The Goldwater Myth

02.13.13

Fool's Gold

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I've been warning for years against the Goldwater myth: the claim that the GOP defeat of 1964 was a blessing in disguise because it opened the way to Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980. Here's a piece from 2009:

What happened in 1964 was an unredeemed and unmitigated catastrophe for Republicans and conservatives. The success that followed 16 years later was a matter of happenstance, not of strategy. That’s the real lesson of 1964, and it is the lesson that conservatives need most to take to heart today. … True, the liberal triumph of 1964 set in motion the train of disasters that laid liberalism low in the 1980s. But those disasters followed from choices and decisions that liberals made – not from some multiyear conservative grand strategy for success in 1980. It was not Goldwater who made Reagan possible. It was Carter. Had Carter governed more successfully, the Goldwater disaster would have been just a disaster, with no silver lining. And there was nothing about the Goldwater disaster that made the Carter failure more necessary, more inevitable.

And anyway, as the years pass, the consequences of Reagan’s victory look more temporary and provisional, at least in domestic policy – while the consequences of Goldwater’s defeat look more enduring and more consequential. The Reagan tax cuts are long gone. Medicare is still here.

And behold: here is National Review Online posting similar thoughts today!

it’s worth pointing out that the landslide defeat of Goldwater to Lyndon Johnson led to the enactment of the Great Society, and most notably, Medicare and Medicaid. In other words, the very fiscal crisis we face today — for which, at our most courageous, we recommend but modest reforms — was a direct result of the disastrous Goldwater campaign.

We may all prefer the policies of Goldwater to those of Rockefeller. But it’s at least debatable whether or not the conservative movement was better off, or worse off, for having nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964.

The ice is cracking.