A specter is haunting the Republican establishment—the specter of Barry Goldwater. With recent polling data suggesting that Rick Santorum has surged ahead of Mitt Romney among Republican voters nationwide, the people whose livelihoods depend on Republican electoral victories are terrified by the growing possibility of a massive wipeout in November, much like the one that Republicans experienced in 1964, when Goldwater was their nominee.
But even if the magnitude of the Republicans’ defeat this year resembles that previous debacle, the path there will be significantly different. Whereas Goldwater’s campaign was the product of an insurgency against the reigning Republican establishment, this year’s disaster is the product of political atrophy that the current GOP establishment has itself actively presided over.
ONCE UPON A TIME, East Coast moderates comprised the critical mass of the Republican party leadership. In the middle of the 20th century, they consistently threw their weight against the conservatives’ preferred presidential candidates (principally Ohio Senator Robert Taft), which helped to hand the nomination to Republican moderates Wendell Willkie in 1940, Thomas Dewey in 1944 and 1948, and Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. But with the movement of industrial and financial power away from the Northeast, the East Coast kingmakers’ standing within the party deteriorated by the early 1960s—evidenced most notably by conservative activists’ ability to seize the nomination, to the moderates’ horror, for Goldwater in 1964.
There was a real rift running through the party in those years, between the moderate elements of the establishment and the conservative parts of the base: the GOP was an ideological coalition that, come election time, usually had to compromise on a platform. But as the moderates gradually, though inexorably, disappeared in the succeeding decades, the GOP became an ever more ideologically unified party. The popular belief that today’s Republican establishment is moderate is false. The current relationship between the Republican establishment and the party’s base is not so much a clash of moderates against conservatives as it is a difference in perspective between realistic professionals and passionate amateurs.
But the GOP’s current establishment never developed a successful way to deal with the tension between its ideological commitments and its partisan commitments. All things being equal, they would prefer maximally conservative politicians in office. But as political professionals, the party’s elites have always known that radical conservatives are only a minority of American voters, and that a Republican nominee has to win over large numbers of moderates and independents to gain the presidency.
To finesse this tension, the new Republican establishment adopted William F. Buckley Jr.’s famous command to select the most rightward yet viable candidate. But that has not proven a sustainable solution. Indeed, it only restated the problem in a different form. The only way to figure out when a candidate’s doctrinal orthodoxy eclipsed his or her political viability has been by trial and error.
In recent election cycles, the interests of the professionals and amateurs have sometimes happened to align, as with the candidacies of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George W. Bush in 2000. And that seemed to also be the case with the Tea Party. The GOP establishment gladly encouraged the idealistic amateurs of the Tea Party movement when they provided the decisive margins for Republicans in the low-turnout elections of 2010. The GOP’s current elites were swayed by the new movement’s palpable enthusiasm for conservatism. But with the Tea Party’s ideological rectitude now revealing itself as nothing so much as fundamentalist grandiosity, it's dawning on the conservative establishment that its careful experiment may have created a monster.
Which brings us to Rick Santorum, around whom the Tea Party activists are now increasingly coalescing. In claiming that Santorum can beat Obama, they are consciously or unconsciously parroting the theory of a “hidden conservative majority” advanced by Goldwater’s supporters in 1964. According to this theory, most Americans are conservative but usually don’t bother to vote because the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are too similar. Nominating a radical conservative like Santorum, however, would give the voters “a choice not an echo,” in Goldwater’s phrase, and the newly energized conservative majority would sweep the Republicans to victory.
GOP elites know, however, that when one party nominates a candidate that most Americans find extreme, whether Republican Goldwater in 1964 or Democrat George McGovern in 1972, the predictable result is resounding victory for the other party. Indeed, what tends to be forgotten is that Goldwater’s presence atop the ballot proved lethal for Republicans all the way down the ticket. GOP representation in Congress was reduced to its lowest level since the 1930s. Republicans in the state legislatures were decimated, as were candidates for county offices. An election with Santorum as a standard-bearer might produce a similar debacle, reenergizing the left and restoring the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Obama might not only win reelection, he might feel liberated, or obligated, to move left. Republicans who claim that Obama in his first term was the most socialist president they can imagine clearly don’t have much imagination.
Elites are aware that more is at stake this year than ideology. In that way, the emergence of Santorum or Gingrich as the front-runner might provoke the establishment, in a fit of self-preservation, to back an alternative candidate, much as the threat of Goldwater’s nomination stimulated a challenge from Pennsylvania governor William Scranton in 1964. Conservative activists would undoubtedly cry foul, sparking a subsequent round of intraparty enmity and recriminations. But liberals would be blithe to assume that the ensuing crack-up would move the party in a more moderate direction, since, unlike in 1964, there are so few moderates left to take up the mantle.
In the meantime, the Republican establishment is in the position of the lookout on the Titanic who sees the ship speeding toward the iceberg ahead. They are dreading a disastrous collision like the one the party experienced in 1964. But the bitter irony of the present moment is that it’s the establishment, not an insurgency, that was responsible for charting this course to begin with.
Geoffrey Kabaservice’s most recent book is Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party.