It was 50 years ago this month that Barry Goldwater was nominated for president by the Republican Party. During this month, many competing conservative voices have been claiming him. But it’s hard to imagine him claiming some of them.
Two years before his death, Barry Goldwater spoke with another Republican presidential nominee, Robert Dole, about how they’d become outcasts in the GOP. “We’re the new liberals of the Republican Party,” Goldwater said. “Can you believe it?”
Goldwater did, of course, hold positions during his presidential campaign that today’s conservatives embrace.
Something else that happened 50 years ago, on July 21, was that Goldwater denounced Medicare, which today is a fixture of health care in the United States. But on issues of principle and philosophy, Goldwater is not necessarily a spiritual ancestor of many of today’s conservatives.
Goldwater was not comfortable with the social conservatives who have come into control of the GOP and who try to use state power to impose their view of morality in fields like drugs, abortion, and sexuality on the public.
Last year Dole himself said nothing has changed in more recent years, that the party has continued drifting to the fringes, to the point that Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon would today similarly find themselves outside allowable policies of today’s Republican Party (though the party continues to praise Reagan as an icon in order to market the party).
Dole: “Reagan couldn’t have made it [in today’s GOP]. Certainly Nixon could not have made it because he had ideas. We might have made it, but I doubt it.” Dole is a former Republican national chair. His authenticity as a Republican cannot be challenged.
Nevadans have seen similar evolutions. In 1970 William Raggio was the GOP’s nominee for the U.S. Senate. In 1974 he was its nominee for lieutenant governor. As the Republican floor leader in the Nevada Senate after the state party was devastated by Watergate (it declined to just three members of the Nevada Senate), he held the party together and slowly built it back up to a majority.
Toward the end of Raggio’s public career, fringe figures who used the Republican Party as a vehicle (Reno Mayor Bob Cashell calls them Republicans in name only) gained ascendancy.
When in 2010 former American Independent Party leader Sharron Angle put together a plurality in a 12-candidate race to become the party’s U.S. Senate candidate, Raggio and dozens of other state Republican leaders couldn’t stomach her fanaticism and intolerance and found themselves reluctantly forced to support Democrat Harry Reid.
When in 2012, Paulists took over the state GOP and showed no interest in electing the party’s nominee for president – Mitt Romney – many of those same Republicans were forced to put together an independent Nevada party-in-exile to help Romney.
Along the way, the party both in Nevada and nationally became identified with marginal and sometimes odd positions that reduced its appeal. As the nation was moving in one direction on some issues, the party was moving the other way. And, of course, there was the party’s use of vitriol and polarization – playing groups off against each other.
In 2012, scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein – neither of them liberals – published a book arguing that because the Republican Party has become “ideologically polarized, internally unified, vehemently oppositional,” it had also become “more loyal to party than to country” and was putting the nation at risk because it was preventing governance.
The reaction among Republicans was to try to demonize Mann and Ornstein and among Democrats was to exploit this relatively nonpartisan finding.
Neither side seemed to understand that the two men were sounding an alarm that could be useful to both sides, that a healthy Republican Party is essential to scrutinize legislation, anticipate problems, provide leadership instead of just oppose Democrats in venomous fashion. And Democrats were happy to use the Mann/Ornstein thesis to point fingers and watch their opponents drift into extremism in order to elect Democrats, no matter the damage to the country of an unbalanced political system.
Goldwater was an ideologue, but he wanted to put his ideology to work in order to have impact and shape events. Today, the Republican Party is being relegated to the periphery, which is no favor to the country. We need healthy parties in order to have healthy policies.
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.