November 16, 2002
In your heart you know he’s right.
1964 Barry Goldwater campaign slogan.
guess if you have to tell the voting public that they have
to look into their hearts to find positives about a candidate
it’s not a good sign about the campaign.
In 1960 the Republican Party lost an extremely close election.
After 8 years of the party holding the White House a sitting
Vice President was defeated by a narrow and disputed margin.
Many in the party insisted for years afterward that the election
had been stolen. In the mid term elections in 1962 the President
campaigned hard for his party’s candidates in spite of an
international crisis that dominated the Fall headlines and
partly as a result the Democrats gained Senate seats to the
further disappointment of the Republicans.
Does any of this sound familiar?
There is a catastrophic mistake that parties make every once
in a while and it always results in an electoral disaster.
The reasoning that leads to the disaster goes something like
this and it comes from one frustrated wing of the Party:
We lost because there are gazillions of people
just like me out there and they wanted to vote but didn’t
because our candidates were too much like them.
And if we just nominate somebody who appeals to the gazillions
who are like me we can pretty much do without them.
And, of course, “them” refers to other wing of the
The worst mistake any party can make is to conclude that
the way to electoral success is to seek ideological purity
and drive from the party those who are diluting your message.
In the wake of a close, disappointing loss it’s easy to look
for scapegoats and point fingers but it’s a catastrophic political
strategy. It can euphemistically hide behind words like “our
core voters stayed home” or “we need to motivate the base”
but it’s still the Goldwater syndrome.
It’s the strategy the Republicans adopted in 1964.
Barry Goldwater enunciated the “we lose because conservatives
fail to vote” theme in a speech to the 1960 Republican Convention.
It made him a hero to the growing conservative western base
of the Republican Party. Barry got a further boost when the
party’s most prominent eastern moderate contender, New York
governor Nelson Rockefeller, left his wife for a younger woman.
When the politically astute Richard Nixon decided to defer
another Presidential run the path was clear for Barry’s fanatically
dedicated followers to propel him to the nomination.
There was just one problem. Barry’s positions were almost
totally at odds with the mood of the electorate in 1964.
Barry believed in an aggressive approach to confronting communism
backed by military force whenever necessary. He wanted to
give tactical commanders the right to use nuclear weapons
if they saw fit. He wanted to drastically cut back on government
programs and proposed selling the Tennessee Valley Authority.
He even suggested making Social Security optional. A staunch
believer in states rights Barry voted against the landmark
Civil Rights Act of 1964.
I would remind you that extremism in the defense
of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation
in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
famous line from Goldwater's acceptance speech.
That line brought down the house at the Republican convention
but it scared the daylights out of millions of voters. The
Democrats found it easy to paint Barry as a maniac who could
easily bring on a nuclear confrontation, a thought that a
horrified a nation that had lived through the Cuban missile
crisis only two years earlier.
The Democrats gleefully produced a “Go with Goldwater” button
that featured a mushroom cloud and created one of the most
famous negative TV ads in campaigning history. A pretty little
girl holds a flower in the middle of a field as a narrator
in the background intones a countdown. As the countdown reaches
zero the little girl and the field are obliterated by a mushroom
cloud. The Democrats apologized but only after the networks
ran the controversial ad over and over.
In your guts you know he’s nuts.
Democratic parody of the Goldwater slogan.
By election night the result was a foregone conclusion. Barry
was swamped by Lyndon Johnson and the Republican vote total
had dropped from Nixons 34 million in 1960 to Barry’s 27 million.
The percentage total dropped from 49.5 to 38.4. Worse, Barry
had coattails, dragging hundreds of Republican officeholders
down with him. That massive reservoir of conservative voters
hadn’t been there.
In truth Barry Goldwater was not a bad man albeit somewhat
drastically out of touch with his times. He regained his Senate
seat in 1968 and served until 1986. It was Goldwater who party
asked to tell Richard Nixon that he was going to be convicted
in the Senate in the Watergate scandal and that he should
resign for the good of the country and the party. In his later
years he was an outspoken opponent of the military’s ban on
gays and urged Republicans to lay off Clinton in the Whitewater
Because politics involve so much emotion even the most obvious
of lessons are sometimes difficult to learn. Just eight years
later in 1972 the Democrats, having suffered a narrow defeat
in 1968 with an incumbent Vice President at the head of the
ticket did almost exactly the same thing as the Republicans
did in 1964. In search of a mother lode of poor, young and
anti-war votes the Democrats nominated anti-war Senator George
McGovern. And I think we all know how that worked out.
The Goldwater syndrome when it beckons run the other