In February, 1996, when the right-wing firebrand Pat Buchanan looked improbably close to winning that summer’s Republican presidential nomination, I paid a call on Barry Goldwater at his hilltop home in Scottsdale, Arizona. It seemed a good moment to interview one of the icons of American conservatism, the man who had given the Republican Party a populist ideology broad enough for politicians as different as Ronald Reagan and Buchanan to consider themselves his heirs. At eighty-seven, Goldwater was just months away from the stroke that would hasten his death two years later. He rarely gave interviews any more, and I was, frankly, astonished that he had agreed to see a journalist from “socialist” Canada. I was even more astonished to discover that he was a graceful, articulate host – nothing like the demagogue the media had delighted in skewering for years. Perhaps, I thought, age had mellowed him. Moving slowly, he led me upstairs to show off his latest acquisition – a powerful telescope that allowed him to spend hours staring at the night sky (“my newest hobby”) and he basked in my admiration of the museum-quality collection of Native American kachina dolls crowding his den. But when we finally sat down to talk, he was the lion in winter. Casting mellowness aside, he went after the man who laid claim to his legacy: Buchanan himself.
At the time, Buchanan was on a roll. He was still relishing the fright he had sparked with his “culture wars” speech at the gop convention in Houston in 1992. That year’s election, he announced famously, was about a “cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” Buchanan’s world was black and white: on one side were the gay-rights-promoting, America-hating liberals; on the other were the God-fearing, patriotic Americans. His August 17, 1992, call to arms arguably cost the first President George Bush’s re-election to Bill Clinton but, undaunted, Buchanan was back at it again in 1996, railing once again about the perils of immigration and free trade. Goldwater, whose 1964 presidential campaign Buchanan once gushed was “like a first love” for lonely American conservatives like himself, was appalled. “It’s very difficult to sit and watch [him],” he grumbled. “He wants to take the concept of conservatism into avenues that it’s never been.” That, of course, was what they used to say about Goldwater as well, but the old warhorse refused to be pulled into further discussion. He just wanted it made clear that he believed Buchanan was steering his party towards catastrophe. His purpose in seeing me became obvious: this was a rehearsal for going public. Within months, I was reading Goldwater interviews in U.S. newspapers containing virtually identical thoughts. Conservatives tried to pretend the Old Man had simply lost it. “I won’t say betrayal,” Leo Mahoney, a staunch Arizona right winger who had been one of Goldwater’s closest political allies, told me after the interview. “But a lot of us believe he has changed too much for our liking.”
Maybe he had, but the Republicans badly need a dose of Goldwater straight talk today. The conservatives who have occupied the White House for the past four years are in precisely the kind of trouble Goldwater could have predicted for them. Despite having led the United States through one of the most trying times in its history, they now face a political defeat that will be entirely of their own making.
Goldwater had long ago recognized the fatal weakness in the U.S. conservative movement and had been trying to correct it ever since: don’t get so far out in front of American mainstream thought, he would undoubtedly have told them today, that it’s impossible to find your way back. (It was, arguably, the reason he lost by a landslide in 1964 to President Lyndon Johnson.) George Bush’s Republicans, battered by foreign and domestic misfortune, and blinded by conviction, are not likely to take the point. To the end of his life, Goldwater considered himself a faithful conservative. But he was also a political realist. And a coolly Goldwaterite look at America’s political landscape leads to only one conclusion: John Kerry will beat George Bush on November 2.
I can think of four general reasons.
The Democrats Control The Agenda This Time: Republicans say they are delighted by the 2004 Democratic presidential ticket. They’ve lost no time in pointing out that John Kerry had the most “liberal” voting record in the U.S. Senate in 2003 (John Edwards, his running mate, had the fourth), as rated by conservative Republicans’ bible, The National Journal. Nicolle Devenish, the communications director of the Bush campaign, calls Kerry and Edwards too “far out of the mainstream” on the “kitchen table issues that we think people are going to vote on.” No prizes for guessing that will be a template of the Republican drive this year. After all, it’s worked before. But will it work this time?
I don’t think so. It’s true that even though American “liberalism” has travelled far from the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson, it remains vulnerable in normal times to Republican accusations that it stands too far to the “left” of the American mainstream (whatever that really is). All the same, these aren’t normal times. And the suicidal tendencies Goldwater detected eight years ago in the Buchanan campaign have solidified today. Under the pressure of hardliners, the Bush administration (and Bush himself) have pushed so far to the right that there’s room in the centre. Enough room, at least, for the Democrats to present themselves as a reasonable alternative to Americans saddled with an increasingly unpopular and costly foreign war, an economy that has left the middle class struggling to make ends meet, and with the unsettling feeling of being alone, vulnerable, and unloved in a world that they happen to dominate.
The broad popularity of Michael Moore’s anti-war documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, illustrates why the Democrats now have an agenda with traction. The Moore film filled theatres across the country when it came out, and not just in the urban strongholds of the intelligentsia. Even theatres near army posts, such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, reported sell-out showings. The spectacular show of national unity behind the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism,” evoked by the September 11 attacks, has dissipated. Despite the political truism that a war president always has the edge on public loyalty in the U.S., the ideologically driven foreign policy of the Bush administration (Iraq providing just one example) has become a partisan issue that increasingly puts the Democrats closer to the centre of American politics.
gop strategists believe they still have the advantage, thanks to the continuing strength of the coalition exploited by Reagan in the 1980s between blue-collar Democrats in the Midwest and Sunbelt voters in the U.S. South and Southwest. But here again, they’ve lost control of the agenda that kept that coalition vital. Over the past four years, nearly two million jobs have been lost – many of them among the very blue-collar and white-collar voters who once swung to the Republican side. Large swaths of middle-class America are unmoved by signs that the economy is picking up: they are too worried about making ends meet. A Time poll in July found that 51 percent of eligible voters believed that the rich have gotten all the benefits of the Bush tax cuts, while the middle class has been left to pick up the crumbs. And then there’s the question of security, which again was once the Republicans’ strong suit. Three years after the September 11 attacks, the polls show that Americans continue to feel vulnerable and insecure – a feeling that has not been mollified by the administration’s persistent and vague warnings of coming terrorist attacks.
In 2000, Bush struck a chord with Americans when he argued that the fortunate coincidence of post-Cold-War peace and a then-booming economy provided an opportunity for the country to rediscover its moral core. Now, ironically, if the warnings launched to such good effect in the 1990s by right wingers such as Buchanan and populists such as Ross Perot about losing jobs to foreigners and national identity to a globalized world retain any appeal at all, they are being made most effectively by Democrats. Both Edwards and Kerry, for instance, have promised to protect American jobs from outsourcing. There is, of course, always the possibility that Bush will try to recapture that resentment and turn it to his own advantage, starting with the party’s national convention held symbolically in New York, ground zero of the war on terrorism. But the effective lock down of the city to ward off potential terrorist attacks conveyed a contradictory message from a president who hopes to argue he has made the country safer. In any case, the Republicans lose out on another of their key selling points: the strengthening of American “values.”