By Stump Connolly

While most of the Republican presidential candidates are reaching back in history to pick up the mantle of Ronald Reagan, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas seems to have overshot the mark, landing instead in the boots of Barry Goldwater.

The similarities are hard to ignore. Both Perry and Goldwater come out of the western tradition of rugged individualism and say what they mean with a bluntness not often heard in politics.

“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,” Goldwater famously told the Republican convention in 1964.  “Use both hands, “ Perry said recently when asked about his stance on gun control.

Free Individuals Will Always Find The Best Way

Both also believe that free individuals will always find the best way to prosper without government interference in a capitalist economy. (Those that don’t, they presume, will be caught by a safety net of Christian charity.) And they champion states’ rights because, frankly, they don’t trust Washington to do anything right. Goldwater went so far as to suggest the country would be better off if it sawed off the Eastern seaboard. Perry more modestly proposed Texas save itself by seceding.

Goldwater decried social security as a socialist scheme, urged the use of “strategic” nuclear bombs in Vietnam and once suggested the way to end the Cold War was to “lob one into the men’s room of the Kremlin and make sure I hit it.” Perry has gone him one step better to call Social Security a Ponzi scheme, scoff at climate change, express doubts about evolution, and compare homosexuality to alcoholism.

The similarity in ideology and tone suggest that Goldwater and Perry are two peas in a very conservative pod ­­–– and that’s not such a good deal for Perry given that Goldwater lost the 1964 election to Lyndon Johnson, 60% to 40%, carrying only his native Arizona and five Deep South states.

Déjà vu All Over Again

At this point in the 1964 election cycle, the presidential race was shaping up to be an epic struggle between the liberal President John Kennedy and conservative Goldwater. Before Kennedy was assassinated (in November 1963) Goldwater claimed that he and the president discussed a series of Lincoln-Douglas style debates around the country focusing on their philosophical differences.

After Kennedy’s assassination, the Republican side of the race was eclipsed by the succession of a new president. Lyndon Johnson was not popular (or trusted) among liberals. To gain their confidence, he used his first State of the Union address to propose a sweeping set of federal programs he called “The War on Poverty.” He pushed through The Civil Rights Act (with 80 percent of the Republicans in the House voting against it) and a 24th amendment barring states from imposing a poll tax on voters. He also proposed and eventually passed a health care addition to Social Security he called “Medicare”.

As happened with Obama, the media declared that Johnson’s first year in office had produced the most progressive agenda since the New Deal. But it didn’t take long before the opposition weighed in.  Republicans called it “creeping socialism.”

Republican Schism

Goldwater’s supporters in the Republican Party were no less vociferous than today’s Tea Party. Their bible was a thin little book authored by Phyllis Schafley called “A Choice, Not an Echo.” They read it together at house parties, handed out free copies at state fairs, and clutched it in their hand when they went to Goldwater rallies.

The primary schedule in 1964 was a battle for the soul of the Republican Party, but it took place on a playing field much more limited than today. Most delegations to the national convention were then chosen at state party conventions. There were fewer than 12 primaries on the campaign trail, and only a handful mattered.

The first was New Hampshire in March, and it was not an auspicious start for Goldwater. Henry Cabot Lodge, newly-returned to America after serving as President Kennedy’s ambassador to Vietnam (Think Jon Huntsman), won it decisively.  Goldwater rebounded with a big win in Texas on May 2, garnering 75% of the Republican vote. Three weeks later, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller struck a blow for the party liberals with a win in Oregon. But Goldwater appeared to have sealed the deal when he came back with a win in California on June 2.

The Republican establishment, fearing Goldwater was too much of a loose cannon to put their faith in, put up yet another moderate opponent, Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton. At the July convention in San Francisco’s Cow Palace, Goldwater backers steamrollered Scranton and set the stage for Ronald Reagan’s ascendance to party figurehead.

Then and Now

Goldwater’s campaign in 1964, like Perry’s today, rested on his promise to curb federal regulations that keep free enterprise from doing what it does best: create jobs. Although he won the Republican nomination on that pledge, Goldwater lost the election because he came to be perceived as a reckless cowboy in the dangerous nuclear atmosphere of The Cold War.

The economy in 1964 was not as dire as it is today, but it dominated the political discussion. Unemployment was a stubbornly high 5.7 percent. America was on a trajectory to a fourth straight year of economic growth, but not all Americans were sharing in the prosperity. One in five Americans lived below the poverty line. (Today, the ratio is one in six.) But there was a color line that blinded white America to the implications.

Johnson’s poverty programs and civil rights legislation would eventually bring a long-suffering underclass into the political process. But change did not come quickly, or quietly. The Democratic convention that nominated Johnson by acclaim was still roiled by Fannie Lou Hamer challenging the credentials of the all-white Mississippi delegation. Six days later, a race riot broke out in Philadelphia that led to 341 injuries and 774 arrests.

More racial incidents would dog Johnson through the rest of his presidency, along with a chorus of protest over Vietnam that grew to be a deafening clamor. (The Gulf of Tonkin incident that marks the official start of the Vietnam came after the Republican convention, but two weeks before the Democratic one.)

In this election, at this moment in history, Johnson was the best candidate the Democrats had to offer, and that proved to be good enough to win.

Promises Are Easy

Presidential candidates campaign on the premise they have new solutions for America. More often than not, they offer up their solution to one problem only to find they are confronted by a different one.

Ronald Reagan campaigned for small government and a balanced budget, but presided over unprecedented growth in both government spending and deficits. George W. Bush promised to end “nation building” abroad only to undertake two monumental ground-up rebuilds of the governments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Barack Obama campaigned on hope and change in Washington only to discover America’s economic condition was so dreadful––and the gridlock so pervasive––he’d become an advocate of “reasonable compromise”.

It’s Not the Issues, It’s the Candidate

For all the attention the media gives to the issues of the day in presidential elections, the electorate has shown remarkable prescience over the years in not getting too bogged down in who is right or wrong on the issues. In ways both subtle and overt, voters like a candidate who can roll with the punches in office, someone they think has the right temperament to make the right decision (in their place) when all the facts are in.

And that proved to be Barry Goldwater’s downfall in 1964. He was “The Conscience of a Conservative” in his book and the campaign. But ultimately the people decided he didn’t have the temperament to lead the nation.

Will Perry make the same mistake? Here’s an excerpt from his campaign book “Fed Up”:

“We are fed up with being overtaxed and overregulated. We are tired of being told how much salt we can put on our food, what windows we can buy for our house, what kind of cars we can drive, what kinds of guns we can own, what kind of prayers we are allowed to say and where we can say them, what political speech we are allowed to use to elect candidates, what kind of energy we can use, what kind of food we can grow, what doctor we can see, and countless other restrictions on our right to live as we see fit.”

He might be right, but I’m seeing this temperament thing as sort of an uphill climb.

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