Purity & Practicality in the GOP
Sunday, October 3, 2010 at 5:00PM
W. R. in 1964, 2012, Barry Goldwater, Campaign, Microposts, Nelson Rockefeller, election

It is painfully apparent that the Republican party is struggling with its identity after tea party candidates have won the nomination in several high profile races. The rise of Christine O'Donnell, Joe Miller, Sharron Angle and countless anti-establishment Republican nominees begs the question: to what degree will the tea party help the GOP? The differences between the two factions are stark -- traditional Republicans certainly won't be endorsing "2nd amendment remedies" or anti-masturbation policies anytime soon. In light of this debate, it's worth revisiting the 1964 republican primary race between moderate NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller and the staunchly conservative Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. 

Criticized for not rolling back the New Deal, eight years of Eisenhower's brand of moderate conservatism had left a bitter taste in the mouths of many on the right -- and after the slim margin of Nixon's 1960 Presidential loss the Republicans were left to do some soul searching in the wilderness. From the ashes there emerged two candidates who would compete for the soul of the party. 

Nelson Rockefeller was of the Eisenhower mold, pragmatic and hard working, and he appropriately branded himself as a problem solver. Although popular in the Northeast, Rockefeller's candidacy was inopportune since he had recently divorced his wife and remarried Margaretta Murphy, better known by her nickname "Happy". As a result he risked losing the support of women and even some influential backers jumped ship like Senator Prescot Bush who called him a "destroyer of American homes." While an imperfect candidate, he theorized that voters would vote their minds, not their hearts -- that his appeal to reason would carry the day.  

Goldwater was the antithesis. A small government ideologue who had been openly critical of Eisenhower's administration, even going as far as to label it a "dime-store new deal", Goldwater did not endear himself with the party establishment but he didn't need to. Going over their heads of the insiders and appealing directly to the electorate, he attracted a die-hard following of devotees, party faithful and fanatics alike from across the south and midwest. Hesitant at first, he played coy as supporters organized "Draft Goldwater" rallies but ultimately threw his hat in the ring, justifying his run as a noble attempt to "purify" the party and to show establishment republicans that there was an appetite for his brand of conservatism.

Both were long shot candidates in a democratic year who believed that they only needed to reach striking distance of the White House to have a chance, but did their stark differences make the primary elections a clear choice? Not exactly. The republican electorate proved to be extremely ambivalent in 1964 -- so much so that both Rocky and Goldwater lost the New Hampshire Primary to a man who wasn't even in the running, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr, who took the state's delegates by write-in vote. With no clear frontrunner, a majority of Republicans appeared to be looking for alternatives to both Rockefeller and Goldwater. However, Lodge declined to formally declare his candidacy and no compromise candidate emerged.

With no alternatives, the party remained split. An emotional fight ensued with Rockefeller labeling himself "mainstream" and appealing to moderates while Goldwater rallied the base, calling for a conservative "revolution". Goldwater portrayed Rockefeller as an amoral millionaire elitist and in turn Rockefeller portrayed Goldwater as being a dangerous loon who would escalate the Cold War and abolish Social Security.

Perhaps one California politician put it best when he said, "moderates are the people who don't go to the polls on election day". Unfortunately for Rocky, this proved true as Goldwater supporters were a more motivated bunch -- the California primary knocked Rocky out and left Goldwater to face off against incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson. 

The primary fight had been so bitter that Rockefeller declined to endorse Goldwater in the general election, a destructive move that was indicative of the sentiment within the party (it was even rumored that Richard Nixon remained seated during the Convention acceptance speech). Party disunity was one factor, the candidate proved to be another as Goldwater committed an unending series of gaffes that would ultimately ruin his bid for the White House and create the perception that he wasn't just a right-winger, but a radical. Often blunt and undisciplined, his comment that "this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea" wasn't just impolitic, it was the death knell for someone supposedly running a national campaign. The famous remark of his convention speech that, "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," cost him dearly amongst swing voters since it reinforced his radical image. On voting day even former President Eisenhower shied away from Goldwater, claiming to have voted for the party, not the nominee. 

Teddy White famously called the election a "rendez-vous with disaster" for the republican party. Goldwater may have been idealocally pure, but he proved to be an ineffectual candidate, unable to defend his rash remarks to a broader electorate. Today, many candidates who intend to push the right further rightward are experiencing the same tribulations as Goldwater did. Their statements often make them liabilities within the party and they may inadvertently hand victory to their democratic opponents. As it was for Nelson Rockefeller, moderate voices are being drowned out by the more vocal party activists. Even the phrase "Rockefeller Republican" has become less about being a moderate republican and has instead taken on a pejorative quality. 

Article originally appeared on Will Rabbe, Producer, Journalist & Historian (http://willrabbe.com/).
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