This morning I had the pleasure of talking with Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist and fellow MSNBC contributor Clarence Page. Motivated by Monday night’s debate in New Hampshire, he and I discussed the current field of GOP candidates. I indicated my distress at hearing so many of them parrot the talking points of the Tea Party and my surprise that the new litmus test for being prolife required the candidates to reject a right to abortion even in the case of rape, incest and threat to the life of the woman. In response, Page reminded me of the 1964 Republican National Convention when Nelson Rockefeller was booed by Goldwater delegates. It was a useful reminder.
In 1964 the Republican Party was at war with itself and the convention highlighted the fronts of the battle. Rockefeller largely derailed his own opportunity for the nomination when he divorced his wife of three decades and married a much young woman. By 1964 standards this behavior violated the basic rules of ethical personal conduct expected of serious contenders for national office. But it was not his personal life that was booed by conservative convention delegates. They shouted at Rockefeller when he insisted on the need for “honest Republican liberalism that has kept this party abreast of human need” and warned that “the Republican Party is in real danger of subversion by a radical, well-finaced, highly disciplined majority.”
Republicans booed Rockefeller as the civil rights movement was marching toward greater equality for African-Americans. They booed Rockefeller as American women were challenging centuries of narrow, repressive social and economic practices. They booed Rockefeller as Americans rattled with fear over a Communist threat to American domestic security and international hegemony. They booed Rockefeller as the changing world evoked a heightened sense of vulnerability for those who had wielded power and privilege for so long. It is almost laughable that someone of the family legacy and monied heritage of Rockefeller could stand in as symbol of the changing world of 1964. But the very fact that he was interpreted as frighteningly left of the GOP center is an indication of how far right the party had moved. So in 1964 the GOP rejected Rockefeller Republicanism and embraced Goldwater extremism.
I couldn’t help but notice similar patterns of rejecting traditional conservatism in exchange for radical rightism in the GOP candidates on Monday night. They seemed intent on vaulting over most reasonable responses in a rush to position themselves as far to the right as the stage would allow.
The Republican extremism of 1964 was disastrous in the short term. Goldwater carried only six states and President Johnson secured the largest popular vote margin in modern presidential history. But I am not interested in comparing 2012 to 1964 to reassure Democrats that it is easy to beat extremists in the general election. Because while 1964 was a short-term loss, the conservative strategy has paid huge electoral dividends to Republican Party over the past fifty years.
Republicans secured their position as the national party of the South in 1964 and they have held it ever since. Recall that Nixon enthusiastically embraced Goldwater in 1964 and was shortly elected president himself. Nineteen sixty-four was also the conservative coming-out party for a young Ronald Reagan who was then elected governor of California two years later and went on to become the icon of the contemporary GOP. Interestingly though, the GOP rejection of Rockefeller ultimately sealed the fate of an ambitious, young moderate who could never again gain a significant following among Republicans: George Romney. It will be instructive to see if his son chooses to run to the right in order to secure the nomination his father could never obtain.