Paul Ryan and the Republican establishment may not understand the history of conservative politics. Speaking at a POLITICO Playbook breakfast, the Speaker of the House said, “Some on the other side of the aisle would love to see if they can bait us into a 1964 election where we lose big. I think we can, should and must have a 1980 election where we win big and win with a mandate.”
Slow clap, guys. Slow clap.
Yes, we would all prefer a 1980-style victory to a 1964-style loss. In fact, if we had our druthers, we’d prefer a 1984-style victory over a 1964-style loss. Well, actually, why not just run unopposed?
It’s highly irritating when political insiders suggest that they alone know the key to massive political victory. Nobody can predict winners and losers in presidential elections – and certainly no election turns on a knife’s edge between losing 44 states and 62 percent of the vote on the one hand and winning 44 states and 489 electoral votes on the other.
The reality is that the principles upon which Goldwater ran in 1964 paved the way for the principles upon which Reagan ran in 1980. There were differences: Goldwater wasn’t Reagan in terms of presentation and manner, LBJ wasn’t Jimmy Carter, and America of 1964 wasn’t America of 1980. But without the Goldwater Revolution, Ronald Reagan never would have existed. Reagan was an insurgent candidate. He almost unseated a sitting president of the United States for the nomination. He wasn’t an establishment guy – the establishment backed his rival, George H.W. Bush, then proceeded to enshrine the Bush family after Reagan’s term ended. The Republican Party of the last thirty years has been shaped more by the Bush legacy than the Reagan legacy: big spending, friendly to the opposition, weak on public relations.
This, the Republican insiders say, is necessary for victory. Remember, they labeled Reagan unelectable in both 1976 and 1980. Reagan ignored them, and so did his base. So, in the end, did Americans.
Does the Republican Party need a 1964? There’s no good answer to that question. No conservative thinks conservatives need to lose. But by the same token, no good conservative believes that the size of the electoral victory matters more than the principles you seek to enact. 1980 matters more to conservatives than 1964, but 1992 certainly matters less than 1964.
Ironically enough, the very people who think that victory is the only criterion of political success – people who think that 1992 beats 1964 — have guaranteed loss after loss for the Republican Party. Principle before victory; the other way means no principle and no victory.