When Nelson Rockefeller dropped out of the Republican presidential race in June 1964, Barry Goldwater was left with an apparently insurmountable delegate lead and, almost certainly, the task of defeating incumbent President Lyndon Johnson.
Republican moderates were left with a question: Should they continue to fight Goldwater and his conservative movement, which they saw as threatening not only the nation’s progress, but also the future of their party?
Those hoping to witness the birth of an anti-Goldwater front found the moderates in disarray over their dilemma. Just a few weeks after Rockefeller’s withdrawal, however, this situation changed. On June 19, Goldwater, an Arizona senator, was one of only six Republicans to join segregationist Democrats in voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In opposing the Civil Rights Act, Goldwater was setting his standard against not only one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the 20th century, but also one of the greatest achievements of the Republican Party.
Republican Glory Lost
The credit -- even the glory -- that the Republicans should have enjoyed for their support for the Civil Rights Act was effectively negated by the stance of the party’s presumptive presidential nominee. As his defenders have tirelessly explained, Goldwater was not personally a racist. He had supported the Arizona NAACP, helped to desegregate the Arizona National Guard, and so forth. But, in his 1960 manifesto, “Conscience of a Conservative,” the candidate had declared that he was “not impressed by the claim that the Supreme Court’s decision on school integration is the law of the land.” He added that the federal government had no role to play in enforcing the rights of blacks living under Jim Crow, which was exactly what white supremacists in the South wanted to hear.
Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Act enraged millions of moderate Republicans who saw it as a betrayal of the party’s heritage. One of those in a position to do something about it was Pennsylvania’s governor, William Warren Scranton. Moderates had looked toward Scranton at the start of the 1964 presidential race. Slim and handsome, born within two months of John Kennedy, Scranton projected a Kennedyesque image of charm, cool, urbanity and elegance.
But Scranton also had experience in business and civic leadership and was well versed in foreign relations. Elected to Congress in 1960 and then as governor in 1962, he was an independent-minded supporter of foreign aid, the Peace Corps, civil rights and the Kennedy administration’s stimulus plan for private businesses in depressed urban and rural areas. He described himself as “a liberal on civil rights, a conservative on fiscal policy and an internationalist on foreign affairs.”
The problem, at least for moderates who hoped Scranton would oppose Goldwater, was that he didn’t particularly want to be president. As journalist Theodore H. White perceived, Scranton was “a man interested in government -- not politics. He lacks the raw appetite for power of more elemental men.”
Two principal factors changed Scranton’s mind about running. The first was Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Act. The second was that Scranton himself was deluged with pleas to run from Republican politicians who feared that Goldwater’s nomination would devastate hundreds of local Republican organizations and candidates. Moderates believed that Scranton’s candidacy would reassure the nation that not all Republicans had given in to extremism.
‘Reactionary and Heartless’
In his campaign, Scranton attacked the “small but vocal minority [that] too often has made our party sound naive, irresponsible, reactionary and heartless.” He lambasted Goldwater’s calls to make Social Security voluntary, drop atomic bombs in Asia, break diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and repeal the income tax laws. “Barry Goldwater is not a true conservative,” insisted one of Scranton’s advertisements, “he is an extremist. He has no positive program.”
Scranton’s poll numbers moved sharply upward. A Gallup poll in late June showed that the Pennsylvania governor had overtaken Goldwater as the choice of Republican voters, with 55 percent for Scranton as opposed to only 34 percent for Goldwater and 11 percent undecided. Independents were almost three times as likely to vote for Scranton as for Goldwater.
But it was too late. Goldwater’s delegates from the South and West and even some Northern states were a new breed, ideologically committed and immune to the arguments about the greater good of the party. Goldwater boasted that his “hard core” of some 425 delegates would “stay right to the end and march out the back of this convention if they don’t get what they want. This is how hard these people are.”
And so on July 13 the miserably divided Republican Party lurched into its convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. The first indication of the kind of gathering it would be had come with the preconvention negotiations over the party platform. Moderates and liberals assumed that the platform would be a consensus document much like the 1960 platform. But the Goldwater forces denied the Scranton camp any opening by rejecting its every proposal. “These people were filled with this Puritan, almost religious fervor, that they were in sole possession of the truth, that anyone else was an infidel,” said Senator Hugh Scott, a supporter of his fellow Pennsylvanian.
Goldwater’s supporters also trounced the moderates on the convention floor, where a speech by Rockefeller brought a storm of boos, chants, jeers, hisses and catcalls. “The venom of the booing and the hatred in people’s eyes really was quite stunning,” Rockefeller assistant Doug Bailey said.
Goldwater’s Famous Speech
Every rule of political logic would have compelled Goldwater to make peace with the moderates. Yet Goldwater was unusually thin-skinned for a politician, and, in his acceptance speech, let loose with a ringing, too-memorable pronouncement that threw the convention into pandemonium: “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.” Goldwater had not only failed to bind up the party’s wounds, he had “opened new wounds and then rubbed salt in them,” as Richard Nixon put it.
As anticipated, Goldwater was buried in a Johnson landslide, carrying only five of the Deep South states and his home state of Arizona. He trailed Johnson by 16 million votes, and the 27 million votes he received were almost 7 million fewer than Nixon had received four years earlier. The Republicans shed two seats in the Senate -- fewer than anticipated -- but dropped 38 seats in the House, reducing Republican representation to its lowest level since 1936. The progressive Republican Ripon Society calculated that in the state legislatures, the party lost some 540 members, again reducing Republican numbers to levels not seen since the Depression.
In the aftermath, commentators seriously debated whether the Republicans might follow the Whigs into extinction. Emancipated from the restraint of conservative Southern Democrats, Johnson would have free rein to pass what amounted to a second New Deal.
The magnitude of Goldwater’s defeat chastened the conservative movement. Politicians like Ronald Reagan and intellectuals like William F. Buckley Jr. eventually came to realize that the enraged nature of the Goldwater campaign -- its embrace of extremism and unpopular positions, its nihilistic antagonism toward potential allies -- was a formula for defeat. It would be 40 years before a Republican presidential nominee would again be so dismissive of moderates.
(Geoffrey Kabaservice is the author of “The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment.” This is the first of two excerpts from his forthcoming book, “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party.” to be published Jan. 4 by Oxford University Press. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on this article: Geoffrey Kabaservice at Geoffrey.Kabaservice@gmail.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at firstname.lastname@example.org.