From Goldwater conservatism to "compassionate conservatism" -- over 40 years the Republican Party gradually has come to think of itself as a majority party as the politics of the country has moved from center left to center right. Here, Washington Post reporter Dan Balz, Republican activist Grover Norquist, Republican strategist Mary Matalin, and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman trace what Norquist calls conservatives' "long march" -- from Goldwater's 1964 defeat and Ronald Reagan's dual victories, to the Republicans' 1994 takeover of the House and George W. Bush's election and re-election.
Reporter, Washington Post
You look at the '64 campaign, and you say, "This was a crushing defeat for the most conservative candidate the Republicans had put up in memory, and therefore it was the end of the conservative movement." And in fact, what we did not think about at that point -- and should have, because it was obvious, and Lyndon Johnson understood it the day he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 -- was that the South was about to undergo a historic political realignment over race, and that that was a more powerful force than the single defeat of a conservative candidate in a presidential landslide. …
What we focused on was the beginning of the end of the New Deal. It looked like it was the strengthening of liberal America in the mid-60s. But that was a tumultuous decade. Civil rights and Vietnam tore the country apart, and anytime you have that kind of social change in America, you're likely to have political change out of it. And what we've seen since then is that with that realignment in the South, there has been a slow but steady movement in the country politically from center left to center right.
And again, we look for the big bang in American politics. We look for the election that changes everything. Nixon gets elected in 1968, and we say, "Well, it's because of opposition to the war." And he wins in a landslide in 1972, and we say, "But the Congress is still in Democratic hands, and strong Democratic hands." Nixon's impeached and gone, and resigns. Democrats win in 1976, and people say, "Well, see, the Democrats continue to be the dominant party." But underneath, these changes are continuing to happen.
Reagan's election was another example of this. You had lots of people who woke up the morning after that election in 1980 and said: "How could this happen? What has happened to the United States of America? Why didn't anybody tell me that a country like this could vote for a man as conservative as Ronald Reagan?" And again, all the forces were out there. But a lot of that, again, was written off to the fact that, you know, the Iranian hostage crisis; Carter was a weak president. But bit by bit, all of this was moving through the political system. And the '94 election, the congressional election, was obviously the moment at which much turned. And I think that was given the significance it deserved. But Bill Clinton was still in the White House, and by winning in 1996, he seemed to have pushed back the Republican tide.
And people think back to that period, and you can still think of people who said, "Well, Newt Gingrich won, but he self-destructed, and it will kill the Republican Party, or it will stop them from ever becoming a majority." And by 2000, Bush is in, and by 2004, he's in with majorities enhanced in both the House and Senate, with a majority of the governors, with more state legislators than they've had in 50 years. It is a process of all of us being unwilling to see what's out there, because we often focus on the wrong target.
Republican activist, president Americans for Tax Reform
What do you remember hearing about, learning about the impact of the Goldwater candidacy?
The Goldwater candidacy made conservatism a little more front and center. … Obviously Goldwater ran not simply as an anti-Communist but as a strong free-market Republican, and broke up the idea that the Republican Party should be a regional party of the North. He was the one who started to make it a national party based on principles that could appeal to somebody in Alabama, California and Washington state as well as New York and Connecticut. …
Goldwater loses rather badly. The conventional wisdom, certainly by the American press and most Americans, is that buries conservatism in the United States of America. What actually was going on? What actually happened?
… The growth of the conservative wing of the Republican Party was masked by Eisenhower's being a war hero. Certainly Taft would have been our nominee had you hadn't had a war hero step in. And Eisenhower ended up as a moderate to liberal Republican which sat on top of a growing conservative movement. …
And then Goldwater came in and said, "No, we're for freedom domestically and against tyranny abroad." He ran, but he was swamped not so much by his ideology but by the fact that we'd just had a president assassinated, and you had in Lyndon Johnson a fellow who used the FBI and all the powers of the state to go after his political opponents and just swamped him that way. And the establishment press which was rough on George W. Bush was brutal on Goldwater. And so he was going upstream against all three networks, which actually had viewers back then, as well as the establishment. ...
Then it takes until '80 for an explicit conservative to win the presidency -- not just the nomination, but Reagan won the presidency. And then it took us until '94 to win the House and Senate with an explicitly conservative campaign.
So you can see the long march through the institutions. The conservatives captured the nomination -- we actually won in '52, but Eisenhower stole it. But we won the nomination in '64 for Goldwater. We won the presidency with Reagan. We won the House and Senate with [Newt] Gingrich. And those three steps showed the depth of the movement growing, because it's one thing to win the nomination; it's quite another thing to win the presidency. It's a much more meaningful thing to capture the House and Senate. And now we're looking at a conservative majority in the state legislative races. …
What's the difference between guys who believed in the Goldwater moment and Reagan?
Goldwater and Nixon believed themselves to be correct politically but believed they were an embattled minority. When Nixon walked into a room, he believed that most of the people in the room didn't agree with him, but that to get into power he would have to talk to them in such a way that they would give him power and then he could go do those correct things. That makes you secretive; it makes you duplicitous; it makes you lie your way into office in order to do good because you believe you're in the minority, because [that was] when the Republican Party was a distinct minority.
Reagan believed when he walked into a room that if he articulated his position reasonably well that a majority of the people agreed with him. Gingrich always felt that whatever room he walked into, if he made it clear what he was saying -- not the caricature that the left might make, but "Here's what I'm saying and here's what I'm doing," -- the majority of the people in room would generally agree with him. The Republican Party began to think of itself as a majority party leading a natural governing majority, ... a country that agrees with Reagan on the key central issues about which we're trying to govern.
You can see all the [old] conservatives be grumpy, defensive, whiny because they thought the country didn't agree with them. And more modern conservatives are optimistic, forward-looking, cheerful, because they walk into a room, and they know most of the people in the room agree with them. …
And George W. Bush, does he just inherit that momentum, or does he bring something even different and further to it?
… George W. Bush -- there was no daylight between him and Ronald Reagan's positions on anything. He was more optimistic and forward-looking. Compassionate conservatism as conservatives all heard it was simply pointing out that conservatism was compassionate and liberal statism isn't. There wasn't some "Well, I guess we'll compromise our positions." He didn't. He wasn't for taking some liberal position, saying, "Oh, that will make me more compassionate." Rove and President George W. Bush staked out very radical -- meaning fundamental -- conservative positions.
Reforming Social Security to make it fully funded and independently held, that's compassionate because it allows people to control their own lives; cutting taxes on families and all Americans to let people have more control over their lives. He was good on the Second Amendment; he was pro-life; he respected people of faith. All the positions Reagan took -- immigration became a higher-visibility issue with Bush than during the Reagan period, but he followed in Reagan's pro-immigrant position within the Republican Party. Remember, one of Reagan's first speeches was at the Statue of Liberty in celebration of immigrants. To the extent that sometimes there are divisions within the party on immigration, Bush ran as the pro-immigrant, pro-trade candidate as opposed to a handful of guys on the right that were anti-immigrant and anti-free trade.
Bush's positions, because they take some flak on the right, are seen as Bush standing up. They're just Bush standing next to Ronald Reagan on those issues.
Former assistant to President George W. Bush; former adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney
What do you think [Barry Goldwater's candidacy] meant in terms of where we are now as a country?
That's a question for, let's go drink some wine and talk about it. But, I think, as much as it's been recast in political history, it just tapped into another quintessential American characteristic. We're all libertarians at heart, in our gut. We were born of the quest for freedom and liberty -- it's what my version of libertarianism is, and pushing forward and making progress and taking risks. Just have minimum intrusion in the way in which you do that while taking care of our fellow citizens.
And I think that was a modern 20th century articulation of a counterweight to a government that was growing away from valuing individual risk taking and liberty and entrepreneurship of America. You know, that was the first counterweight to the mommy states.
The question is, and this is what a lot of people say, this is the Woodstock for a different kind of generation, a different group of people. Yes or no?
Well, here's what the press didn't get, that there actually are Woodstock-esque cool people who have a different political outlook. I'm the whole Woodstock thing; I'm Beatles. You know, my husband is not Beatles. I'm in that whole generation, did that, was there, burnt my bra, blah-blah-blah. I am a libertarian in the most classical sense, in a Barry Goldwater way. And all across the country people are like that.
What the press misses is they move to places where people have to take risks and want to be open and have that space. They don't live there. They live in some little place and they talk to themselves over and over. I'm not attacking the press. It's just if they're not tapped into it, they think it doesn't exist.
They have this same issue with people of faith. I actually had a reporter, a very serious reporter, ask me, have I ever met a Christian, an Evangelical Christian? Well, you would think in the media line of work if you see this as a coming and emerging and serious political force, you go out and meet an Evangelical Christian; they're not hard to find.
So I think there's something myopic about the media to miss that. And something painful about resisting it, resisting that there are cool people, if you will. That this is not just yahoos hanging out in a cave somewhere in the mountains of the west. It's just not what it is. …
I could draw a line from Goldwater to Reagan to this president that makes perfect sense intellectually. It even makes perfect sense when you watch the geography of America and the way things have changed and become the way they are. How do you see it?
I see it as much of the final throes of the American version of the socialist view, giant, big government doing everything, in the American way. I'm not saying we are socialists. But, I see it more as the death throes of that or as much as the ascendancy of a common-sense conservatism. I don't see this as some transformation or realignment. We are, as I said, relentlessly practical, commonsensical people. And most of the conservative policies, the practical conservative policies, are just that. They're practical and they're commonsensical. Americans are just full of, how do we live every day in the best way? They're not ideologues.
Chairman, Republican National Committee (2005-present); campaign manager, Bush-Cheney 2004
Take me from Goldwater conservatism to "compassionate conservatism."
I think Goldwater conservatism emphasized the need to limit government and the need to take the Soviets on in a more aggressive way, and that's what he focused on. I think that President Reagan refined that model of conservatism to do two things: one, to argue that not only did you need to limit government, but in a way that empowered people. It was much more populist. It explained how a limited government in Washington gave more power, more decisions, more money to the people to make those decisions.
And then it added a values angle to it that was very important. [There were] people who were worried about the fact that a coarsening culture was bad in terms of their desire to raise their children in a society that was compassionate, in a society that taught children the right values. And a lot of people were worried, particularly in the debate about abortion, about the fact that the most vulnerable people in our society -- whether it was the elderly or the unborn -- were vulnerable, and wanted to protect the most vulnerable in our society.
And so those issues, which had come up in the '60s and the '70s, were an important part of Reagan conservatism. So the three legs of Reagan conservatism are peace through strength; free enterprise, which not only produces a good overall economy but empowers American families, so it's more populist; and the third leg is a society that is decent, that looks out for the most vulnerable, and that makes sure that children can be raised in a world where the culture is not so coarse.
Steps forward -- what is the difference between the Bush model and the Reagan model? Well, first of all, the times are different. Whereas once we faced Soviet aggressiveness, today we face international terrorism. Peace through strength is still one of the legs, but peace is maintained through a different approach to making sure that America is strong and that the world promotes democracy, and we promote democracy around the world.
Second is the free-enterprise argument. We still make that argument, but we make it with respect to different things. Back then it was the deregulation of various industries; today it is, how do we bring the private sector and the free markets into improved health care, into improving retirement? How do we increase the choices available to parents in education and ensure accountability there? So the second argument is still there, but it's there with a different approach, given the different challenges we face.
And I think third, again, millions of Americans continue to be concerned about a culture that they see as too coarse, and about the most vulnerable in our society. And so conservatism today has the same three legs that it's had, frankly, since the beginning, but I think it is dealing with different challenges today. And it's more refined and more nuanced in the arguments it has. ...
home · introduction · the mastermind · republican party · interviews
texas · join the discussion · producer's chat · teacher's guide
FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi
posted april 12, 2005
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
web site copyright 1995-2013 WGBH educational foundation