Of Another Day and Another Romney: The Year When Conservative Republicans Proudly Accepted “Defeat”

A little more than a decade ago, Edward Luttwak, the renowned military strategist, wrote a provocative essay in Foreign Affairs entitled, “Give War a Chance.” The idea, in a nutshell, was this: war, while a horror, cures in a way that no brokered peace could ever cure. The key is letting the hostilities run their course. Belligerents must fight until one side is triumphant or both sides are exhausted, he offered, because “war brings peace only after passing a culminating phase of violence.”

I doubt that the Tea Partiers have been reading Luttwak, but it is a Luttwakian strategy that at least some of them have in mind by refusing to support Mitt Romney. Rather than go along with the nomination of a pragmatist like the “Massachusetts moderate” (as Newt Gingrich has derisively called him) who, if elected, would likely govern from the center, they would prefer to see the party go down to defeat and eviscerate what remains of the moderate establishment, leaving the GOP to rise again around deeply conservative principles.

History provides at least one episode which seems parallel. It was 48 years ago and in the annals of American presidential election lore, it had all the excitement of a Super Bowl blowout, but looking back at the campaign of 1964 reveals some dramatic differences and striking similarities to this year’s contest, as well as some familiar last names.

That year, the early whispering on the Republican nomination involved four rising stars: New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, Michigan Governor George Romney (father of Mitt) and the eventual nominee, Arizona Senator Barry M. Goldwater. Then, as now, the candidates were deeply split, revealing an intra-party divide. But while today’s final four can be roughly described as a moderate frontrunner (Romney) and three conservatives running after him (Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul), back then it was the flip: George Romney, Scranton and Rockefeller were all from the moderate-liberal Northeastern establishment and Goldwater alone represented the arch-conservative wing of the party. Though Goldwater was easily the most controversial of the four, intent on overturning the party orthodoxy that had held control of the GOP since the 1940s, in 1964, at least, there was no stopping him.

The liberal-moderate wing coalesced around Rockefeller, but the New York governor’s personal life–he was divorced and had recently re-married, to a woman who gave up custody of her children to be with him–alienated a large portion of the party, including former Connecticut senator Prescott Bush (father of George H. W. Bush and grandfather of George W. Bush) who found Rockefeller’s marriage record dishonorable. “Have we come to the point in this country,” he opined, “where…one who aspires to the nomination for president of the United States can desert a good wife, mother of his grown children, divorce her and then persuade a young mother of four to abandon her husband and their four children and marry the governor?” (I wonder what Senator Bush would have said about Newt Gingrich’s track record in marriage.)

A final push to deny Goldwater’s momentum came in a “draft Scranton” movement. The Pennsylvania governor entered the race in June, but it was too late. Goldwater was in control and he had no interest in unifying the party. Accepting the nomination at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, he scolded those who wanted him to move toward the center where the great bulk of Republican and independent voters still resided: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he pronounced from the podium, “and let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Two issues dominated the general election campaign against President Lyndon Johnson: Civil Rights and national security. While he had supported Civil Rights legislation in the 1950s, Goldwater saw the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act as unconstitutional and he pushed for an aggressive confrontation with the Soviet Union and its allies, once joking that the US should “lob (a nuclear bomb) into the men’s room of the Kremlin.” Both attitudes rankled the moderate Republican establishment: at the time, Civil Rights had more support among Republicans than it did among Democrats, especially Southern Democrats like Tennessee Senator Al Gore, Sr. (father of Al Gore, Jr.) who was one of many Southern Democrats who attempted to kill the Civil Rights Act through filibuster.

Goldwater’s foreign policy views were equally alien to most Republicans, since there had been something near a consensus between the two major parties on the Cold War, recognizing that the inherent dangers of the nuclear age made the prospect of confrontation with the Soviet Union too dangerous to risk. Goldwater, attempting to appeal to voters on the sincerity of his convictions adopted “In your heart, you know he’s right” as a campaign slogan, one which was easily parodied by the Democrats as “in your guts, you know he’s nuts.”

Moderate and liberal Republican leaders abandoned Goldwater in droves. Rockefeller and Romney both refused to endorse him, with Romney later accusing Goldwater of pulling the party toward a “southern, rural white orientation” and of making it clear that moderates were no longer wanted in the party. Former president Dwight Eisenhower, whom Goldwater had derided as presiding over a “dime store New Deal,” gave only tepid support. In the end, Goldwater lost to Johnson in a landslide, carrying only five southern states, where voters shared his disdain for the Civil Rights Act, and his home state of Arizona.

As the Republicans attempted to regroup for 1968, the resentment between the two factions was still there. George Romney led the polls as the favorite among Republican voters and independents. But the accepted wisdom was that Romney could not win the nomination because the new party establishment resented him for not supporting Goldwater. In the end, the 1968 nomination went to Richard Nixon who, while nowhere near as conservative as Goldwater, had stood by the Arizona senator in 1964.

George Romney was right about the future direction of the Republican Party. The southern shift that is so evident today began with that failed 1964 campaign. Nixon succeeded in 1968 by following a “southern strategy” and twelve years later, when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter to become the nation’s 40th president, many noted that Reagan’s political career had in fact begun with a speech he made supporting Goldwater in 1964.

Today, the Republican Party is significantly more conservative than it was even under Ronald Reagan. But if Mitt Romney gets the nomination and goes down to defeat it may well be the last gasp of the old moderate wing and the triumph of yet another wave of conservatism driven in recent years by the Tea Party movement. The Republicans will have lost the election and returned Barack Obama to the White House but many on the far right will see their loss as something of a victory, further cleansing their party of any challenge to true conservative values.

Todd Brewster is the Director of the National Constitution Center’s Peter Jennings Project and the Center for Oral History at West Point.

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