“Barry Goldwater not only lost the presidential election yesterday, but the conservative cause as well. He has wrecked his party for a long time to come and is not even likely to control the wreckage….The only theory he proved is that part of the Deep South, particularly the rural South, favors his policies of leaving the Negro revolution to the judgment of the States. His gamble that the North would put its prejudices against the Negro ahead of its conscience was disproved. His belief that the American people would turn against the principles of social security at home and collective security abroad was rejected. Even the Middle Western Bible Belt on which he centered his moral yearnings, turned against him.”— James Reston, “News Analysis,” The New York Times, November 4, 1964
Post-mortems on the landslide Presidential election loss by Senator Barry Goldwater were a-plenty on this date 50 years ago. But the one from New York Times columnist James Reston will do nicely, since he was, according to Ronald Steel, “the quintessential Washington insider.” It reflects a belief of the time in consensus politics, what Arthur Schlesinger called “the vital center”—a center from which the Republican Presidential nominee had strayed, the conventional wisdom ran. Goldwater was an anomaly; no similar nominee would ever win the Presidency, even if he made it through the convention. Or so the thinking went.
Reading Reston now, it’s obvious that nearly every point he made was true—and yet he missed the larger picture. Goldwater was soundly rejected, but he had hardly “wrecked his party for a long time to come.” In fact, the GOP returned to power four years later, at least partly because Richard Nixon adopted a “Southern strategy” that wooed the constituency that turned out for Goldwater. That cadre of voters remains at the core of the Republican Party, making Goldwater, as Nicolaus Mills noted in an article for The Daily Beast, the "Father of the Tea Party."
The trouble with Reston and his colleagues in 1964 was that they were too busy talking to each other to ask the obvious question of how activists who had grabbed the party’s machinery—and managed to put a portion of the nation never previously in its column—could be prevented from doing so again. The same thing happened eight years later in the case of a landslide loser for the other party, the Democrats’ George McGovern.
In fact, the shifts of large groups of voters into the candidacy of the losing party heralded a long-term earthquake in politics. The Goldwater candidacy presaged the New Right shock troops for the GOP just as surely as Al Smith’s race in 1928 had led to the New Deal coalition that would hold sway for several decades after the Depression.
The voting blocs that made their first appearance in 1928 and 1968 only needed a more reassuring face than their first nominee, along with circumstances that would create a fireball of discontent. The Democrats found it in Franklin Roosevelt—who would not disturb the party’s overwhelmingly Protestant base in the Midwest and South, as the Catholic Al Smith had done, while capitalizing on the Great Depression. Right-wing Republicans, after an initially successful but uncomfortable alliance with Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, found their more appealing candidate in Ronald Reagan, whose sunny optimism contrasted so much with Goldwater--and with incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter, undone by stagflation at home and hostage-taking abroad. (Indeed, the actor’s televised speech late in the election in support of Goldwater served notice on conservatives that a potent new force lay waiting in the wings.)
It’s one thing to make a mistake once; it’s another, however, to make another, perhaps more egregious one. Yet that is precisely what happened in 1980, when Reston—probably after reading one too many articles about the gaffe-prone GOP nominee—wrote that Republicans "are giving Carter their favorite candidate ... and Carter's favorite opponent -- Ronald Reagan."
In fact, more than a few reporters felt likewise. One notable exception: Reston’s former Times colleague James Wooten. At a dinner at my college newspaper where he was a guest of honor, someone asked the reporter to appraise the chances of the man whose successful 1976 candidacy he had chronicled in Dasher. Wooten responded that he thought the President might be “in trouble” with the electorate. That turned out to be putting it mildly.
Leave aside, if you can, the question of whether GOP domination of Washington has been good or bad for the country in the three decades since. It’s still remarkable that a group of men whose profession was closely observing the men who race for public office could so misjudge the electorate.
Perhaps these pundits believed that Americans would not fall into a syndrome encapsulated in a title of a late 1960s novel by C.P. Snow: The Sleep of Reason. But there is probably a better explanation, offered by Rick Perlstein, a historian who has charted the rise of the New Right, in an interview with Harold Pollack for the Washington Post's Wonkblog: “What is the sociological nature of this group of people, pundits? They so desperately wished for the self-fulfilling prophecy that conservatism will die out and is dying out. Why is that mistake made over and over again?”
You would think that the commentariate would learn some humility in their electoral forecasts. But the media never seem to grasp that American civilization and its discontents have made voter psychology virtually impossible to predict in the long term.
The one person who did grasp that conservatism was hardly dead back in 1964 was not a member of the media, but as consummate a political pro as existed—in fact, the winner of the Presidential election that fall: Lyndon Johnson. Earlier that summer, as he signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, he confided to aides that he was handing the South to the Republicans for generations to come.
(This photo from the Reagan Presidential Library shows Ronald Reagan stumping with Goldwater in Los Angeles in 1964.)