At the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa in mid-August, Barry Goldwater Jr., son of the GOP’s 1964 nominee for president, was stumping for Ron Paul with a rambling speech that closed with the advice to “take life with a grain of salt…and a shot of tequila.” That’s not exactly the typical counsel one hears in Republican speeches these days, not since the religious right started bringing Bibles rather than booze to the party. But Goldwater was there for a specific purpose, and it wasn’t to give a sermon. He was there to remind Paul’s followers of their place in history. His father, he reminisced, “launched this movement in 1964 when he wrestled away from the Eastern liberal establishment the conservative philosophy and established it as the philosophy of the Republican Party.” The Tea Party, he went on, is his father’s legacy, with a “consistent message: get the government off our backs.”
If the 76-year-old Paul’s campaign seems quixotic—and Goldwater’s presence a jarring anachronism—his campaign tent in Ames provided a palpable sense of where the Republican Party is headed: not just a passing of the baton from the Goldwaters to Paul but from the whole geriatric GOP crew to Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who was on hand to support his father. The Paul campaign’s senior adviser, Doug Wead, a former Bush adviser, repeatedly referred to the younger Paul as “a possible future president himself.”
The idea of President Rand Paul—he who once used a Senate hearing to unleash a tirade against low-flow toilets—is a perfect crucible for where today’s Republicans have taken the party of Goldwater. His antigovernment rhetoric is both a product of that era and tinged with the worldview of the cataclysmic conservative movement that followed: the religious right. As a Senate candidate, Paul told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “I see that Christianity and values is the basis of our society…. It helps a society to have that religious underpinning.”
While no clear Republican front-runner has emerged, establishment Republicans are so nervous about their options—which apparently consist of Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann—that they have created an environment in which a single tweet about a possible focus group by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (widely seen as a more palatable candidate) can consume a morning’s news, even if it turns out to be false.
Setting aside the crucial divide between the isolationist, antiwar Pauls and the Christian Zionists Perry and Bachmann, the GOP appears to be stuck with a field of antigovernment zealots. All of them share a foreboding vision of the government as your enemy, out to steal your money and your freedom. In Iowa, even Romney blamed the country’s economic decline on socialism and Obama’s failure to understand the “real” America, telling a crowd at the state fair that the president found inspiration in the “social democrats of Europe,” in contrast to his own love of “freedom and opportunity, American style.” Romney even noted that he is “particularly fond of the Tenth Amendment,” a favorite of the Tea Partiers.
The rhetoric in Ames was rife with dark visions and ugly metaphors, such as Iowa Representative Steve King’s comparison of “Obamacare” to a “malignant tumor” that is “metastasizing” as it “feeds on our liberty.” Days before, in Des Moines, Rand Paul lambasted our “government of busybodies” for treating you like you’re “too stupid to take care of yourself,” as evidenced by OSHA regulations, energy-efficient light bulbs and other household items. And “to make things worse, we’ve given them guns,” he added, claiming that the Agriculture Department sent armed agents to raid an organic food store in California.