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Ewan Watt: Lessons from Barry Goldwater

Ewan_watt Ewan Watt, of Weber Shandwick, marks the tenth year since Barry Goldwater passed away with a look at his beliefs on Republicanism, freedom, and social order.

With the passing of William F. Buckley, conservative readers were reminded in almost every obituary that “Without the Goldwater nomination, no conservative takeover of the Republican Party. Without that, no Reagan.” George Will has often claimed that Barry Goldwater won the 1964 Presidential election; “It just took 16 years to count the votes."

It may well have been the case that it took 16 years for conservatives to win, but Goldwater Conservatives most certainly lost. To Goldwater, Conservatism was about ensuring that “liberty lacking order will not become the license of the mob and of the jungle”, and most fundamentally, the defence of the constitution. 

Although Goldwater’s rhetoric on the sovereignty of the individual, the free market, anti-Communism, and the pernicious nature of the welfare state were certainly similar to Ronald Reagan’s, he conflicted with the Gipper over several issues. Most notable of these was Reagan’s embrace of the religious right, a constitutional amendment on school prayer, proactive opposition to abortion, and latterly a Federal education programme. This demonstrated how different the respective brands of Conservatism were. To a small government conservative like Goldwater, not only did Reagan come perilously close to violating the 10th Amendment, but the framers had never designated the Federal government the task of “legislating morality.” 

This can be seen in the current administration. Not only has eight years of George W. Bush’s brand of ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ make the ‘Great Society’ look almost fiscally prudent, but the Federal government has become far more proactive in the daily lives of the individual and encroaching on states rights at almost every opportunity. That is not to question the sincerity or morality of Compassionate Conservatives, but they’re cognisance of constitutional limits, an understanding with which Goldwater was very much acquainted. The mantra of President Bush that “we have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move”, would have been alien to Goldwater’s aphorism that a “government big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take it all away.” 

Although Goldwater is still a revered figure in the conservative movement, ten years after his death it’s hard to say whether he would have recognised the movement itself. To paraphrase Reagan, Goldwater may never have left the conservative movement; the movement may have left him. In fact, the shifts in the Republican Party are such that those who don’t call for a Federal solution to the ills facing the nation are labelled moderates, and those who do, are the conservatives. Goldwater saw this in 1964: “People will look back on this campaign in years that follow, and they’re going to call me a liberal.”

As regularly noted, Bush’s campaign emerged victorious in 2000 not due to it’s commitment to the Reagan tradition – let alone Goldwater – but to Compassionate Conservatism. Bush’s support for popular – but expensive ($16.6tr) – Federal programmes such as the Prescription Drug Bill, may well have played a crucial role in Bush’s victory in 2000, but raised serious questions about the direction in which he was taking the party, and the republic. 

Firstly, Goldwater would have abhorred the way in which the Republican leadership obfuscated the true cost of the programme and threatened dissenters of the Bill. Secondly, as much as the Bill may have been popular with a large section of the electorate, it has since been described by Norm Ornstein as “the ugliest and most outrageous breach of standards in the history of the House.” As Michael D. Tanner points out: “When cajoling and threats were not enough, lawmakers were offered pork and campaign funds.” This sort of behaviour in the Republican Party is far from recent. As Speaker, the ‘small government’ conservative Newt Gingrich encouraged members of Congress to publicly flaunt pork to their constituents. Despite his rhetoric that he would “hunt down every appropriation”, according to Scott Lilly, Gingrich and his fellow Republicans “began to recognize that the greatest advantage they could share within their conference was earmarks — the ability to direct federal money to a specific purpose in a Congressional district in a way that gives maximum credit for the federal government’s largess to the Member representing that district.” Thus, Gingrich made the Republican Party akin to Franklin D. Roosevelt in his quest for a client state. 

The Federal government passing ‘popular legislation’ and bringing home the bacon could be seen as one of the hallmarks of representative government, but it brings into questions of leadership, gumption and values, traits once associated with republicanism and the Republican Party itself. 

As Bryan Caplan points out in ‘The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies’, if elected leaders followed the will of the people and advocated policies merely on the basis that they were popular, we would soon have closed borders and an economy resembling that of Peronist Argentina. The policies may be widely appealing, but are they constitutional and in the interests of the republic?

Unlike Burke, Goldwater was “a member of Bristol”, who dedicated his tenure as a representative of Arizona to resisting the growth of government and the abuse of the constitution. To Goldwater, the document on which the country was founded strictly stated that the “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Furthermore, as a representative of Arizona, Goldwater was adamant that only he – not Washington DC – could speak for “the majority” of his constituents. Not only was his belief guarded by the Constitution, but more pertinently, Goldwater stated that “Who knows better than New Yorkers how much and what kind of publicly-funded slum clearance in New York City is needed and can be afforded? Who knows better than Nebraskans whether that state has an adequate nursing program?”

If the individual merely stands aside when government continues to spend more money on social engineering and programmes outside of its scope, the individual should therefore not be at all surprised if government regards this as a tacit approval for higher taxes. As Goldwater said, “When the federal government enacts programs that are not authorised by its delegated powers, the taxes needed to pay for such programs exceed the government’s claim on our wealth.” Goldwater felt that spending was the true tax on Americans and cutting spending – not taxes – should be the priority, for the Federal government was always willing to live outside its means. If, like supply-siders claim, lower taxes reap higher revenues, why should a wasteful government profit from the labour of the individual?

Goldwater recognised that restricting the size of the Federal government was not just a constitutional obligation, but a safeguard against the very political patronage and special interests that Alexander Hamilton had warned against. Thus, the popularity – or even well-being – of programmes may not be in question, but their constitutionality and respect for individual liberty may well be. 

If a Medicaid drug prescription programme is popular, why allow the Federal Government to intervene? Are the interests of Florida the same as those of New Hampshire? If the people of California want Socialised Medicine, they should have it, as long as they do not impinge upon the sovereignty of Missouri. The constitution was not, “a handbook in political theory to be heeded or ignored depending on how it first the plans of contemporary federal officials”. The 10th Amendment was not “a general assumption,” but a “prohibitory rule of law.”

The expansion of Federal government and the client state that each party has sought to create was an anathema to Goldwater’s Conservatism. Pandering to the base and increasing the size of the Federal government for short-term electoral gain was just not part of his psyche. Thus, although it was highly unlikely that the American people would have opted for a third President in just over a year, Goldwater's Conservatism was as ill fitting for its purpose in 1964 as it is in 2008, for a number of reasons.

In an age where the rightful role of the Federal government is rarely discussed, it’s hard to see how a candidate who stated that he had “little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient, for I intend to reduce its size,” could succeed. Despite McCain’s rhetoric about small-government, the Senator has offered very little to suggest that he would mark any significant shift in domestic policy from the current administration. Although he regularly outlines his credentials as an anti-pork crusader, he has said very little about how he would cut Federal spending, reduce the scope of government, or what powers he would return to their rightful home. On constitutional issues, McCain has taken the easy route by claiming that he would prefer “a clean government than one where quote ‘First Amendment rights’ are being respected that has become corrupt.” Unfortunately, the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but the constitution has to be respected. Without a concrete plan for reform, McCain is still running on consensual approach. It therefore makes sense why he remains the frontrunner in November, a novelty Goldwater never experienced.

Nevertheless, 1964 was never about winning the White House, but seizing control of the party. It was Goldwater’s ambition to use the 1964 election to highlight the forgotten values on which the country was founded, to shift control of the party from the East to the West of the Appalachian mountains so that the “average guy in America would have a better feel about the Republican Party.” Despite the popular belief, the Goldwater Conservatives never helped to seize control of the party, but they did have “a big effect” on its direction. It was Ronald Reagan who seized control of the party and effectively mobilised the conservative coalition to make it electable. Goldwater on the other hand was Goldwater. He went to the Midwest and campaigned against farm subsidies, travelled to Florida and called for social security reform, voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Bill on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, opposed military procurement that would have brought jobs and prosperity to Arizona on the grounds that the Air Force didn’t need the equipment. Goldwater also refused to leak a story about Walter Jenkins, an aide of Lyndon Johnson who had been rumoured to have taken part in a homosexual encounter in a Washington bathroom, merely because his sexuality was nobody’s business. He was not a man who strived to be popular, but one who fought on principle, principles he believed were enshrined – and vigorously defended – by the constitution.

On accepting his party’s nomination in California, Goldwater uttered the now famous maxim “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” According to J. William Middendorf II, Richard Nixon felt “almost physically sick”, whilst a newsman exclaimed “My God… he’s going to run as Barry Goldwater.” It was this audacity that made him a hero to so many, whilst loathed and respected in equal measure. Would his successor in the Senate dare do the same?


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