Thanks mainly to Kevin Drum, last week was “Before the Storm” Week in parts of the blogosphere, with a lot of people weighing in on the genius of Rick Perlstein’s 2001 book about the early days of the conservative movement, culminating in the Goldwater candidacy of 1964.Perlstein’s book has been on my reading list for a while, but keeps getting bumped down to the second tier, not because of any misgivings I have about his widely acclaimed brilliance in recounting the events of those days, but simply because I sorta kinda lived through this in detail and prefer to spend my limited reading time on stuff I don’t know much about.As the most obsessive little political junkie you’d ever want to avoid in the early 60’s, I paid a lot of attention to the Goldwater movement at the time, and in ensuing years, read a lot about its antecedents: the early National Review, the Sharon Statement, the rightward tilt of the YR’s, the YAF, the Democrats-for-Goldwater, the Cliff White organization–the whole enchilada. I’m sure Perlstein has important insights about these phenomena that would never occur to me, but right now my top priority is reading Ted Widmer’s new biography of Martin Van Buren, who basically founded the Democratic Party.I do find the Democratic blogospheric debate over the Goldwater campaign, via Perlstein (nicely sliced and diced by Mark Schmitt), fascinating and sometimes horrifying.The idea that today’s Democrats should model themselves on Goldwater Republicans is by any standard, well, a bit nuts. They lost spectacularly in 1964, losing states like Vermont and Kansas that Republicans never lost, by big margins. They destroyed an African-American GOP vote that had been there since Lincoln. That was hard, but they accomplished it. They discredited conservative opposition to the Great Society, which had tangible results in the four years after Goldwater’s nomination. And the magnitude of the loss marginalized movement conservatives in the Republican Party for a long time.A number of participants in the blogospheric discussion of Perlstein’s book note that some of liberalism’s most notable victories occurred under Richard Nixon, particularly the enactment of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and the first major federal affirmative action program. But Nixon’s most important insults to the conservative movement were his wage and price controls–a truly satanic posture in the eyes of market conservatives–and his repudiation of Taiwan in the recognition of mainland China, which struck at one of the most emotional and original heart-throbs of the pre-Goldwater and Goldwater Right.The chronic estrangement of movement conservatives from the GOP after 1964 has been understated by many Left and Right enthusiasts.They often forget Reagan’s insurgent effort to forge an anti-Nixon alliance with Nelson Rockefeller at the 1968 GOP Convention. They rarely know about the 1971 manifesto by conservatives (led by William F. Buckley) deploring detente with the Soviet Union, which nakedly offered to support a Democrat like Scoop Jackson in 1972. And nobody seems to remember the period after Reagan’s failed 1976 campaign, when National Review’s publisher, William Rusher, was promoting a “Producers’ Party” that would combine Republican conservatives with Wallacite Democratic conservatives.Mark Schmitt’s comments on the subject nail one point entirely: that the main lesson Republicans ultimately learned from the Goldwater movement was to hide their aims.It’s no accident that conservatives finally conquered the GOP, and won the presidency, under the sign of Ronald Reagan’s embrace of supplyside economics–i.e., the belief that you can promote massive tax cuts and deregulation without really demanding major retrenchment of New Deal/Great Society programs. David Stockman’s brilliant if long-forgotten memoir, The Triumph of Politics, confirmed the final unwillingness of conservatives to accept the fiscal logic of their philosophy. And this basic dishonesty remains a heavy legacy for Republican conservatives today–a characteristic, of course, that would horrify Barry Goldwater.So: what do Democrats have to learn from the early conservative movement? How to lose elections, lose influence, and ultimately win by losing your soul?It’s a good question, the night before a big snowstorm is expected to hit Washington, a place Barry Goldwater wished God or man would smite with every available plague.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
After absorbing a lot of Democratic gloom-and-doom about the midterms, I offered some silver lining at New York:
The 2022 midterms don’t look great for Democrats, who will try to buck history by hanging on to super-slim congressional majorities. Thanks to the particular lay of the land, Democrats have a decent chance of maintaining control of the Senate. But the House? Not so much: The two times since the New Deal when the president’s party won net House seats in a midterm (1998 and 2002), the president in question had sky-high job-approval ratings. Even if you believe Joe Biden’s plunge in popularity has been stemmed or even turned around a bit, he’s not going to have 60 percent-plus approval in November 2022 unless really crazy things happen. There’s just too much partisan polarization for that these days.
Thankfully for Democrats, even if they lose their congressional majorities next year, Biden himself won’t be an underdog for reelection in 2024. After all, the last two Democratic presidents were reelected after historically terrible midterms. Democrats lost 54 U.S. House seats in 1994 and 63 in 2010. Yes, they had bigger majorities going into those elections than Democrats have now. But they lost the national House popular vote by an identical 6.8 percent in both midterms, which is pretty bad, particularly since Democrats suffer from a voter-inefficiency problem in House elections (too many voters concentrated in too few districts).
It’s possible for a president’s party to lose a midterm so badly that bouncing back in the next cycle is all but impossible. Consider the man whose unique comeback accomplishment Donald Trump will be emulating if he runs in 2024, Grover Cleveland. The president Cleveland defeated in an 1892 rematch, Benjamin Harrison, was a Republican whose party lost an incredible 93 House seats in the 1890 midterms. This, mind you, was at a time when the House had only 332 members, which means the GOP lost over half their caucus in one cycle (an even worse percentage than in 1894, when Democrats lost a record 125 House seats during the midterm after Cleveland’s comeback triumph). In this era of polarization, nothing like that is going to happen to Democrats in 2022.
Looking more broadly at the power of incumbency, there have been 13 sitting presidents since World War II who were on the general election ballot. Nine of them won. The four losers all faced special circumstances. Gerald Ford had not previously been elected to anything more than the U.S. House; he ascended to the vice-presidency and then the presidency when disgraced predecessors resigned, and he pardoned the president who appointed him, the especially disgraced Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter was caught up in a historical realignment that he had held off four years earlier by carrying his native South, which then resumed a massive Republican trend. George H.W. Bush suffered from a terrible economy but then also a party split (third-party candidate Ross Perot won a lot of previously Republican voters). And we all know about Donald J. Trump, who was impeached twice and seemed determined to offend swing voters.
In retrospect, what’s most remarkable is that Ford and Trump very nearly got reelected despite their handicaps, exhibiting not the weakness but the strength of incumbency. And it’s with that perspective that any early handicapping of a potential 2024 rematch should be considered. Trump benefited from incumbency in 2020, as will Biden in 2024. So the idea that the 45th president has some built-in advantage over the 46th — absent the renewed election coup so many of us fear — doesn’t make a lot of sense.