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A Goldwater Cycle?

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By:Richard Bishirijan | April 07, 2015

The day Sen. Ted Cruz launched his Presidential campaign with a speech at Liberty University, media critics used the phrase "Goldwater Cycle" to portray the dilemma of the GOP as it faces the Presidential election of 2016. While in college, I worked on both the 1960 Nixon and the 1964 Goldwater campaigns and have some ideas I can share with you about whether the way it was back then will recur in 2016.

According to the "Goldwater Cycle" theory, if the GOP nominates a true believer—Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, or, even, Ben Carson—instead of a centrist—Jeb Bush, Rob Portman, John Kasich—the Party will go down to defeat.

Is there such a pattern, are Rand Paul and Ted Cruz Goldwater clones, and if so, are conditions in 2016 a reprise of that fateful year?

In 1963 campaign manager F. Clifton White ramped up a campaign, begun in 1961, to draft Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater for President. On November 22nd of that year, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The outpouring of emotion that was the result of that crime covered over the weaknesses of JFK as he entered the 1964 campaign for re-election. We will never know if a reprise of the Nixon campaign, or even a Goldwater candidacy, would have been successful if JFK had lived, but we do know what did happen.

Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded to the Presidency and committed himself to continuation of the Kennedy legacy and then, upon being elected in his own right, jumped his Administration into overdrive. Sen. Barry Goldwater knew that LBJ was not just a "crook," but that he was a New Deal Democrat who would revive the attack on limited government begun by FDR in 1933. Against his best judgment that he couldn't win, Goldwater sought the GOP nomination and went down to colossal defeat in November 1964.

The GOP lost 36 House seats giving Johnson a two-thirds majority in the House and the 2 seats gained in the U.S. Senate gave Johnson a two-thirds majority in the Senate. That control of Congress in 1965, like the control of Congress won in 2008, enabled LBJ to enact a bevy of "Great Society" programs and to escalate a ground war in Asia—something he denied he would do during the 1964 campaign. More than 50,000 Americans lost their lives and war weariness assured the election of Richard Nixon in 1968.

Absent in next year's Presidential election is a successor to an assassinated President. The Democrats are likely to nominate a woman who, if elected, will be 70 years of age when she takes office, and the GOP has been controlled by centrists since the mantle of Ronald Reagan was passed to George. H. W. Bush.

The Party's grass roots activists, energized by a conservative rebellion by "Tea Party" activists, are straining to move the GOP away from control of the moderate faction that controls the GOP.

Against such opposition, what are the chances, therefore, that a real outsider will win the GOP Presidential nomination thus fulfilling "the Goldwater cycle" theory?

The cumulative impact of eight years of "W" as "decider" created a weariness with imperial wars in the American public that drove the candidacy of Barack Obama and now drives the appeal of Rand  Paul.

The United States' entry into World War I was intended by President Wilson to destroy "balance of power" politics and replace it with democratic idealism. "W" did not articulate his democratic idealism when he committed American troops in 2003 to an invasion of Iraq, but, by 2005, "W"' was confident that, in his Second Inaugural, he could reveal his desire to return to a form of idealism associated with Woodrow Wilson.

I argue in The Conservative Rebellion that by hiring speechwriter Michael Gerson, "W" signaled, before he ran for GOP nomination in 2000, that he was motivated by religious ideas that would control the foreign policies of his Administration.

"The best hope for peace in our world," the President said, in his Second Inaugural, "is the expansion of democracy in all the world" with the ultimate goal "of ending tyranny in our world." That extreme idea led to decisions by the "decider" that destroyed the balance of power in the Middle East. A collateral casualty was the GOP limited government brand.

Rand Paul has signaled opposition to  "imperial" foreign policies of the United States by declaring that only Congress has the power to declare war, opposed the excesses of the Patriot Act and the killing of American citizens suspected of terrorist ties without due process of law.

The campaigns of Ted Cruz, like that of Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Scott Walker emphasize the opposite—active use of military power to destroy ISIS and support Israel, if necessary, in military action to destroy Iran's nuclear weapons program.  Their rhetorical appeal to "American exceptionalism" signals their sympathy with "W"s revival of Woodrow Wilson’s democratic idealism and his advocacy of war to make the world democratic

A Goldwater "cycle" can be reprised only by a true outsider who, like Barry Goldwater, advocates a realist policy in foreign affairs and limited, Constitution-based, domestic policies.

That excludes Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Rick Santorum and Marco Rubio who appear to have fallen into a "time warp" aligned with "W" who broke the GOP limited government brand and revived Wilsonian idealism.

It is likely, therefore, that 2016 will not reprise "the Goldwater cycle," but the GOP nominee will be defeated because of his inability to reject the policies of President George W. Bush.

"Time warps" are not frequent, but they do occur. We last faced a time warp in 1991 when the Soviet Union fell. Secretary of State James Baker couldn't think out of the box and desperately wanted to secure relations with now-former Communist leaders of the Soviet Union. That Administration couldn't adjust to dramatic circumstances that changed the balance of power overnight. Despite Secretary of State James Baker's reputation as a "realist," so content with relations with the Soviet Union before 1991, he couldn't adjust his thinking to a new balance of power that had occurred with the collapse of Soviet communism. An opportunity was lost to restructure NATO, release responsibility for the defense of Western Europe to the Western Europeans, and pare back the administrative state with tax cuts and reduced government spending.

Time warps tend to block our vision of new and powerful forces which, in the American electorate today, include new generations of young voters who feel that the system is rigged against them, their votes are useless, and programs enacted since the New Deal and Great Society will deprive them of the middle class comforts enjoyed by their parents and deny them a secure retirement.

The "smart money" that is fueling the campaigns of Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio is betting on candidates who are clones of President George W. Bush. But, they too live in a time warp. Alone, Rand Paul has placed a wager on real circumstances that may not assure his election in 2016, but will position him to lead the GOP to victory in 2020.

The election of 2016 will look much like the election of 1960—not 1964.


Richard J. Bishirjian is president of Yorktown University.  His The Conservative Rebellion will be published by St. Augustine's Press in late April



Bryan Fox
4/7/2015 07:26 PM

  he election of 2016 will look much like the election of 1960 So which one of the Republican Presidential wanna be's resemble Tricky Dick? Rand Paul aside, if any of the others do trip their way into the imperial throne then there will be the return of military conscription.

4/7/2015 08:08 PM

  Goldwater was no conservative, but in 1964, the Republican establishment conceded defeat to LBJ, and walked away from Goldwater, or in some cases, actively worked against him. I don't think that whatever is left of the Tea Party has a definite candidate of their own, but rest assured, that if the conservative grassroots (tea party) is permitted to pick a candidate, the Republican establishment will walk away, and work to see that he is not elected. The Republican establishment would always rather see a progressive Democrat win than a "conservative" Republican. The other major difference between 1964 and today is the composition of the electorate. America in 1964 was still largely homogenous, white, Christian, blue collar, inherently conservative, etc. America today is a polyglot boarding house. Thus, you see Rand Paul out pandering to minorities and telling them all of the ways that they have been oppressed. Its probably his only chance to win.

Bryan Fox
4/7/2015 08:44 PM

  MD- You are correct about Paul. He will have to espouse social and economic proposals contrary to Paleo-conservative values in order to attract minorities and the clueless millennials if he wants to attract them in the large numbers he needs to win. The country is surely gone.

Dan Phillips
Macon, GA
4/7/2015 11:27 PM

  I don't know how wise it is to take issue with someone with a PhD in Government about politics, but I'm not sure I agree with the idea that what W articulated was totally new and a break from the past. I have seen this argument before from people I respect, but it strikes me as a bit of wishful thinking. W's admin was much more dominated by neocons without counterbalancing "realists," but the rhetoric does not strike me as all that new or different. The idea that America should play an outsized role on the world stage including going to war on behalf of other countries and for our ideals and values has always underpinned the case for US interventionism, as far as I can tell. Thankfully I came to my senses and opposed the First Gulf War and supported Buchanan's primary challenge while I was still a young man, but I can remember the days when I was still a Cold Warrior, and the arguments I made in favor of arming the Contras or whatever, were really the same arguments that are being made today. The US as the leader of the free world has a moral obligation to fight the Commies and spread American values blah, blah, blah... The times when conservatives have actually been right about a foreign policy issue, like staying out of Bosnia and Mogadishu, have been the exceptions and I don't think they reflect a reversion to some baseline tendency. Post WWII it has always been this way.

Dan Phillips
Macon, GA
4/8/2015 07:59 PM

  I just want to clarify my comment above. After I read it I felt it might be open to misinterpretation. There has long been a struggle in GOP foreign policy circles between "realist" cooler heads who were were more open to diplomacy and containment and less likely to support the use of military force, and more hawkish elements that support a more bellicose and confrontational policy. This is seen today even in, for example, the struggle over who is going to consult with the Jeb Bush campaign on foreign policy. At that level, I do think there has been a change, with the latter group now clearly the ascendant faction. My point was about the rhetoric used to sell interventionism to the rank-and-file. I don't think that has changed all that much.


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