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A Party Like It’s 1964

Tea Party Symbol

The symbol of the Tea Party

“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated…how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.”

Richard Hofstadter’s words accurately describe the current state of American politics in which a destructive and divisive strain of conservatism, under the mantle of the Tea Party, has captured a prominent place in policy debates and a central role in the Republican presidential nomination contest.  Yet, Hofstadter was not writing about our current fractious political environment.  He wrote the passage above in 1964 about the conservative movement inspired by Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona.  We’ve seen this movie before and if the past is prologue, Mitt Romney will join Ed Muskie and Hillary Clinton in the history books as presumptive nominees who could not close the deal.

Contested in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, the 1964 Republican nomination contest has many similarities to the current campaign.  Then as now, the front runner was a Northeastern governor, the wealthy scion of a politically connected family.  Like Mitt Romney, Nelson Rockefeller, the grandson of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller Sr., was distrusted by the social conservatives in the Republican Party (his sin was divorce).  Senator Goldwater – brash, outspoken and unapologetically conservative – launched a grassroots primary campaign railing against communism, social security and welfare.  Ambitious as it was undisciplined, the campaign was waged as much against liberal Rockefeller Republicans as it was against Democrats.

Goldwater’s victory over Rockefeller in the California primary vaulted him to the nomination.  In his acceptance speech he proclaimed, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”  Goldwater and his extremism went on to suffer one of the most lopsided defeats in American presidential politics, winning just 6 states, 9.6% of electoral college votes, and 38.5% of the popular vote.  Yet, nearly 50 years later, his brand of extreme, indeed paranoid, conservatism has become mainstream in the Republican Party.

Barry Goldwater’s political lineage runs through Texas Governor Rick Perry, a recent entrant into the nomination campaign.  Perry’s bombastic suggestion that Texas secede and that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s actions have been “treasonous”, echoes Goldwater’s 1961 statement that “sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea.”

How did we get here?  Rick Perry was the first among prominent politicians to seize the Tea Party mantle and he has pitch perfect rhetoric for a Republican primary electorate — uncompromising, comfortably Christian, and devoid of substance.  He could win the nomination by default replica watches uk.  His toughest competitor is a paper tiger.  For all of Romney’s advantages — principally money, organization and name recognition — he is utterly bankrupt in the two most important qualities voters look for in a president — authenticity and conviction.  Romney has no political base, no army of supporters to convince voters that he is the guy, and in 2008 proved unable to win in the south, the heart of the GOP.

President Obama’s well chronicled political troubles are largely tied up in a persistently weak economy.  Fourteen months out, the 2012 election resembles 2004 — a beatable incumbent facing a flawed challenger and a very tight race to follow.  During his campaign replica breitling, Goldwater was asked by a reporter how it would feel to wake up as president, and he responded, “Frankly, it scares the hell out of me.”  I feel the same way about the prospect of President Rick Perry.

September 6, 2011
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