Monday, February 28, 2005

Before the (Snow) Storm

Thanks mainly to Kevin Drum, last week was "Before the Storm" Week in parts of the blogosphere, with a lot of people weighing in on the genius of Rick Perlstein's 2001 book about the early days of the conservative movement, culminating in the Goldwater candidacy of 1964.

Perlstein's book has been on my reading list for a while, but keeps getting bumped down to the second tier, not because of any misgivings I have about his widely acclaimed brilliance in recounting the events of those days, but simply because I sorta kinda lived through this in detail and prefer to spend my limited reading time on stuff I don't know much about.

As the most obsessive little political junkie you'd ever want to avoid in the early 60's, I paid a lot of attention to the Goldwater movement at the time, and in ensuing years, read a lot about its antecedents: the early National Review, the Sharon Statement, the rightward tilt of the YR's, the YAF, the Democrats-for-Goldwater, the Cliff White organization--the whole enchilada. I'm sure Perlstein has important insights about these phenomena that would never occur to me, but right now my top priority is reading Ted Widmer's new biography of Martin Van Buren, who basically founded the Democratic Party.

I do find the Democratic blogospheric debate over the Goldwater campaign, via Perlstein (nicely sliced and diced by Mark Schmitt), fascinating and sometimes horrifying.

The idea that today's Democrats should model themselves on Goldwater Republicans is by any standard, well, a bit nuts. They lost spectacularly in 1964, losing states like Vermont and Kansas that Republicans never lost, by big margins. They destroyed an African-American GOP vote that had been there since Lincoln. That was hard, but they accomplished it. They discredited conservative opposition to the Great Society, which had tangible results in the four years after Goldwater's nomination. And the magnitude of the loss marginalized movement conservatives in the Republican Party for a long time.

A number of participants in the blogospheric discussion of Perlstein's book note that some of liberalism's most notable victories occurred under Richard Nixon, particularly the enactment of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and the first major federal affirmative action program. But Nixon's most important insults to the conservative movement were his wage and price controls--a truly satanic posture in the eyes of market conservatives--and his repudiation of Taiwan in the recognition of mainland China, which struck at one of the most emotional and original heart-throbs of the pre-Goldwater and Goldwater Right.

The chronic estrangement of movement conservatives from the GOP after 1964 has been understated by many Left and Right enthusiasts.
They often forget Reagan's insurgent effort to forge an anti-Nixon alliance with Nelson Rockefeller at the 1968 GOP Convention. They rarely know about the 1971 manifesto by conservatives (led by William F. Buckley) deploring detente with the Soviet Union, which nakedly offered to support a Democrat like Scoop Jackson in 1972. And nobody seems to remember the period after Reagan's failed 1976 campaign, when National Review's publisher, William Rusher, was promoting a "Producers' Party" that would combine Republican conservatives with Wallacite Democratic conservatives.

Mark Schmitt's comments on the subject nail one point entirely: that the main lesson Republicans ultimately learned from the Goldwater movement was to hide their aims.

It's no accident that conservatives finally conquered the GOP, and won the presidency, under the sign of Ronald Reagan's embrace of supplyside economics--i.e., the belief that you can promote massive tax cuts and deregulation without really demanding major retrenchment of New Deal/Great Society programs. David Stockman's brilliant if long-forgotten memoir, The Triumph of Politics, confirmed the final unwillingness of conservatives to accept the fiscal logic of their philosophy. And this basic dishonesty remains a heavy legacy for Republican conservatives today--a characteristic, of course, that would horrify Barry Goldwater.

So: what do Democrats have to learn from the early conservative movement? How to lose elections, lose influence, and ultimately win by losing your soul?

It's a good question, the night before a big snowstorm is expected to hit Washington, a place Barry Goldwater wished God or man would smite with every available plague.
-- Posted at 1:28 AM | Link to this post | Email this post

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