“Mr. Conservative” – Barry Goldwater and the Genesis of the Conservative Movement
In the 1950s, Barry Morris Goldwater emerged as the nation’s leading conservative politician. It was Goldwater, along with his growing legion of “Goldwater Conservatives,” who brought the concepts of small government, free enterprise and a strong national defense into the national public debate. These were the original planks of the conservative movement and remain the heart of the movement today.
Goldwater entered politics in 1949, when he won a seat as a Phoenix city councilman. Three years later, in 1952, he became a US Senator for Arizona. For nearly a decade, he helped redefine the Republican Party, assembling it into the party of the conservatives. In the late 1950s, Goldwater became closely associated with the anti-Communist movement, and was an avid supporter of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Goldwater stuck with McCarthy until the bitter end and was one of only 22 members of Congress who refused to censure him.
Goldwater supported desegregation and civil rights to varying degrees. He got himself into political hot water, however, with his opposition to legislation that would eventually turn into the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Goldwater was a passionate Constitutionalist, who had supported the NAACP and had backed previous versions of civil rights legislation, but he opposed the 1964 bill because he believed it violated states’ rights to self-govern. His opposition earned him political support from conservative southern Democrats, but he was detested as a “racist” by many blacks and minorities.
Goldwater’s rising popularity in the South in the early 1960s helped him win a tough bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1964. Goldwater had been looking forward to running an issue-oriented campaign against his friend and political rival, President John F. Kennedy. An avid pilot, Goldwater had planned to fly around the country with Kennedy, in what the two men believed would be a revival of the old whistle-stop campaign debates.
Goldwater was devastated when those plans were cut short by Kennedy’s death in late 1963, and he mourned the president’s passing profoundly. Nevertheless, he won the Republican nomination in 1964, setting up a showdown with Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who he despised and would later accuse of “using every dirty trick in the book.”
Introducing ... "Mr. Conservative"
During the Republican National Convention in 1964, Goldwater gave perhaps the most conservative acceptance speech ever uttered when he said, “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.”
This statement prompted one member of the press to exclaim, “My God, Goldwater is running as Goldwater!”
Goldwater was not prepared for the brutal campaign tactics of the vice president. Johnson’s philosophy was to run as though he were 20 points behind, and he did just that, crucifying the Arizona Senator in a series of vicious television ads.
Comments Goldwater made during the previous ten years were taken out of context and used against him. For example, he had once told members of the press that he sometimes thought the country would be better off if the entire Eastern Seaboard were sawed off and floated out to sea. The Johnson campaign ran an ad showing a wooden model of the United States in a tub of water with a saw hacking off the Eastern states.
The Effectiveness of Negative Campaigning
Perhaps the most damning and personally offensive ad to Goldwater was the one called “Daisy,” which showed a young girl counting flower petals as a male voice counted down from ten to one. At the end of the ad, the girl’s face was frozen as images of nuclear war played in the shadows and a voice extolled Goldwater, implying he would launch a nuclear attack if elected. Many consider these ads to be the beginnings of the modern negative campaign period which continues to this day.
Goldwater lost in a landslide, and Republicans lost many seats in Congress, setting the conservative movement back significantly. Goldwater won his seat in the Senate again in 1968, and continued to earn respect from his political peers on Capitol Hill.
In 1973, Goldwater had a significant hand in the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. The day before Nixon resigned, Goldwater told the president that if he stayed in office, Goldwater’s vote would be in favor of impeachment. The conversation coined the term “Goldwater moment,” which is still used today to describe the moment a group of the president’s fellow party members vote against him or publicly take a position opposite him.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan won a crushing defeat over incumbent Jimmy Carter and columnist George Will called it a victory for conservatives, saying Goldwater had actually won the 1964 election, “… it just took 16 years to count the votes.”
The New Liberal
The election would eventually mark the decline of Goldwater’s conservative influence as the social conservatives and the Religious Right began to slowly take over the movement. Goldwater vociferously opposed their two top issues, abortion and gay rights. His views came to be regarded as more “Libertarian” than conservative, and Goldwater later admitted with wonder that he and his ilk were the “new liberals of the Republican party.”
Goldwater died in 1998 at the age of 89.