For years, during campaign after campaign, moderate Republicans—in various shades of pastel—have preached a big-tent gospel, one that insisted on conservatives being good soldiers in support of the GOP. And the record has shown that conservative minded Republicans have managed to hold their noses and vote for candidates who didn’t always reflect their values. They did so as part of an unwritten but widely accepted 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.
In the aftermath of primary after primary, conservatives have captured an impressive number of nominations. However, moderates—who could have never been in office without conservative support—have spoken with falsetto voices: “Sorry, but no can do—thanks for your support and what not during the past, but you don’t seriously expect us to support you, do you?”
In fact, not only is moderate support for conservative Republican nominees virtually non-existent this year, but some have decided to do everything in their power to ensure Democrat victories in local races via endorsement or so-called “independent” campaigns. And in doing so, they miss the clear lessons from history.
Some have likened what is happening in the GOP these days as akin to the “glorious disaster” of Goldwater in 1964 (personally, I think the better analogy is 1980, but admittedly both opinions are based on wishful thinking). If that is the case, there are interesting parallels to how moderates back then—called at the time “Eastern Establishment Republicans”—practiced their professed big-tent politics 46 years ago.
Largely remembered as the year of the electoral massacre of Goldwater by Lyndon Johnson, there is an interesting subplot to the story, one directed and dominated by the man who would four years later be elected as the 37th President of the United States.
Shortly after Richard Nixon’s “last press conference” on the night of his defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial race – when he uttered the infamous phrase “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” – ABC News aired a program with the catchy title “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon.” This brazen broadcast was hosted by Howard K. Smith and included, among guests driving nails into the former Vice President’s political coffin, an old Nixon nemesis – Alger Hiss. Hiss was a convicted perjurer and was thought by many to have been a Soviet spy (an allegation proven to be true after the end of the Cold War). The uproarious response to this television program led to the eventual cancellation of Smith’s new show, and revealed significant and enduring latent sympathy for Nixon on the part of many Americans.
Nixon, however, seemed resigned to the fact that his electoral life was most likely over. He moved his family from California to New York, and immersed himself in what would become a very successful law practice. He would speak out on issues from time to time, but it wasn’t likely that he’d run for office again – at least that was the conventional wisdom. Nixon was poised to be an ironically young (at 50 years of age) elder party statesman.
Meanwhile, Barry Goldwater was well on his way to capturing the 1964 GOP nomination. He had supported the more moderate Nixon in 1960. He didn’t always agree with Nixon, but he understood that supporting his party’s standard-bearer was crucial to expecting any future support—a point that seems to be lost on moderate Republicans these days. Goldwater also told conservative Republicans that it was time for them to “grow up” – challenging them to become better organized.And grow up they did.
In the immediate wake of the Kennedy assassination in November of 1963 there was some initial speculation that the 1964 election might favor another Nixon candidacy, but the former Vice President observed how quickly and effectively President Johnson positioned himself in his new office, and correctly saw him as virtually unbeatable. It’s true that he had some difficulty totally putting the idea of a run against Johnson out of his mind. He flirted here and there with it – but ultimately resigned himself to the inevitability of Goldwater. And this is where Richard Nixon demonstrated his political savvy and skill in a way that should be remembered by moderate Republicans in 2010.
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. He 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!”
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.
These days, many moderate Republican office holders are acting like the Rockefeller and Romney of the 1960s. They just can’t bring themselves to support conservatives. They speak scornfully and dismissively about the Tea Party movement. They are the heirs to the old Eastern Establishment wing of the GOP. They also refuse to work the way conservatives have.
Instead of supporting the Gipper du jour, they prefer to take their ball and go home. But in doing so they miss one obvious political aphorism:
Republican conservatives can win without moderates; but Republican moderates can never win without conservatives.