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Political Reform
The Parties

DLC | Blueprint Magazine | May 31, 2005
Winning by Losing
Book Review

By Ed Kilgore

Table of Contents

REAGAN'S REVOLUTION: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All
by Craig Shirley
Nelson Current, 448 pp., $25.99

BEFORE THE STORM: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus
by Rick Perlstein
Hill & Wang, 688 pp., $17 (paperback)

Ever since the 2004 presidential campaign, many Democratic activists have been looking enviously across the electoral battleground at the conservatives who dominate the Republican Party. In trying to deduce the secret of their opponents' success, many of these devoted liberals have concluded that they should emulate the GOP's ruthless partisanship and unity. That argument is particularly popular among those in the so-called "netroots" that coalesced around Howard Dean's Internet-driven presidential campaign. In fact, for many of them, establishing party unity means they must organize as a self-conscious ideological movement of the left, and discard what they consider to be the opportunistic and unprincipled centrism of the Clinton era.

Advocates of this counter-polarization strategy know it defies the commonsense view, based on extensive political experience, that Democrats can best meet the contemporary rightwing challenge by occupying the abandoned political center and peeling off moderate, independent, and even Republican voters. So they are more than a little invested in the claim that the conservative movement's history proves that revved-up activists can, by sheer force of will, pull the whole political world in their direction.

According to this theory, embraced by observers at both extremes of the political spectrum, today's Republican success goes back to the failed candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the Reagan-led movement that succeeded it and ultimately won control of the GOP and the presidency in 1980.

Craig Shirley's new analysis of Reagan's 1976 defeat, along with Rick Perlstein's 2002 book about the Goldwater campaign, provide the factual details necessary to assess this theory and evaluate the mirror-image argument that the conservative movement provides a template for Democrats today.

These two books and their authors have many obvious differences. Perlstein, a frequent contributor to The Nation, is very much a man of the left. He is also an extraordinarily skillful writer and historian who views the Goldwater campaign with mordant detachment. Shirley is essentially a political operative for whom the 1976 Reagan campaign was a formative experience. His book is as much hagiography as history. And, while he does a good job of covering the events of the campaign, especially its personalities, his book would have greatly benefited from an editor with less tolerance for his annoyingly frequent ideological tangents.

But while the two books differ in crucial respects, they agree on four essential points: (1) The failed conservative candidacies of 1964 and 1976 did, in fact, sow the seeds for a conservative ascendancy in American politics today. (2) Both campaigns demonstrated the superior political skills of movement-based ideologues as opposed to practical pols. (3) Conservatives eventually succeeded by forcing an ideological realignment of the electorate. (4) Reagan was the exceptional political leader that the movement needed to finally succeed.

Though neither book explicitly draws lessons for Democrats, it's pretty obvious that the first three points of agreement provide a nice analogy for the claim that Dean's net-roots movement of 2003 to 2004 was, despite its electoral failure, an equally prophetic beginning of an equally bright future for the left. All that is missing are time, discipline, and a leader with Reagan's star quality to emerge as the movement's great champion.

It's worth examining, then, the arguments made by both books about the winning-by-losing creation myth for the conservative movement.

In terms of the pace of that rise, Shirley follows the conventional view that it corresponded to Reagan's career. Reagan's near-miss at the 1976 Republican National Convention, which almost unwillingly nominated Gerald Ford, demonstrated the rightward realignment of the GOP that in Reagan's 1980 triumph produced a rightward realignment of the country.

But Shirley, like most Reagan enthusiasts, underestimates the serendipity involved in Reagan's ultimate success. The Gipper, like George W. Bush, was really a Mr. Magoo figure, benefiting from dumb luck as well as talent and ideology.

Shirley frequently observes that Reagan's political career would almost certainly have ended had his 1976 campaign crashed and burned early, as it nearly did before his upset win in the North Carolina primary. But he fails to examine the other side of that coin: the high probability that Reagan, and the conservative movement, would have suffered a serious setback if he had won the nomination in 1976.

Jimmy Carter's native-son strength in the South, buttressed by George Wallace's relatively early endorsement of Carter's candidacy, would have almost certainly blunted Reagan's natural strength. And it's doubtful the Californian could have matched the votes Ford received in the Northeast, Midwest, and Northwest, where discomfort over Carter's cultural conservatism in some liberal precincts produced a lower vote for him than George McGovern's disastrous 1972 candidacy received.

Four years later, in 1980, Reagan's candidacy benefited less from an ideological realignment than from the objective condition of the country, beset by extreme stagflation at home and a long series of humiliations abroad. Even then, he won only 51 percent of the popular vote. He won his true landslide victory in 1984, in no small part because of a cyclical rebound in the economy and an acceleration of the decay of the Soviet empire (not to mention Democratic mistakes). In other words, there's no particular reason to believe a less conservative Republican candidate would have failed to equal Reagan's success in either election.

Perlstein advances (though only briefly, in the preface of his book) a very different argument about conservative success, which he views as emerging two short years after the Goldwater debacle, eventually monopolizing both major parties. It's an argument that's as familiar to Nation readers as it is alien to most rank-and-file Democrats: Bill Clinton, who won by campaigning as a "different kind of Democrat," was as much an heir of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater as his Republican foes were.

This might be described as the contemporary left's "alternative argument": If you don't accept that Clinton and his New Democrats destroyed the electoral prospects of the Democratic Party, then you should understand that they made victory meaningless by surrendering to the ideology of the right. Or: You can lose by winning as well as win by losing.

The real thing. This argument, of course, is precisely the one conservatives used for years to denounce the moderate establishment of the GOP. By conceding the basic outlines of the post-World War II "welfare state," said conservatives, moderates offered an "echo, not a choice," and thus conceded the political initiative to Democrats, because the electorate typically prefers "the real thing" to pale imitations.

These books essentially share the identification of ideologues with authenticity and of political moderation with cynical professionalism in politics. This theme is most notable in Perlstein's book, which constantly contrasts the superior skills of the ideology-driven Citizens for Goldwater movement with the incompetence of the Arizona pols in the candidate's inner circle. Shirley is at great pains to disassociate himself from past conservative efforts to blame the nonideological campaign manager, John Sears, for Reagan's 1976 loss. But it's clear the heroes of his story (other than Reagan himself) are Jesse Helms, Tom Ellis, and Arthur Finkelstein, the Congressional Club gang that saved Reagan's bacon, and his future career, in North Carolina.

Both Perlstein and Shirley argue that the ultimate success of the conservative movement was based on the introduction of social themes that split the Democratic Party and gradually attracted Southern and Catholic ethnic Democrats to the GOP. Perlstein views this development, which Goldwater himself wasn't terribly interested in, as the true legacy of the 1964 campaign, and also as a national calamity, insofar as it divided a country that had long supported a post-war liberal consensus. (Note the book's subtitle.) Indeed, that's largely why he views the ensuing decades as an era of growing conservative domination of the entire political system.

Perlstein does not make the case that American politics could be driven in the opposite direction by a similar ideological breakthrough by the left. But that certainly seems to be the view of those Democrats who are seeking some new way of framing issues that will suddenly exert a powerful leftward pull on the electorate, without any fundamental change in the philosophy or policy views of the left itself.

Indeed, the left's new fascination with the conservative movement, and with politicians like Goldwater and Reagan, can best be understood as reflecting a powerful desire to believe that ultimate success does not require, and may actually prohibit, ideological flexibility, submission to public opinion, or the responsibility to achieve actual results. A period of losing may well precede the day of victory, in this view, and the left's current leaders may, like Goldwater, never enter the promised land themselves. But someday, if their people remain faithful and refuse compromise with impurity, an Aaron will arise, and redemption will be at hand.

Ed Kilgore is vice president for policy at the Democratic Leadership Council.