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Au-H20, again

Suddenly, everyone in the Drum/Yglesias/DeLong blog clique is reading or re-reading Rick Perlstein's great 2001 book about the Goldwater campaign, Before the Storm. If your interest has been provoked by this lively interchange, you might be interested in the review I wrote of the book at the time.

In part of my review, I made the somewhat idiosyncratic point that Goldwater's politics lead to Reagan and to Bush/DeLay, sure, but they lead more directly to John McCain, who holds Goldwater's Senate seat, and is similarly thin-skinned, unpredictable, and while not liberal or even moderate, nonetheless admirably independent, rational, decent, and outraged at corruption or cheap hate politics. Pearlstein shows Goldwater's fight as largely against the Republican establishment -- the pro-civil rights, entitled, Northeastern establishment of Prescott Bush -- just as McCain's was against an establishment that had become much more rigidly right-wing, corrupt and hate-mongering.

I had to argue hard to keep two paragraphs on this point in the review, because the implicit point of the book, and most readings of it (including Kevin's, Matt's and Brad's), was that the Goldwater defeat laid the groundwork for the right-wing takeover of the Party and country. Even though Perlstein wrote almost nothing about events after election day 1964, the book has been read mostly as a parable for the situation of the Democratic Party 40 years later. That can be taken in several ways: The first is to see abject defeat as the beginnings of renewal, in some unmediated Cycles-of-History or Alcoholics Anonymous theory under which you can only begin recovery by reaching rock bottom. A second reading is to see the intra-party insurgency built up for Goldwater's 1964 campaign, and his bracingly ideological speeches as providing the ideological clarity that a party needs. In other words, Goldwater was the Howard Dean of his day, giving the party not a president, but a spirit. Another is to see the conservative movement taking a deep look into its soul after the 1964 defeat, and from that point forward, building out the think tanks, grassroots organizations, media outlets, and state-level operations that ultimately led to sustained success. George Packer put this interpretation well in April 2001, writing in the New York Times:

In a new book, "Before the Storm," Rick Perlstein shows how grass-roots Republicans responded to Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat in 1964 -- not by trying to install new party leaders, but by forming think tanks, training activists, knocking on doors and electing true believers to local offices. Conservative Republicans, who knew what they were about, refused to be discouraged by a mere 16-million-vote defeat. Instead, they took it to mean that they could move the country in their direction. By 1980 their new Goldwater had emerged as president.

I don't think the first reading holds up. (A journalist told me the other day that he'd called up Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. recently and asked, "Whatever happened to the Cycles of History?," and that Schlesinger said something like, "Good question, I've been wondering about that myself.") The second interpretation doesn't quite comport with history, since for the next 16 years, the Republican party's presidential nominees, as well as its governors and congressional leaders, were mostly from the moderate, establishment wing of the party. The third reading, Packer's, while extrapolated from the book, is probably the closest to the truth, and certainly the most useful to current circumstances. (This is also the argument Paul Waldman makes today. (I can't get this written in time to contribute to the discussion if I keep stopping to read these things.)

DeLong has a fourth argument:

in the short run Goldwaterism had other consequences: the damage it did to Republican congressional power were the only things that made the Great Society possible: the Johnson-era expansions of the social insurance state and the Nixon and post-Nixon-era expansions of the regulatory state were possible only on congressional foundations that had been created by Goldwater's Samson act directed against the Republican establishment.

To make possible the Great Society--and then to cheer when Ronald Reagan rolls back 10% of it--Goldwaterism was the greatest own-goal and act of political delusion by conservatives in the twentieth century.

The first point -- that the Great Society was made possible by Goldwater's polarization of the electorate, which increased the Democrats' congressional majority to 68 in the Senate and 295 in the House, the largest majorities since Reconstruction -- is plausible. But if LBJ had faced one of the establishment candidates of 1964 -- Rockefeller, Scranton or Romney -- his margin would not have been as wide but he would still have won and might easily have brought two Senators and 45 House members with him, and the conservative Southerners (all Democrats until Thurmond endorsed Goldwater and changed parties) weakened their own hand by their defection on civil rights.

And it is also true that the conservative assaults on Great Society government have mostly been turned back: Nixon, it is now fully understood, governed as a domestic-policy liberal; Reagan fixed Social Security and did roll back no more than 10% of the Great Society without too much damage, and the Gingrich revolution, which set out to at the very least, if only for symbolic reasons, eliminate at least one cabinet department, accomplished nothing of the kind. Today, as DeLong points out in either an earlier version of this post or another one, Social Security is as big as ever, Medicare was just expanded, etc.

Now, I have two reactions to that. The first is that the persistence of big government is not the same as liberalism. I have no interest in the Medicare program being of a certain size. I want it to work. Similarly, if it includes private accounts, Social Security will be vastly bigger than ever, but will provide less social security. And these unpopular, arbitrary programs will leave people even more discontented with government, a discontent which will further undermine liberal arguments.

Second, I think the Bush/DeLay assault on the Great Society (and the New Deal) is based on learning a key lesson from what they see as the failures of Reagan and Gingrich: You only have a brief moment, and don't waste it attacking the edifice of liberalism itself. Undermine its foundations. Thus, strip the government of revenue, and eventually the programs will collapse. Install "Constitution in Exile" judges with a pre-New Deal view of the Commerce Clause, and eventually the federal government will lose the ability to regulate anything.

Both these tactics show a recognition of the insights of political scientists Hadley Cantril and Lloyd Free (not to be confused with the Lloyd Free who became "World B. Free" as an NBA star of the late 70s) based on their survey in 1964. Cantril and Free argued that Americans were generally "operational liberals" and "ideological conservatives," and they specifically diagnosed the Goldwater defeat in those terms:

Republican Senator Barry Goldwater lost the 1964 presidential election, Free and Cantril argued, because he was an in-your-face operational conservative. He traveled to Tennessee, for example, to make a speech blasting the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). "As long as Goldwater could talk ideology alone, he was high, wide, and handsome," they wrote. "But the moment he discussed issues and programs, he was finished."

The paragraph above is from Michael Nelson's 2000 election post-mortem in The American Prospect.

What the think tanks and grassroots groups and Karl Rove and Frank Luntz figured out over the 36 years after Goldwater was how to retain the language of ideological conservatism, leave unchallenged the facade of operational liberalism, and use that combination to exercise power long enough and aggressively enough to destroy every future prospect for operational liberalism. I think they have scuttled much of the strength of real conservatism in the process, but I don't think that's anything for liberals to be glad or complacent about.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 25, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

This goes back to understanding the obvious. The republicans knew when they passed the medicare bill that it would be unsustainably expensive in the future. They know that a situation where government spending is 21% of gdp, while taxes are only 17% is unsustainable, but they do it anyway. It's a crisis they're after.

There's an argument over the nature of government. Conservatives have tried to sell us on the idea that it's not a force for good, but why have the argument at all if you can impose your view on reality itself, in this case by making government into the very evil thing you believe it is?

Posted by: Kennedy | Feb 25, 2005 7:10:21 PM

The Koufax awards led me here. Great post. Thanks.

Posted by: wrapper | Feb 25, 2005 9:28:30 PM

Goldwater believed in free men.

Bush believes in free lunch.

Posted by: trotsky | Feb 25, 2005 9:59:39 PM

yeah, i buy it. They can't outright dismantle the New Deal, but they can starve it by lying to the moon.

Posted by: Phil | Feb 25, 2005 10:10:39 PM

and I consider SS privatization and the Medicare expansion forms of starvation, because the money gets sucked out by big investment and pharmaceutical firms.

Posted by: Phil | Feb 25, 2005 10:13:06 PM

I was pleased enough with the entire article (although I think Dean-as-Goldwater has a truth to it), but when you pulled out the World B Free reference, that put it over the top for me. Man, that hair.

Posted by: Torrid | Feb 26, 2005 12:29:17 AM

I don't think the Republicans realize how high the stakes are in the gamble they're taking. If they're right, they'll undermine liberalism. If they're wrong, they they'll undermine capitalism, and the country will move further left than it ever has.

Posted by: Walt Pohl | Feb 26, 2005 1:15:59 AM

Walt Pohl's got a good point. Playing devil's advocate:

The right-wing media machine keeps pushing the personal responsibility angle, but if interest rates rise, the dollar collapses, and we become a country in decline, according to the conservatives, it's every man for himself.

Social conservativism will be a loser in elections. Gay marriage won't matter if you can't afford actual marriage anymore.

The government will then become the advocate for the people who are "have-nots." Elections won't be about who supports gay marriage, but who supports the system that led us into a society in decline. Those politicians will be kicked out.

In that mentality, if things collapse, why not attack the hoarders of wealth? They're keeping money from the lower-class, in the every-man-for-himself mentality. If it's every man for himself, why support a system that gives the upper hand to those who ruined our economic vitality?

I don't know if this will happen, but if it does, what's stopping this selfish thought process from hurting capitalism in America?

Posted by: Justin Packhouse | Feb 26, 2005 2:32:05 AM

There's always the danger of economic devastation bringing us even further to the right. That danger is fascism.

I don't think it's inevitable that another Great Depression will push the country to the left.

Consider that some of the most poverty stricken areas of America are either ardently Republican (rural red state land) or ardently apolitical (urban ghettoes).

But I do think another Great Depression would make organizing a lot easier. But I'd still rather it not happen.

Posted by: Phil | Feb 26, 2005 3:34:21 AM

You make a good argument Mark. Part of it, essentially, is a deliberate attempt to sabotage government. Make it as ineffective and wasteful as possible shortterm, to breed citizen dissatisfaction with government. Then cut, cut, cut taxes, with citizens willing accomplices.

But to what point? Till its defenses are weakened? Till the poverty rate hits 30%? 40%? 50%? with fewer safety nets in place?

How far can the public be expected to willingly pursue policies of self-impoverishment?

More to the point: how long before they suspect they're being hornswaggled, that conservative government isn't, that it's not government that's flawed, but REPUBLICAN government?

Impoverished, post WW1 Germany moved to Naziism. Depression era US moved toward socialism. What made the difference in these two societies? Why do you leave it as an open possibility that we could easily move more Right than Left should the economy tank?

After all, a distinct difference in 2004 compared to 1964 was the margin of difference in the vote. Consider: a wartime President retaining office by just 3%. That's not exactly a blowout,and suggests half the country's resisting the better organized, better on-message, stealthier PR leading party, when it's using every parlor trick possible to keep their tenuous hold on power.

Soul-searching is better than self-delusion (the latter I may be guilty of) but doesn't the fact that it took the GOP 4 presidential elections just to win more than 50% of the popular vote?

It suggests to me that very few minds need changing to reverse the trend. Or am I missing something here?

Posted by: Kevin Hayden | Feb 26, 2005 3:59:16 AM

"I think they have scuttled much of the strength of real conservatism in the process, but I don't think that's anything for liberals to be glad or complacent about."

This entire post is very, very good.

My only quibble is that I think you underestimate the beneficial effects on LBJ's ability to legislate his agenda that the Goldwater debacle enabled.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 26, 2005 4:37:38 AM

"The first point -- that the Great Society was made possible by Goldwater's polarization of the electorate, which increased the Democrats' congressional majority to 68 in the Senate and 295 in the House, the largest majorities since Reconstruction -- is plausible. But if LBJ had faced one of the establishment candidates of 1964 -- Rockefeller, Scranton or Romney -- his margin would not have been as wide but he would still have won and might easily have brought two Senators and 45 House members with him"

Imagine that Dean had been nominated for President instead of Kerry, and imagine his candidacy had gone down in Goldwater-like flames, leading to a Bush blowout.

Since the Dems already lost all of the open Southern Senate seats, the Congressional outcome might not have been dramatically worse. But if Bush had won the election 60-40, does anyone not imagine it would have been dramatically harder to stop his Social Security destruction plans?

Posted by: Petey | Feb 26, 2005 5:14:18 AM

"I don't know if this will happen, but if it does, what's stopping this selfish thought process from hurting capitalism in America?"

Posted by: Justin Packhouse

Justin, there's a saying, that FDR saved capitalism from itself. By instituting the New Deal, he prevented a socialist/communist revolution (successful or unsuccessful).
However, many on the right curse him to this day. If anything, saving capitalism from itself bought him the intense hatred of capitalism.

Bush, DeLay, etc., probably don't believe that there's any chance of a leftward jump in US politics. They figure that the worse things get, the better for them. Especially as they have enough of a propaganda machine to blame things on 'Evul Libruls' for the forseeable future.

Posted by: Barry | Feb 26, 2005 8:21:54 AM

I still think people give Goldwater conservatives and their institutions far too much credit. The GOP turned to the right not because of some speech, but because they enlisted the large faction of Southern Democrats who were conservative on a wide range of issues: foreign affairs, civil rights, feminism, labor rights, etc.

In other words, the shift comes from below, not from above. And the GOP has made darned certain not to touch the programs that most benefit those former Dems, lest they be reminded why they once rode the donkey.

Now, this is why, from a purely academic standpoint, the SS debate is so fascinating. It tests the ability of GWB to maintain the support of white Southern working people. We'll see if ideology and party loyalty truly trump economic interest.

Posted by: AWC | Feb 26, 2005 8:41:46 AM

Personally, with their "starving the beast" approach to government, I think that the Republicans have been too clever by half.

The problem is, there's no way government services can be cut to the point that it would be sustainable at current tax rates. Enormously popular programs would have to be devastated to sustain those tax cuts, and THAT is not going to happen, because it would take down Congressmen who chose to cut them.

What this means is that tax hikes (or the rescinding of some of Bush's tax cuts) are inevitable. Hence all the political fights between Republicans and Democrats will, at most, have to do with the exact size of the tax hike, or tax reinstatement. It is a much harder political case to make to the American people when it is simply the exact numbers that's at issue, and not the necessity of the tax increase. Democrats can frame the necessity in very dire terms, because in fact they will be very dire.

Had the Republicans been less drastic in their tax cuts, they might have had a chance to cut government back to a point that it would have been sustainable indefinitely at that lower level. Being greedy and foolish, they instead designed a crisis in the future whose only remedy is the undoing of what they are hoping to achieve.

Posted by: frankly0 | Feb 26, 2005 11:48:45 AM

"There's always the danger of economic devastation bringing us even further to the right. That danger is fascism." ["Phil", above]

Sergey Zharikov and I were discussing the possible course of the next few years presuming that we are now at peak oil. He argues that a command economy may have been unfit for the Hubbert upslope [Sergey is originally Russian] but that the downslope will make authoritarian planning inevitable.

sr
cygnus inter anates

Posted by: soren renner | Feb 26, 2005 4:08:28 PM

Great argument. I want to especially thank you for alluding to the unquestioned assumption that the Democratic party either has already or needs to reach rock bottom. It's clear to me that the party is nowhere near rock bottom, as an incumbent president only won by a few percentage points over a less than exciting Democrat who played for a tactical rather than a strategic win. Furthermore, we didn't do that bad below the Presidential level. Take out the Texas redistricting, and it was basically a "hold" result in the House (which is districted to a clear Repub advantage of about 10-12 net seats). We gained nationally in state legislatures. Our setbacks in the Senate were primarily in heavily Republican states, like losing seats in SC and GA and failing to win supposedly vulnerable seats in KY, OK and AK. And our big gains of governors in 2002 don't seem imperiled by any national trend; they appear weak or strong based more on state-and-candidate specific dynamics than any national movement away from Dems.

I'm less certain than many others that the current strength and direction of the party shows an obvious need a deep-reaching destruction and "renewal" in most or all aspects of the party. Both Bush and Kerry essentially waged tactical campaigns, and on a national level, I think the Repubs have generally proven more adept at tactics than us. Kerry's campaign never shifted out of the tactical game, and didn't try to significantly reshape the political debate like did Reagan in 1980, Clinton and Perot did in 1992, and the Gingrich-led GOP did in 1994. Rhetorically and ideologically, it was a narrowly waged campaign, and I'm not sure the sweeping explanatory claims about what Bush's victory means for the Democratic party are supported by the narrow margin of Kerry's defeat.

Now, as a party are we like a sports team that's good enough to regularly reach the conference championship, but can't get into the league championship, and won't unless we undergo major changes? I don't know, but most people advocating some particular ideological or strategic program of change glide past that question and assume the answer is obvious. Most assume we need either a few minor tweaks or a near-complete demolition and reconstruction of the entire party. Those calling for massive change may assume we've already hit rock bottom. Maybe they assume that it doesn't matter if we're inches from victory, becuase our current path doesn't lead to where we need to be and we have to back up a few miles to take the right path.

Whatever the case, whoever tries to tell Democrats where they need to go must be required to first lay out where we currently are, what we may forfeit by taking a new path, and how those loses will be offset by the supposed gains and advantages that come from our new strategies, ideas and image. In short, too few of the people talking about what the party needs to do have demonstrated that they've performed a full and thorough examination of the patient and arrived at a diagnosis that describes the nature and seriousness of the sickness. Instead, they just jump ahead to their cure. I'd like a better description of what's wrong before we rush ahead and try to "cure" what may not be sick or keeping us from exhibiting greater vigor.

Posted by: DHinMI | Feb 26, 2005 6:46:34 PM

Now, as a party are we like a sports team that's good enough to regularly reach the conference championship, but can't get into the league championship, and won't unless we undergo major changes?

DH, being that you're in Michigan: Teams in that situation that succeed most often do so by making a few key changes, not major ones. Shanahan to replace Primeau, and voila: Stanley Cup.

This is snarky, but actually in support of the basic argument in your comment.

Posted by: eb | Feb 26, 2005 8:40:59 PM

"There is something vaguely self-serving about this retelling of the tale by intellectuals, about intellectuals." Mark Schmidt (2001)

And just as apropos of today's conversation.

The idea that ideas have much if anything to do with politics, with who gets to govern, is a peculiar conceit of intellectuals.

People vote against, not for. The object of the ethos is to arouse pathos directed against the Other -- logos limps haltingly behind.

Ruling elites use government to neuter their opponents.

Steel tariffs prevent West Virginians becoming aroused against Bush; Medicare drug supplements do the same with older Floridians. The war party in power defines the opposing party as the Other -- and the Other is always vaguely disquieting if not unpatriotic.

In the meantime gifts are given to supporters and contributions are gratefully received. And "ideas" play in the kabuki theater.

Posted by: Ellen1910 | Feb 26, 2005 10:12:08 PM

"You only have a brief moment, and don't waste it attacking the edifice of liberalism itself. Undermine its foundations. Thus, strip the government of revenue, and eventually the programs will collapse."

This is the current approach. Obviously well understood by those taking advantage of its potential strengths.

Posted by: Movie Guy | Feb 27, 2005 2:24:51 AM

Ellen1910, what you say is true for a segment of the voting population, but no more than that. It is far from a complete argument. You're telling us that it was Steel Tarrifs and Steel Tarrifs only that delivered WV to Bush, and not the more complex brew of cultural issues and ideological arguments combined with other local issues appealing to that fundamentally conservative state? You're telling us that another segment of the voting population does not respond to aspiration, to positive messages?

Of course intellectualism doesn't matter much. But you're ignoring the real mechanics of on the ground coalitional politics and essentially committing the same foul (to extend the sports metaphors of above) as the intellectuals, by proposing some all encompassing theory. I mean, come on, you used the word "logos" in your post. Who's the disconnected intellectual now?

Posted by: Buford P. Stinkleberry | Feb 27, 2005 3:36:54 PM

Using logos doesn't mean you're an intellectual. I used to play with them all the time with a kid. I wasn't that smart and I built great things.

Posted by: a | Feb 27, 2005 5:25:25 PM

BPS,

I, too, abjure The Fallacy of the Single Cause.

But the theory pushed by certain liberal intellectuals that the ideas of Conservative think tankers propelled the GOP to its present dominance seems to me to be self-indulgent nonsense.

The very fact of Bush imposing tarrifs or of Delay twisting arms in the middle of the night to obtain passage of the Medicare drug supplement -- presumably, each a Conservative bete noir -- should put one very large spike in the heart of the aforementioned theory.

Those who think ideas matter should check to see what the successful political pros think of them. Not very much, I'd say.

Posted by: Ellen1910 | Feb 27, 2005 11:09:28 PM

Au-H2O?
Mark, what did I tell you about Google preferences and getting more notice for yourself in search results? The title's the thing, man. If you want people searching for "Goldwater" to find your post about Goldwater, you need to put "Goldwater" in the title. It's almost as though you're deliberately being perverse and undermining your own chance at popularity.

And it would be a crying shame for people to miss a post that name-checks World B. Free.

Oh, by the way, terrific post, as always. The ratio of insight to snark/fluff/filler is incredibly high at this site, and I have no idea why you didn't win a Koufax. Wait a sec - [rereads own comment] yes I do....

Posted by: The Navigator | Feb 28, 2005 2:06:59 PM

Mark,

That's among your best posts ever! Wow!

"What the think tanks and grassroots groups and Karl Rove and Frank Luntz figured out over the 36 years after Goldwater was how to retain the language of ideological conservatism, leave unchallenged the facade of operational liberalism, and use that combination to exercise power long enough and aggressively enough to destroy every future prospect for operational liberalism."

There ain't nothin' they can tear down that we can't build back better than before. Their arguments may be false enough, but the repercussions of their actions will be undoubtedly felt. And, that will be the foundation of our resurgence.

Posted by: TD | Feb 28, 2005 2:10:19 PM