I have to stick to my guns for several reasons. One is that I remember following closely the Johnson-Goldwater race because it was my first time, at age 20, to vote in a presidential election. To be sure, the 1964 contest pitted an old-line Democrat against a libertarian-leaning Republican. It also hammered the final nail into the coffin of the Democratic “Solid South.” Five Southern states voted solidly for Republican Goldwater.
Granted, there was nothing about big government that Goldwater liked, and nothing about government programs that Johnson didn’t like. Yet, unlike Obama and Romney, there were some extra-political similarities between Johnson and Goldwater. They were both from the Sun Belt, offering the nation a respite from the long line of Rust Belt and Eastern Seaboard presidential candidates. They were both rugged Southwesterners, Johnson a lover of his Texas cows and horses, and Goldwater a lover of the blue Arizona sky in which he plied his avocation of flying.
Johnson reportedly had a heart for the down and out, particularly the poor, struggling Mexicans in Texas, while Goldwater was known for his charitableness toward and concern for Arizona’s Navajo population. Unlike Goldwater and his family of successful merchants, Johnson grew up a dirt-poor Texan.
I acknowledge that despite these similarities, my friend had a point. Johnson and Goldwater did present political contrasts. Whereas Johnson was FDR redux, Goldwater was a fresh voice. He dared to court seriously the Democratic solid South, called into question FDR’s New Deal as well as Johnson’s plans which would later be labeled the Great Society, fought against funding for the United Nations, voted against the Civil Rights Act, and argued that peace is brought about by military strength, not by accommodation. True to the title of the little volume penned by social conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, Goldwater offered “A Choice, Not an Echo.”
But that choice and the era and temper of the times in which it was offered are so different from today. For instance, Goldwater was soundly defeated. In addition to the five Southern states mentioned above, he carried only his home state of Arizona. Even though Goldwater’s defeat was Ronald Reagan’s birthing, as well as the resurrecting of dormant conservative ideas, conservatives simply were not geared up for success at the time. The back bench for too long had been their station, and there was no talk radio or cable television to give them voice.
As for Lyndon Johnson, even with his liberal Democrat credentials, he would never have spoken openly for the distribution of wealth. Neither would he have supported gay marriage. In short the great social/political divide that exists today in America did not exist even 20 years ago, much less in 1964.
Today, however, America is divided socially and politically. After viewing this week’s debate, I am convinced more than ever that both our economic and social futures are at stake and that Obama and Romney represent two starkly different visions, one of which will determine our course. If Romney was ever Democrat lite, he is no longer, having established himself as the reasonable voice of both tradition and progress, and now an aggressive one at that. Obama has been and remains the voice of the Left. His future is socialist Europe’s present. Romney’s future could well be Reagan’s past as far as uniting conservatives is concerned.
In January of this year I was in Greenville, S.C.., walking door to door for Newt Gingrich. Nowhere at any time have I seen or felt the energy and excitement for a candidate as I did in Newt’s South Carolina campaign. His victory there and his hugely attended victory event in Columbia ignited not only those who supported Newt, however, but those who supported Romney as well. In Florida we saw a combative Romney, exercised and rejuvenated by his South Carolina defeat.
Romney’s decisive taking of the debate last week was example enough that iron sharpens iron and that primary competition is a good thing. I say he will continue to be substantive, knowledgeable, and laser-focused.
So on one side voters have a businessman, apparently a stellar one, who has also been successful in politics and knows that in politics you do have to listen. On the other side is an ill-prepared candidate who has not listened, and who doesn’t seem to believe that in a representative democracy the people’s judgment is a moral imperative, not just a political necessity.
The Johnson-Goldwater race was significant because it contained the seed of the late 20th century conservative movement. The Obama-Romney race is significant because it will determine whether or not that movement survives.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.