December 1, 2005 | Commentary on
Barry Goldwater: The Most Consequential Loser
The Conservative Movement: Its Past, Present and Future
"Barry Goldwater: The Most Consequential Loser"
Lee Edwards, Ph.D.
Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought
The Heritage Foundation
Princeton University, December 1-3, 2005
Co-sponsored by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and
Institutions, the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics, and
the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International
Barry Goldwater was the most consequential loser in modern
presidential politics. His conservative candidacy forty-one years
ago has had a more enduring impact on our politics and our nation
than the losing candidates usually mentioned in the history and
political science texts--Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, Al Smith in
1928, George Wallace in 1968, George McGovern in 1972, and Ross
Perot in 1988.
This judgment might be challenged by some, given thatGoldwater
received less than 39 percent of the popular vote and carried only
six states totaling 52 electoral votes in his 1964 campaign for the
presidency. Most political observers of the day agreed with James
B. Reston of the New York Times
that Goldwater "not only
lost the presidential election ... but the conservative cause as
well." A few demurred, including the political historian Theodore
White, who wrote, "One cannot dismiss Goldwater as a man without
meaning in American history. Again and again in American history it
has happened that the losers of the presidency contributed almost
as much to the permanent tone and dialogue of politics as did the
winners." Even White could not foresee just how meaningful the
Goldwater candidacy would be.
Because of Barry Goldwater, the Republican Party became the
Conservative Party and then the majority party in America. Today,
Republicans control the White House, the Congress, more than half
of the governorships, and approximately half of the state
legislators. As William A. Rusher recently wrote: "Today
practically all Republican candidates proclaim their conservatism,
and almost all conservative leaders vow their allegiance to the
Republican Party. It has been a remarkably fruitful union.
The union was made possible by the impact of the Goldwater
candidacy on the five essential elements of politics--money,
organization, candidates, issues, and the media.
With his nationwide grassroots appeal, Goldwater enabled the GOP
through direct mail and television to broaden its financial base by
a factor of 30 to 1. In 1960 there were between 40,000 and 50,000
contributors to the Nixon campaign. In 1964, the number of
individual contributors was estimated at nearly 700,000. Goldwater
gave the Republican Party broad-based financial independence for
the first time in its history.
Politics is people, and thousands of young conservatives entered
and stayed in politics because of Barry Goldwater's run for the
presidency. Today they sit in Congress, manage campaigns, conduct
national polls, head think tanks, edit magazines, and host talk
shows. The Democratic Party was always better at organizing than
the Republican Party because it could call upon organized labor for
its manpower. But in 1964, nearly 4 million people volunteered and
worked in the Goldwater campaign--twice as many as worked for
President Lyndon B. Johnson. In the June Republican primary in
California, for example, an estimated 50,000 volunteers turned out
for Goldwater, prompting Rockefeller's outmanned campaign manager
to remark, "They kept coming at us like the Chinese Army."
Goldwater was the first ideological presidential candidate. Ideas
mattered most to him--he would not pander to the people for their
votes. He prepared the way for idea-driven candidates like Democrat
George McGovern in 1972 and Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Indeed, without candidate Goldwater there would have been no
President Reagan for it was Goldwater who gave Reagan the
opportunity in the last week of the 1964 campaign to deliver his
famous "A Time for Choosing" TV address. That address made Reagan a
national political star overnight and led to his running for and
being elected governor of California.
Goldwater's structured campaigning, limiting his appearances to two
or three major speeches a day in places "where the votes are," was
adopted by presidential winners Ronald Reagan and George Bush the
elder. Goldwater, who came from a state with only five electoral
votes, also set a precedent for outsider presidential candidates
like McGovern, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Goldwater insisted on addressing the issues that have dominated
the national debate for the past four decades. They included
, which Goldwater argued was actuarially
unsound but could be strengthened by a voluntary option for younger
people. Federal subsidies
: they should be reduced and
eliminated where possible. Privatization
properties should be sold to the private sector, government
services should be contracted out to private companies. Law and
: the rights of victims should take precedence over the
rights of criminals. Morality in government
: the president
and all in public office should avoid scandal and not misuse their
office for personal gain. The Constitution:
should appoint to the federal bench and especially the Supreme
Court jurists who will respect not rewrite the Constitution.
: why not victory?
With regard to the media, the success of the Democrats' attack
ads--the Daisy, the Ice Cream and the Social Security TV
spots--convinced future presidential aspirants that the most
effective advertising was negative advertising. On the other hand,
Goldwater's half-hour TV programs were copied three decades later
by Ross Perot in his infomercials.
In the fall of 1994, a USA Today-CNN Gallup poll found that 64
percent of Americans agreed with the Republicans' Contract with
America. The people wanted smaller government, lower taxes and
spending, tougher anti-crime measures and less Washington meddling
in their lives. Every one of these ideas was first proposed by
Barry Goldwater in his 1964 campaign--he was simply thirty years
Without AuH2O in '64, the Republican Party would have continued to
be dominated by its Eastern liberal wing and to remain a regional
minority party. There would have been no electoral breakthrough in
the South, no development of a two-party system in the South, no
emerging Republican majority.
Barry Goldwater was a prophet, an Old Testament Jeremiah, who
sternly warned the people to repent of their wasteful ways or reap
a whirlwind of debt and deficits. He was a pioneer who led the
Republican Party out of the barren East and into a verdant South
and West where milk and honey and victory awaited them. He was, in
George Will's words, "a man who lost forty-four states but won the
He sparked the conservative revolution in America, but he was an
unusual revolutionary--the grandson of a Jewish peddler, a college
dropout, a master mechanic and ham radio operator, a gifted
photographer, an intrepid pilot, a man who never smoked a cigarette
or drank a cup of coffee but kept a bottle of Old Crow in the
refrigerator of his Senate office for after-five
His 1964 candidacy for president marked the beginning of a
tectonic shift in American politics--from East to West, from the
cities to the suburbs, from big government to limited government,
from containment to liberation, from liberal to conservative--that
shapes the nation to this day.
Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at The Heritage
Foundation (heritage.org), is the author of many books, including
the just-published "
To Preserve and Protect: The Life of Edwin Meese III."
Remarks at "The Conservative Movement: Its Past, Present and Future"