GOP May Replay Historic Choice of 1964 In the 2008 presidential cycle, the GOP, the party that has dominated our presidential politics over the past half-century, must make a momentous choice much like the one it faced in 1964, when its conservative soul was at stake.
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GOP May Replay Historic Choice of 1964

Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican presidential nominee, addresses a 1964 campaign rally at Madison Square Garden in New York. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican presidential nominee, addresses a 1964 campaign rally at Madison Square Garden in New York.

AFP/Getty Images

In the 2008 presidential cycle, the party that has dominated our presidential politics over the past half-century must make a momentous choice.

The choice Republicans make may decide who holds the White House for at least four years. But for Republicans themselves, the really important thing is what that choice will do to the GOP. It could determine the direction of the party, and its relation to the electorate, for decades to come.

Or at least, that's what happened with the Republican presidential choice of 1964.

Since the middle of the 20th century, Republicans have won nine presidential elections, Democrats only five. But with all those wins to brag about, many Republicans believe the election that mattered most to their overall success was the big loss of 1964.

That was the year Republicans cast caution to the winds and nominated the candidate of their conservative hearts, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona. He prevailed in the key primaries over Nelson Rockefeller, the moderate-to-liberal governor of New York who personified the party's East Coast establishment wing.

Newspaper columnists (the talking heads of their time) said Rocky was more likely than Goldwater to win the populous states. He would make a better case against Lyndon B. Johnson, the oft-overbearing Texan who had assumed the White House after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Rockefeller had the political skills, media savvy and financial wherewithal to contest the election seriously, they said. And few could miss that his world view was closer to that of the columnists than Goldwater's.

Goldwater's rugged, Western individualism was rough-edged, plain-spoken and contrarian. He voted against the Civil Rights Act in 1964. He talked of the Cold War as if he could not wait to heat it up. He told the 1964 GOP convention that "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice." It was a statement straight from the Red-baiting McCarthy years of the early 1950s, and liberals laughed at him for being out of step with the zeitgeist.

That judgment seemed borne out by that fall's election results. LBJ won one of the most resounding victories in U.S. electoral history. Goldwater managed to carry his home state and the handful of states in the Deep South adamantly opposed to the Civil Rights Act. Elsewhere, even states that have voted Republican in every other presidential cycle since World War II went Democratic in 1964.

But something else was going on that year, something that has proven to be a turning point. The GOP in 1964 became the permanent home of those earnest and energetic people who would come to be called "movement conservatives." The party was consolidating the various strains of the American right, which until then had been well (if not equally) represented in both parties.

Simultaneously, the new in-crowd was sending a message to the apostates within — starting with Rockefeller himself — that "liberal Republican" was an oxymoron. Message received: Rocky walked out of the 1964 Republican convention on its final night in the Cow Palace in San Francisco, taking a sizable number of delegates with him.

Of course, those who remained were not enough to rescue the quixotic Goldwater candidacy in 1964. But they experienced neither regrets nor remorse. They had taken command of one of the nation's two major parties, and they would maintain it, more or less, for decades to come — and with considerable consequences.

As events unfolded in the mid-1960s, with escalation in Vietnam and riots in major cities and disillusionment with the Great Society, the conservative critique played better and better. It became the central theme of the Republican Party — traditional values, low taxes and strong national security — and it won four victories for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and secured three terms for two presidents named George Bush.

In fact, since Goldwater, the Republicans have only lost presidential elections three times. In 1976, they lost because they nominated their sitting president, Gerald Ford, rather than their real favorite, Ronald Reagan, who may well have won that year. In 1992 and 1996, the GOP lost with candidates whom the conservatives had doubts about and who matched up badly with Bill Clinton (who was aided by the vote-siphoning of Ross Perot).

In all of the other cycles, winning Republicans have found and united behind a candidate who combined solid (even if not perfect) conservative credentials with conventional political assets such as money, experience and national organization.

In the current cycle, this long skein appears at an end. No Republican, either running or contemplating a run, achieves this critical combination of factors. There are those who offer the doctrinaire conservatism side of the equation, to be sure. But neither Sam Brownback, the senator from Kansas, nor Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, satisfies on the electability side.

For Brownback, it is a problem of being too little known; for Gingrich, it's the opposite. His negatives in a general election are daunting, even if his positives are enough to make him a plausible late-starting contender.

On the other hand, the Republicans can relish the crossover appeal of Sen. John McCain, the onetime maverick who now strives to be a candidate for his party's base. Or they can bank on the phenomenal popularity of Rudy Giuliani, a media creation as "America's mayor." Or they can imagine a scenario for the well-coiffed businessman Mitt Romney, the Mormon from Massachusetts.

But none of these men strikes the fancy of those core conservatives, the ones who still pine for another Reagan (or at least another George W. Bush circa 2000). That is why so many prominent conservatives have tried to find a dark horse candidate they can induce to run. To date, no luck.

That means the party in 2008 will face an updated version of its 1964 fork in the road. It can be practical by nominating someone like McCain or Giuliani with the national name and other necessities to win now. This would be the defensive-but-sensible strategy, given the Democratic majorities in Congress and the thought of impending vacancies on the Supreme Court.

But neither McCain nor Giuliani will stoke the old fires. McCain is distrusted and independent. Giuliani's unorthodox private life might be supportable, but his views on social issues are too far from the party's to be discussed in the same room. Romney has less baggage and brings out less animosity compared to McCain and Giuliani, but he also lacks their star power and national note.

Lacking a candidate with a full kit, the party will have to make a tough choice. Many party people will say it's imperative in this era to hold the White House at all costs, especially if Democrats have the Congress. The next president can be expected to fill at least two seats on the Supreme Court and countless others elsewhere in the federal judiciary.

But those who remember the choice of 1964 and the template set by Barry Goldwater may view the game from a greater height. They may be willing to risk a few years in the Oval Office, believing that an interlude of all-Democratic control in Washington will restore the good old days for the GOP — just as Bill Clinton's first two years in office did in 1993 and 1994.

It is surely no stretch to imagine history repeating itself, especially if the next president is someone else named Clinton.