A U.S. Politician Ahead of His Time
Over the past 100 years, 23 men have won the nomination of a major party and then gone on to lose the presidency of the U.S. Who remembers them now? Who remembers Alton B. Parker or John W. Davis? Alf Landon or Adlai Stevenson? Who will remember Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis 30 years from now? But there are exceptions to this rule of post-defeat obscurity, and — curiously — it is one of the biggest losers of them all who is the biggest exception: Barry Goldwater, who died on Friday at the age of 89.
In 1964, incumbent president Lyndon Johnson buried Goldwater in an electoral landslide. Johnson took 61.1% of the popular vote, the greatest victory in the history of presidential elections. The defeat was widely blamed on Goldwater’s apparent ‘extremism,’ a label he seemed to welcome in the famous line in his San Francisco nomination acceptance speech: “Extremism in defence of liberty is no vice; moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
So badly defeated were the Republicans many wondered whether “the party that lost its head” (as then-liberal columnist Robert Novak dubbed it in a book about the disaster) could ever recover. And everybody agreed, if it were to recover, it must abandon the wild-eyed, reckless ideas of Barry Goldwater.
Instead, after 16 years in the wilderness, Goldwater’s followers launched another campaign in 1980, this time winning the Republican nomination for Ronald Reagan and then the presidency. Since then, the Republican party has been a conservative party: a Goldwater party.
More amazing than Goldwater’s belated electoral victories have been his intellectual victories. To be sure, Goldwater was in no sense of the word an intellectual. He once famously admitted, “I haven’t really got a first-class brain.” He was too easily influenced, too impulsive, too driven by his personal likes and dislikes to have been a successful president. But the causes he championed in 1964, which then were snickered at as hare-brained radicalism, have become the conventional wisdom of the 1990s.
Goldwater believed communism must be resisted and overthrown, not negotiated with. Back in 1964, the Democrats seized on those beliefs as proof Goldwater was a reckless warmonger. (A bitter Goldwaterite joke: “They told me that if I voted for Barry, we’d end up in a land war in Vietnam. They were right. I did vote for Barry, and we did end up in a land war in Vietnam.”) But as we now know, it was his policy of peace through strength — and not the liberal vision of co-operation with the Soviets — that ended the Cold War.
Goldwater thought government should stop regulating wages and prices. Since the late 1970s, it has. He believed Social Security should be transformed into a system of individual retirement accounts, a move now being seriously considered by the Clinton administration. He wanted the government out of the hydro business, he wanted taxes cut, he opposed the draft, he wanted power devolved to local governments. Goldwater, although himself the least bigoted of men, opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, arguing it would dangerously expand federal power. Not all his ideas have become reality. But they have become part of the conventional wisdom of our times.
Perhaps the ultimate tribute to Goldwater is this irony: in the 32 years since Johnson crushed him in 1964, only one Democratic presidential candidate has won re-election, Bill Clinton. That Democrat went to the American people bragging that he had eliminated welfare, balanced the budget, reduced the number of federal employees, and pushed the stock market to new records. He understood it was Goldwater’s themes and ideas, not Johnson’s, that inspire Americans today.
Another political loser, Henry Clay of Kentucky, insisted 150 years ago, “I would rather be right than president.” Many politicians have repeated those words, but few have ever meant them. Goldwater was one of those few. He knew he was not going to win the 1964 election and just as much as said so in his campaign slogan: “In your heart, you know he’s right.” And by great good fortune, he lived long enough to see his countrymen admit they did indeed know it.