The GOP’s Looming Election Disaster Is Just Like 1964- Except This Time It’s the Establishment’s Fault
A specter is haunting the Republican establishment—the specter of Barry Goldwater. With recent polling data suggesting that Rick Santorum has surged ahead of Mitt Romney among Republican voters nationwide, the people whose livelihoods depend on Republican electoral victories are terrified by the growing possibility of a massive wipeout in November, much like the one that Republicans experienced in 1964, when Goldwater was their nominee.
But even if the magnitude of the Republicans’ defeat this year resembles that previous debacle, the path there will be significantly different. Whereas Goldwater’s campaign was the product of an insurgency against the reigning Republican establishment, this year’s disaster is the product of political atrophy that the current GOP establishment has itself actively presided over.
ONCE UPON A TIME, East Coast moderates comprised the critical mass of the Republican party leadership. In the middle of the 20th century, they consistently threw their weight against the conservatives’ preferred presidential candidates (principally Ohio Senator Robert Taft), which helped to hand the nomination to Republican moderates Wendell Willkie in 1940, Thomas Dewey in 1944 and 1948, and Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. But with the movement of industrial and financial power away from the Northeast, the East Coast kingmakers’ standing within the party deteriorated by the early 1960s—evidenced most notably by conservative activists’ ability to seize the nomination, to the moderates’ horror, for Goldwater in 1964.
There was a real rift running through the party in those years, between the moderate elements of the establishment and the conservative parts of the base: the GOP was an ideological coalition that, come election time, usually had to compromise on a platform. But as the moderates gradually, though inexorably, disappeared in the succeeding decades, the GOP became an ever more ideologically unified party. The popular belief that today’s Republican establishment is moderate is false. The current relationship between the Republican establishment and the party’s base is not so much a clash of moderates against conservatives as it is a difference in perspective between realistic professionals and passionate amateurs.
But the GOP’s current establishment never developed a successful way to deal with the tension between its ideological commitments and its partisan commitments. All things being equal, they would prefer maximally conservative politicians in office. But as political professionals, the party’s elites have always known that radical conservatives are only a minority of American voters, and that a Republican nominee has to win over large numbers of moderates and independents to gain the presidency.