As the GOP presidential dance card continues to fill up, with former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich’s hat now in the ring, many stalwarts have serious concerns about the actual electoral prospects for 2012. With no clear front-runner, and most of the would-be nominees saddled either with high-profile baggage or low profile, well, profiles—there exists a Republican vacuum.
And that vacuum sucks.
The past being prologue, one good question is: Will the presidential election of 2012 be a Republican 1964 or 1980. Will the campaign bear resemblance to the quixotic Barry Goldwater “glorious disaster,” or the triumphant Ronald Reagan man on horseback? Only time will tell, but a look at those past races might be wise right now.
The persistent mantra of moderate Republicans—in various shades of pastel—has been the gospel of the big tent. This usually means insistence that conservatives should be good soldiers in support of the GOP, even if that means the occasional holding of the nose. In fact, the record has shown that conservative Republicans have managed to support candidates who didn’t always completely reflect their values. This has been part of an unwritten but widely accepted socio-political contract with moderates, that if the tables were ever turned they would be able to count on the same big-tent graciousness to be there for them.
Sometimes though, the more moderate (and therefore presumably more tolerant and pragmatic) have not always seemed to be able to pull that trigger, if not lever.
In the aftermath of primary after primary during the 2010 mid-term elections conservatives captured an impressive number of nominations. However, many moderates—who could have never been in office without a good measure of conservative support—seemed to speak in a sort of political falsetto en route to last November.
Largely remembered as the year of the electoral massacre of Goldwater by Lyndon Johnson, there is an interesting subplot to the story that played out in 1964. The moderates of the day sat on their hands. Sixteen years later, they had more sense and the electoral math bears out that this wisdom helped make history.
In the immediate wake of the Kennedy assassination in November of 1963 there was some initial speculation that the 1964 election might favor another Richard Nixon candidacy, but the former Vice President observed how quickly and effectively President Lyndon Johnson positioned himself in his new office and correctly perceived him to be virtually unbeatable. It’s true that Nixon flirted here and there with a run for the nomination in 1964, but he ultimately resigned himself to the inevitability of Goldwater.
And this is where Richard Nixon demonstrated the kind of political savvy and skill that should be remembered by all Republicans in advance of 2012.
It was clear that the other big Republican guns in 1964 (all moderate Governors), Nelson Rockefeller of New York, Bill Scranton of Pennsylvania, and George Romney of Michigan, had little interest in supporting Barry Goldwater. Nixon, however, knew that anyone who really wanted to have a serious future shot at a presidential nomination could not afford to be a bystander, no matter how bad the results November might turn out to be.
Richard Nixon was not as conservative as Goldwater, but as a more moderate Republican he knew that faithfulness and diligence in such moments was crucial. Arriving in San Francisco that year for the Republican Convention, Mr. Nixon made his position perfectly clear: “I, for one Republican, don’t intend to sit out, or take a walk” – an obvious signal to Goldwater supporters and detractors. And while Rockefeller was shouted down as he addressed the crowd that week, Nixon was received warmly. In fact, historian Stephen Ambrose suggested that Richard Nixon’s speech at the 1964 Republican National Convention was the opening speech of his 1968 candidacy. The future president told his party:
Before this convention we were Goldwater Republicans, Rockefeller Republicans, Scranton Republicans, Lodge Republicans, but now that this convention has met and made its decision, we are Republicans, period, working for Barry Goldwater…And to those few, if there are some, who say that they are going to sit it out or take a walk, or even go on a boat ride, I have an answer in the words of Barry Goldwater in 1960 – ‘Let’s grow up, Republicans, let’s go to work – and we shall win in November!’
Of course, not all Republicans went to work that year, most notably Rockefeller and Romney—a fact not forgotten by conservatives four years later—but Nixon did.
Immediately following the convention, he orchestrated a meeting between former President Eisenhower and Goldwater at Ike’s Gettysburg, Pennsylvania farm, gaining a valuable endorsement. Then in the fall, Nixon took a leave of absence from his lucrative law practice and spent five intense weeks traveling to thirty-six states and delivering more than one hundred and fifty speeches on behalf of the national GOP ticket and state and local candidates. In doing so, he established (in some cases reestablished) relationships he would turn to for help when achieving stunning victories (credited by most to Nixon’s efforts) two years later in the 1966 mid-term elections. Of course, all this helped pave the way for Nixon’s nomination and general election victory in 1968.
Goldwater and Nixon were never close friends, and disagreed on many matters of politics and policy—but they, the conservative and the moderate, understood the importance of discipline and loyalty in a two-party system. In 1960 the conservative worked for the moderate. In 1964, the moderate worked for the conservative. They saw it as the right and smart thing to do. And on January 22, 1965, just two days after Lyndon Johnson was sworn in for his new term, Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon attended a meeting of the Republican National Committee. During his remarks, the man who had been humiliated by Lyndon Johnson turned to Richard Nixon and expressed his gratitude for making an extraordinary effort on behalf of his candidacy telling him: “Dick I will never forget it.” He then told him that he would happily return the favor in the future adding - “if there ever comes a time, I am going to do all I can.” That time came in 1968—and Barry Goldwater delivered for Dick Nixon.
If moderate Republicans find themselves tempted to act out in 2012 like Rockefeller and Romney did back then, they should take a good look back at 1964. Then they should look at 1980. Ronald Reagan’s success, as the clear political heir of the Goldwater movement of the early 1960s, came about, at least in part, because he managed to persuade moderates to jump on his bandwagon. And they did in droves.
The alternative would have been a second term for Jimmy Carter, a scenario nearly as unsettling as another term for Barack Obama.