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Would Goldwater win a Republican primary?

December 6, 2006 |  3:00 pm

How_many_goldwaters_in_politcs

Over in the Calendar section, columnist Tim Rutten has an interesting review of William Middendorf's Glorious Disaster: Barry Goldwater's Presidential Campaign And the Origins of the Conservative Movement, and includes this charming personal anecdote about Goldwater:

Before his retirement from the U.S. Senate in 1987, I also dealt several times with Goldwater himself and always found him unpretentious, impatient with nonsense and likable — a gruff, profane, recognizably "salty" character to a fellow Westerner. Once, I rather reluctantly approached him about participating in a ridiculous discussion that had been dreamed up by one of my superiors. (As a class, editors are given to spasms of inexplicable enthusiasm and extravagant whim, which they routinely mistake for ideas.) In any event, when I finally spoke to Goldwater about it, he quite understandably took my head off. Then, sensing my embarrassment, he said, "Aw, forget it buddy. I know how those damn things get thought up. You're just doing your damn job."

Rutten ends on a question-begging note about how Goldwater would fit into today's GOP, but for that & some meandering "libertarian Democrat" links and comment you'll have to click on the jump.

So Rutten concludes:

It's unfortunate that Middendorf, who was present at the creation of the current conservative movement, never comes to grips with — or, for that matter, even considers — what sort of place people like Hess and Goldwater might now find in it. Goldwater was not particularly religious and was skeptical of piety. I would pity the reporter who tried to interrogate him about his "relationship with God." He believed that a woman's choice of abortion was a personal one, and in equal rights for homosexuals.

The truth is that modern conservatism's founding father would be unlikely to win a single Republican primary in the coming general election.

True? Who knows! But similar discussions -- especially about the possible defection of the libertarian bloc from the GOP, and a potential libertarian-Democrat rapprochement -- have been all over the joint in 2006. (For the most complete roundup of links on the subject, see the libertarian Cato Institute's symposium Should Libertarians Vote Democrat?; for a more recent back-and-forth, see Brink Lindsey and then Kevin Drum's response.)

As someone who mined that vein for the Times last year (partial link), and also for Reason and Salon, I find the prospect for a significant new liberaltarian bloc ... still on the remote side. Why? Three reasons:

1) There's rarely such a thing as a libertarian in local politics (where most politics are practiced), because it's awful hard to grant favors (or jobs) to either labor or business while cutting the size of government.

2) Self-described libertarians over the age of 40 who don't belong to the Libertarian Party (which is to say, most of them) are overwhelmingly likely to consider the GOP their default home, because of taxes, the memory of anti-communism, and hatred of all things McGovern/Carter (even though Carter was arguably the greatest deregulation president ... though that's a rambling essay for another time).

3) Libertarianism just ain't that popular to begin with.

For evidence of the latter, one need only consider the case of Milton Friedman-fan Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Governator dropped most of his libertarian pretenses (reinventing government, reducing spending growth, busting unions) even before his drubbing in the 2005 special election, and rebuilt his popularity by fighting global warming (which many libertarians have -- to their discredit -- treated as a myth) and splurging on an unprecedented bond package while growing the budget like gangbusters. Centrist, yes; libertarian, hardly.

I still do believe (and it's nothing more than a belief) that the GOP will be punished for a generation by young socially libertarian voters outraged by the perceived gay-bashing of the Karl Rove Republican Party. But if you think of the real and imagined presidential candidates for both parties -- especially perceived front-runners Hillary Clinton and John McCain -- there is zero evidence that the spirit of Goldwater as a presidential endeavor lives anywhere beyond the hopeful fantasia of opinion journalists and think-tank wage-slaves.

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