The Perry-Goldwater Parallel
In 1964, much like today, the GOP's presidential hopefuls boiled down to two guys: an establishment pick and a super conservative pick. Whereas today we have the establishment candidate Mitt Romney and Tea Party conservative (is that a redundancy?) Rick Perry, in '64 they had establishment candidate Nelson Rockefeller and the 1964 equivalent of a Tea Party conservative, Barry Goldwater. Like Perry, Goldwater was a trip. This cat said all kinds of outlandish garbage that catered specifically to the social conservative/states' rights crowd. For example, Goldwater said that:
States' Rights, small government, and ending entitlement programs like Social Security.
[T]he federal Constitution does not require the States to maintain racially mixed schools. Despite the recent holding of the Supreme Court [Brown v. Board of Education], I am firmly convinced — not only that integrated schools are not required — but that the Constitution does not permit any interference whatsoever by the federal government in the field of education.- Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative, p. 27 (1960).
In sum, Goldwater was a Conservative with a capital "C" who was so far to the Right that he scared the crap out of the rest of the country.
Interestingly enough, when the '64 race first got underway, Rockefeller (who was Governor of the state of New York at the time) was the clear front-runner within the GOP, but once Goldwater entered the race, the support he gained from the social conservative wing of the party catapulted him in the polls ahead of Rockefeller. Although they recognized that Rockefeller had the best chance of beating Democratic incumbent President LBJ, the Republican party viewed Rockefeller as a "rich guy" governor of a northeastern state who was a bit too moderate for their tastes, especially when you consider that Goldwater was feeding them a fresh supply of red meat daily. Sound familiar to anyone?
Today, when the 2012 race first began, it was Romney, the "rich guy" governor of a northeastern state, who long enjoyed front-runner status within the GOP. Indeed, the political consensus continues to be that Romney is the most electable candidate in a match up against Democratic incumbent President Obama. However, once the super conservative Rick Perry arrived on the scene, the Republican polls have consistently shown Perry leading Romney by as many as 15 points as Republicans continue to migrate away from the more moderate Romney in favor of the more red-meat-feeding Perry.
To be sure, stylistically Obama and LBJ are nothing alike. Personality wise, you'd probably find more in common between Danny Devito and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Obama's pragmatic compromise-first-ask-questions-later style of leadership is certainly at odds with LBJ's more aggressive "Johnson Treatment" style. However, the situation that each President found/finds himself in with respect to his political opposition is very similar. Each President was/is seeking re-election during tumultuous times. Prior to his election, LBJ had become extremely unpopular among the social conservatives who viewed his passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as an unconstitutional intrusion by the federal government into matters that were best left to the States or to private individuals to decide. Likewise, Obama faces a similar opposition to his passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, better known as "Obamacare." However, the strongest parallel stems from the circumstances surrounding their political opponents; each was/is facing an opposing party that favors harsh conservative rhetoric over establishment Republican principles.
The Lesson Learned
Had Nelson Rockefeller received the Republican nomination in '64, LBJ would have had a difficult time trying to defeat such a popular Governor. Despite America's emotional attachment to the then recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy ("JFK"), LBJ's association as JFK's Vice President may not have been enough to best the fiscally conservative and well financed Rockefeller. Likewise, should Romney win the Republican nomination in 2012, Obama will be hard pressed to convince the American public that a former Governor and fiscal conservative like Romney isn't a safe bet for a struggling economy. But as we all know, that didn't happen.
What happened instead is what appears to be happening right now as we speak - the GOP caved to the social conservatives of the fringe Right and nominated Barry Goldwater; electability be damned. America was so turned off by Goldwater's hard core conservative rhetoric that the final result ended up looking like this:
LBJ won a record-setting 61% of the popular vote, destroying Goldwater with 486 electoral votes compared to Goldwater's 52.
Now even though the electoral map has, of course, changed slightly since 1964, the fundamentals still remain the same: social conservatives are primarily located in the southern and midwestern states, whereas progressives tend to dominate the coastal and north-central states. Moreover, the American people today, as a whole, are just as Center-Right ideologically as they were in 1964. In other words, most people do not fall within the fringes of either the Left or the Right but instead come down somewhere in the vast middle. Therefore, a candidate like Perry who appeals to the far-Right only has about as much of a chance of getting elected President of the United States today as Barry Goldwater did in '64. Feeding red meat to the masses of Tea Partiers might make for good sound bites on Fox News, but the problem with red meat is that not everybody in America likes their steak served bloody.
Based on the current GOP poll numbers, this is a lesson that the Republican Party apparently never bothered to learn.