Beginning of the end for GOP liberals

Conservatives gradually took over after Rockefeller failed to win the 1964 New Hampshire primary

January 30, 2000|By Joseph R.L. Sterne

THIRTY-SIX YEARS later, with the clarity of hindsight, it is apparent that the 1964 Republican primary in New Hampshire was one of the last hurrahs of the party's eastern establishment.

Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, otherwise known as Mr. Conservative, went on to win the GOP presidential nomination, suffer overwhelming defeat in November and reorient his party to the West and South for the remainder of the century -- and beyond. But before those momentous events, he had to lose New Hampshire, and lose it painfully. Although he entered the fray as the odds-on favorite, his every effort was akin to planting cactus in the White Mountains.

An excruciating calcium deposit in Goldwater's right heel had him trudging on crutches through snow and slush. His reckless brandishing of nuclear weaponry scared the hell out of cautious New Englanders. His chatter about making Social Security partly voluntary (no longer such a novel ideal) had the old folks clutching their wallets. And, most of all, his lack of cultural affinity with voters who considered it their right to grill him personally sent his poll figures into a tailspin.

In his memoirs, the senator blamed the press he got in New Hampshire for his reputation "as a fascist, a racist, a trigger-happy warmonger, a nuclear madman and a candidate who couldn't win" But he also confessed that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had warned him he also often spoke with his heart, not his head.

When it was all over the winner was neither Goldwater (with 20,692 votes) nor maritally compromised Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York (with 19,504) votes. These were the politicians who had worked New Hampshire to the point of physical and emotional exhaustion. The victor was the man who wasn't there: Henry Cabot Lodge, the lackadaisical GOP vice presidential candidate in 1960 who was far away in Saigon, holding an ambassadorship that allowed the Democrats to give a Republican patina to the mess in South Vietnam. He got 33,007 votes.

Put another way, liberal candidates Lodge and Rockefeller got a whopping 55.8 percent of the vote, conservative Goldwater only 22.9 percent and the absent, noncompeting middle-of-the road choice, Richard M. Nixon, 16.6 percent (perhaps a harbinger of what was to come in 1968). The results in 1964 have spawned some intriguing might-have-beens.

Had Lodge returned from Asia immediately, and had he campaigned valiantly, he might have pushed a discouraged Goldwater out of the race. Instead, he waited until June, when it was too late, when the conservatives had recovered their momentum, intensity and control of the vast majority of state organizations. Or if Lodge, a man of lofty Massachusetts lineage, had renounced his candidacy and thrown his support to Rockefeller as he once had promised, the grandson of John D. might have been able to use his millions and his zest to will New Hampshire, California and his party's nomination. Either result would have delayed but probably not prevented the right wing takeover of the party, a process solidified by Ronald Reagan and entrenched to this day.

As George W. Bush, John McCain, Steve Forbes, Gary L. Bauer and Alan Keyes dutifully adhere to New Hampshire ritual this year, all proclaim themselves conservative. Some are anti-abortion moralists, a mind-set Goldwater denounced in his latter days. Others are get-the-government-out-of-my hair libertarians, the kind of guys Goldwater loved. But if any of these candidates today were to call themselves liberal Republicans, a label proudly worn by Rockefeller, they would be considered off the reservation or out of their minds.

Six months before the New Hampshire primary, the New York governor declared: "The Republican Party is in real danger of subversion by a radical, well-financed and highly disciplined minority... wholly alien to sound and honest Republican liberalism."

So great was the drama of the 1964 GOP primary, it sometimes is regarded as something apart from the history that was simultaneously being made that winter and spring in Congress: passage of a civil rights act that was the most significant domestic legislation of the century. Yet these two happenings were tightly intertwined.

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