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The Goldwater Syndrome
November 16, 2002
Mike McArdle

In your heart you know he’s right.
— 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign slogan.

I 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 party.

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 scandal.

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 way.

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