Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Déjà Vu

Posted: Jan 28, 2012 12:01 AM

Is this a rerun? Why does the Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich political drama feel so eerily familiar? Alas, this schismatic plot has been acted out before on the stage of GOP presidential politics; except the original cast weren’t named Mitt and Newt—they were named Nelson and Barry.

In an effort to unseat liberal president Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 1964 Republican primary pitted conservative senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona against moderate Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York. The latter candidate was a pragmatist who embodied more general election appeal and the former was an unabashed red meat retailer for a far-right-wing hunger.

In four gubernatorial terms, Rockefeller earned numerous civil and gender rights stripes, while simultaneously gaining a reputation as a tenacious enforcer of law and order. During the heat of that era’s intra-party crossfire, Rockefeller shared political trenches with Michigan governor George Romney, father of current GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. Any sane odds maker would have favored Rockefeller’s chances over Goldwater’s in a bid to replace a strong-willed president who was gifted with incumbency and John F. Kennedy’s legacy. Senator Goldwater, for his part, had the unenviable task of explaining how his libertarian convictions led him to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But even so, a general election presidential candidacy is a third base play—presidential hopefuls must first raise their political profile and then vie for their party’s primary nomination. Goldwater’s ratcheted-up conservative rhetoric effectively dashed Rockefeller’s plans for oval office occupancy and set the stage for a turbulent GOP national convention.

Newt took note.

In 1860, South Carolina became the first American state to secede from the Union. Since re-installment, the Palmetto State has consistently seceded from presidential primary trend lines. The state of smiling faces, beautiful places, and raucous political horse races reinvigorated Newt Gingrich’s presidential ambitions just as the GOP establishment kingmakers were planning Mitt Romney’s coronation. Tampa Bay’s reputation as a summer “hotspot” may take on an entirely new meaning as the area prepares to host a 2012 Republican National Convention that will likely be emotionally charged.

Could we be experiencing a moment of déjà vu from 1964?

It was President Lyndon Johnson’s hand that was ultimately raised in victory as the final bell sounded marking the end of the brutal brawl between Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater. The energy that was expended in Republican presidential primary pugilism essentially taxed whatever energy was desperately needed to beat President Johnson. LBJ went on to win the sixth-most lopsided presidential election in American history.

How much value does Mitt beating Newt and Newt beating Mitt have if the bloodletting between them results in the GOP losing the White House to Lyndon Johnson’s liberal protégé Barack Obama? At this moment, the gravity of history is pressuring the Republican Party to unequivocally articulate a clearer definition of victory.