This past Sunday's New York Times included an interesting take on what has become a well-trod and almost perfunctory topic: The GOP's so-called Civil War.
It was a wide-ranging article, but let's focus on the notion that what Republicans are going through right now is exactly like the reordering Republicans went through 50 years ago. Here's an excerpt:
The moment draws comparisons to some of the biggest fights of recent Republican Party history — the 1976 clash between the insurgent faction of activists who supported Ronald Reagan for president that year and the moderate party leaders who stuck by President Gerald R. Ford, and the split between the conservative Goldwater and moderate Rockefeller factions in 1964.
Some optimistic Republicans note that both of those campaigns planted the seeds for the conservative movement’s greatest success: Reagan's 1980 election and two terms as president.
"The business community thought the supply-siders were nuts, and the country club Republicans thought the social conservatives scary," William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, said of those squabbles. "That all worked out O.K." [The New York Times]
Is this an appropriate analogy for what's going on today, or just wishful thinking?
Here's what I like about it: This theory recognizes that politics is often cyclical. You're rarely as good as you look when you're winning — and never as bad as you look when you're losing. It wasn't that long ago that some Republicans boasted that they were on the cusp of achieving a permanent governing majority.
Consider a non-political example. The Kansas City Chiefs — who were a dismal 2-14 last year — are now the only undefeated team left in the National Football League at 7-0. No one would have predicted this at the end of last season.
Of course, it required new leadership — coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith were huge acquisitions. And while such a worst-to-first story might be difficult to replicate in politics, it's certainly not impossible. That's why it's so easy to understand why disciples of Ronald Reagan — who wrote "I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead" — would gravitate to such an optimistic theory.
Unfortunately, it might not work out that way.
The temptation is to lionize the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign, but it's important to remember he received just 38 percent of the vote. He was trounced. It would be 16 years before Ronald Reagan was elected, and during that time, America would undergo all sorts of turmoil, including Vietnam, Civil Rights protests, the Great Society, Watergate, gas lines, the Iranian hostage crisis — you name it. Conservatives who subscribe to this analogy had better hope we are closer to 1976 than to 1964. They would probably be the first to argue America cannot sustain 16 years of liberal rule. (And yes, Nixon and Ford were Republicans — but they were not Reagan conservatives, and they presided over an era in which liberalism dominated U.S. politics.)
To be sure, Reagan's victory in 1980 was predicated on this turmoil. They took a chance on him when nothing else seemed to work, and it certainly paid huge dividends. At the risk of embracing the "great man" theory of history, let's also not forget the fact that Reagan was sui generis. Try finding a two-term governor of California with movie star looks and inspirational ideas and rhetoric. These guys certainly don't grow on trees.
The danger is that, instead of doing the spade work, conservatives waste their summers praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets. Between 1964 and 1980, conservatives invested a lot of time and energy into building public policy think tanks and training conservative activists how to win. In fairness to Goldwater, Reagan was greatly aided by this infrastructure (which was created by a lot of veterans of the Goldwater campaign) when he rain in 1980.
Today's conservatives ought to embrace a similar "work as if it all depends on you/pray as if it all depends on God" mentality. But they should also accept the fact that today's challenges are different than they were 50 years ago.
Technology is vastly different — and so are the nation's demographics. Don't forget, Mitt Romney won white voters by the same margins that Reagan did in 1980.
There's another problem with this analogy. The "Civil War" taking place during the Goldwater era pitted conservatives against moderate Rockefeller Republicans. Today's battle is different. The moderates are almost all gone. You'd be hard pressed to find a Republican who isn't pro-life, much less one who supports ObamaCare. And so the recent internecine fight over the government shutdown was mostly about strategy and tactics. How much more ideological cleansing is possible for a movement that wants to be a governing majority?
So what should we make of the Goldwater-Reagan analogy? Conservatives ought to extract as many lessons as they can from history, but also understand the danger in assuming the world is static. It isn't.
It's tempting to try and fight the last war, especially if you won it. But it's treacherous, too.
Another sports analogy: In what became a famous rant, then-Boston Celtics Coach Rick Pitino challenged fans to look to the future. "Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans," he said. "Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, they're going to be gray and old. ... And as soon as they realize that those three guys are not coming through the door, the better this town will be for all of us..."
Similarly, it might be good for conservatives to realize this: Barry Goldwater is not walking through that door. Ronald Reagan is not walking through that door...