The Republican Party is barreling head-first toward a worst-case scenario – or is that a best-case scenario?
The tea party wing of the party has essentially toppled House Speaker John Boehner. His replacement will almost certainly need the tea party's stamp of approval.
Meanwhile, the Republican presidential campaign continues to confound the establishment. Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz together have more support than all other Republican candidates combined, according to polls.
Is the Republican Party finally having its "Goldwater moment"?
When Barry Goldwater won the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, the base exulted. Here was a true conservative. Here was a man who would not compromise. Here was a man of rare vision.
Then he lost by 434 electoral votes, winning only 39 percent of the popular vote – the most lopsided loss in presidential history, by that measure.
To the Republican establishment, it was an unmitigated disaster. In 1968, the party nominated Richard Nixon – a moderate if not a liberal Republican – and retook the White House.
To arch-conservatives, however, Senator Goldwater's campaign laid the groundwork for America's conservative revolution. His doctrine of low taxes and limited government became bedrock ideals for Ronald Reagan, who campaigned for Goldwater before becoming governor of California. The conservative Heritage Foundation calls Goldwater "the most consequential loser in American politics."
Today, much remains to play out, and the establishment almost always has the last word. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R) of California, a Boehner protégé, is a front-runner for the speaker's post. And the presidential election, in many ways, has barely even started.
Yet even if the establishment reestablishes some measure of control, does the Republican Party need a Goldwater moment?
With Mr. Boehner's departure, the tea party has outlasted a man of legendary political patience. In the presidential race, they have taken a process that the Republican Party designed specifically to help establishment candidates and emphatically done the opposite.
In other words, there is little evidence to suggest the Republican populist rebellion is going away, though seismic changes in the country since 1964 – partly as a result of the conservative revolution – mean that the underlying situation is in many ways dramatically different.
On its face, today’s Republican insurgency echoes the conservative groundswell for Goldwater in 1964. The Atlantic’s Matthew Dallek writes that “in the late 1950s and early 1960s conservatives were widely dismissed as ‘kooks’ and ‘crackpots’ with no hope of winning political power.” Today, the conservative base is looked upon even by the Republican Party as “crazies,” said Michael Needham of Heritage Action Sunday. Mr. Boehner, only somewhat more charitably, called them “false prophets.”
"Absolutely, they're unrealistic!" he told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
The mainstream media also thought little of Goldwater’s conservative rebellion: “In 1962 a writer in the The Nation suggested that conservatives were more interested in thinking up ‘frivolous and simple-minded’ slogans than in developing intelligent proposals to meet the complexities of post-Second World War America,” Mr. Dallek writes.
Could today’s much-maligned conservative insurgents similarly be laying the groundwork for a new Reagan, as Goldwater did? Does the establishment need to yield in order to move forward?
Perhaps, but the lessons from the Reagan Revolution were different, some say. Reagan took something that was already a reality on the ground – the New Deal – and gave it Goldwater’s conservative spin, said Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, to the Monitor. “He permitted a conservative interpretation of the New Deal’s development that moved politics rightward.”
Today’s Republicans, by contrast, appear to be working against political realities rather than looking for ways to massage them. Mr. Trump has made his mark by advocating for the deportation of immigrants in the United States illegally – a position at odds with the country as a whole. And the political crisis that precipitated Boehner’s decision to depart also goes against broader public opinion – shutting down government to defund Planned Parenthood, an abortion provider.
On a more fundamental level, Goldwater’s vision was a new vision for America. Coming while the country was in the throes of a deep and sustained period of unvarnished liberalism – still emerging from the New Deal and with President Johnson’s War on Poverty ahead – Goldwater’s brand of conservatism promised a novel rightward pivot.
Today, by contrast, the broad strokes of American politics are still largely in the mold Reagan made from Goldwater’s model. President Clinton, a centrist Democrat, said the era of big government is over. Tax rates are near historic lows. If anything, polls suggest the country could now be shifting back leftward somewhat, with Millennials showing strong liberal leanings on a host of social and economic issues.
For Boehner, the political realities are that the country has twice elected the president who gave America Obamacare – a program that is the very opposite of Goldwater conservatism. Shutting down the government to defund it was not standing on principle, it was the height of political stupidity, he said.
"We got groups here in town, members of the House and Senate here in town, who whip people into a frenzy believing they can accomplish things that they know – they know! – are never going to happen," he told CBS Sunday.
“Kooks,” you might call them.
Whether they are the vanguards of a new American conservatism or the last defenders of the old is what these elections – for speaker and for president – are all about.