capitalism failed, period. And Obama and moderate Republicans and Democrats are trying to figure out how to shift the country in a way to curtail the damage from becoming permanent and a full blown depression. Why that is not clear to many is not surprising considering the level of denial the same group carried around President Bush’s Iraq policies, etc.

  • InTheMiddle12

    chekote: Yes, all of this is coming at a terrible price. The price we pay for unbridled greed and having innocent people have to pay. I’m angry too. Angry at the greed, corruption and complete fiscal malfeasance that the GOP wrecked on this country. Why aren’t you?

  • pomeroo

    Ottovbvs, you don’t seem to process anything I write. One last attempt: A court made a life-and-death determination lacking the necessary information to make it responsibly. As a result, a helpless woman was executed in a grotesque manner. Why can’t you grasp the implications of this sort of judicial overreaching? If the government shouldn’t try to protect us from such outrages, whose job is it?

  • InTheMiddle12

    pomeroo: It is appropriate for a court to make a decision when it was requested to by the husband, who should have had privacy, was challenged by Ms Schiavo’s parents. THe court ruled appropriately, as that is the place where we, as Americans, resolve conflicts, rather than through violence, etc. There was no overreaching at all. The law was upheld. And rightly so, the President’s and Congress intervention was viewed as a very very frightening moment for all of those, including me, that treat my privacy as that, privacy. The government intervention was the largest threat unveiled through Terri Schiavo. And rightly so, the vast majority of Americans rejected the intervention and subsequently the party that brought it as another example of a party that was hijacked by right wing crazies.

  • dhlii

    I believe this is an important question we are facing. Why do we want to win in 2010 and 2012 ? Because our values and ideology are both correct and work, or because we want political power.
    If we do not believe in our values, then we are pointless as a party.

    The Goldwater Myth is irrelevant. The Democrats have not only gambled against historical odds on socialism, but they are preparing to double down on that bet. If they succeed – if they even half succeed, the GOP will be thoroughly discredited for decades. And frankly if they can make socialist nanny government work then conservatism is deservedly dead. If all this is about is which party rules why should anyone care ? Either there is are important ideological differences, either liberal values are unable to deliver good government and a robust economy and conservative ones can or the differences are pointless. I would be happy to support socialist polices – if they worked. If you truly believe that we are now following the wrong path, then
    maybe by 2010 and certainly by 2012 this democratic gamble will have failed miserably.

    The GOP defeats in 2006 and 2008 were not caused by the virtue of liberal policies, but by the failures of the GOP. Reagan’s election may not have been the results of some Goldwater myth, but it was the direct result of the failure of big government liberalism whether in the form
    of LBJ, Carter or Nixon. Right now the GOP has a choice. What ideology do we believe works. If we really believe that Obama’s return to socialism is going to work, then the GOP should prepare to do as Clinton did in the 90′s and offer a GOP socialism lite in 2010 or 2012, and hope the public can be sold on socialism republican style. If we believe in the principles of Reagan
    (and Thatcher) – the ideological foundation laid by Goldwater. If we really believe that it is was weak adherence to those principles that produced the longest uninterrupted period of prosperity in this countries history, then we need to do EXACTLY what the democrats are doing. Double down on our ideological bet. If we believe in those principles, democrats are intent on demonstrating unequivocally whether the political philosophy of the most liberal wing of their party actually works. Conservatives can do nothing to prevent this. Absent Pres. Obama being photographed in bed literally with Barney Frank, they can do pretty much as they please. The last election cycle was about the incompetence and corruption of eight years of republican rule, as well as an economic disaster that regardless of its exact causes the GOP should have prevented. If we believe in our values, the next cycles are going to be more clearly about ideology than any election cycle in my lifetime. If we are looking for candidates we should not be looking at
    regions, but at who is the next Reagan. Who can explain our values with the same eloquence that Reagan had. Unless you believe that socialism works, the leanings of the media will be irrelevant. Pres. Obama is being identified with FDR, but unless everything conservatives believe is false, soon enough he is going to look like Hoover and LBJ.

  • sinz54

    InTheMiddle12: Unbridled capitalism did not fail. Unbridled capitalism was not what the GOP had been doing for the last 13 or so years. Instead, the GOP had been hard at work at *corporate welfare*: Working with industry lobbyists to craft special legislation aimed at granting special favors to those lobbyists’ industries (presumably those industries that would support Republican candidates). And then labeling the corporate welfare “supply-side economics” (which it wasn’t) or “deregulation” (which it also wasn’t), just to deflect criticism. The Commodity Futures Modernization Act was not “unbridled capitalism.” It was a bill specifically aimed at giving Enron a shot in the arm, by exempting energy futures trading from SEC oversight. That bill was co-sponsored by Phil Gramm. (For Gramm’s work on their behalf, Enron rewarded him by hiring his wife, Wendy Gramm, for their Board of Directors.) Investing in energy futures was what powered Enron to prominence–till the bubble burst. I am a big believer in free markets. But the idea behind a free market is that the MARKET picks winners and losers, not Republican congressmen. Enron would never have become the huge company that it did, had congressmen not passed that particular piece of corporate welfare for it. If it’s necessary for Republican congressmen to craft special legislation aimed at helping a specific industry (or even worse, a specific company), then it’s not “capitalism.” It’s corporate welfare.

  • jjv

    dhlii-that is precisely the view I hold. I would add but one item. Even if the business cycle brings us an upswing it will not be as high as it would be without this burden on the economy. Second, millions of people will be inured to big government and its services thus changing constituencies. It may be extremely difficult to repeal any of this costly intervention whether it succeeds making the U.S. stronger or not.

  • pomeroo

    InTheMiddle12, would you please remove your fingers from your ears? Sorry if that sounds rude, but the court determined that it had divined Terry Schiavo’s wishes when, in fact, IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO DO SO.
    The husband lived with another woman. He had, in other words, A MASSIVE CONFLICT OF INTEREST that should have disqualified his testimony.
    What part of this is difficult for you?

  • Michael INdy

    The fact that Goldwater’s nomination and subsequent campaign helped create a generation of conservatives who in a relatively short time grew from a smallish wing of the Party into the whole Party is no myth. It happened. Nevertheless, the GOP today is a far different animal than the beast that bestrode the land in 1964 and it doesn’t profit anyone to ask whether we should repeat the “triumphant” electoral disaster of ’64: we can’t. It isn’t 1964 and the GOP isn’t the same. Strip the drama and “myth” busting from Frum’s article and what you’re left with is the simple question: should the GOP stand on principle and fail miserably or, instead, nominate candidates who might win. Can we not stand on principle AND nominate candidates who might win? Is that not an option?

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