11/08/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain And Goldwater Growing More And More Similar

It's beginning to look like McCain is going to follow the footsteps of his mentor, Senator Barry Goldwater, the only other presidential candidate from Arizona. In 1964, Goldwater lost in the biggest landslide in US electoral history, carrying only his home state and five others. His opponent, President Lyndon B. Johnson, still holds the record for garnering the highest percent of the popular vote: 60.1 percent. Although this is probably not the way in which McCain wanted to emulate the original Mr. Conservative, his campaign seems to be trending in this direction.

Early in his career, McCain aspired to fill Goldwater's shoes in the GOP. Goldwater was popular in his home state and McCain often invoked the Goldwater name to bolster his standing, adopting many of Goldwater's conservative views. When Goldwater retired in 1988, McCain ran for his senate seat and continued to morph what had become known as "Goldwater moments" -- occasions in which representatives dared to oppose the president of their own party -- into his own "maverick" brand.

But the "Goldwater moment" most remembered today is the "Daisy Girl" ad, used by Johnson to cast Goldwater as a representative of the lunatic fringe of the day. The ad was the first big use of TV in political advertising and even though it ran only once, it had the desired effect and was probably at least partly responsible for the demise of the Goldwater campaign. If nothing else, it helped foster the association of Goldwater with Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick's 1964 satirical film of the Cold War.

Without using Goldwater's name, the ad cleverly portrayed him as a trigger-happy hawk who would be a dangerous choice for president. Goldwater, a staunch anti-communist in the McCarthy tradition, had famously joked that the US military should "lob one [a nuclear bomb] into the men's room of the Kremlin." Goldwater also had made statements in support of using "tactical" nuclear weapons in Vietnam. McCain's jingle about bombing Iran and staying in Iraq for centuries has brought him some of the same kinds of criticism. It remains to be seen whether or not the Obama camp (or some independent group) will create an updated version of Daisy Girl.

Goldwater's sizable loss in 1964 allowed Johnson to steer the legislation that laid the foundation for his Great Society. On Johnson's coattails, the Democrats netted a 36-seat gain in the House, giving them a two-thirds majority; it was the first time since World War II that either party had been able to win such a large majority. In the Senate, the Democrats added two seats, skewing the numbers so that they had a veto-proof majority (66 Democrats/34 Republicans). It would be the last time the Democrats enjoyed that advantage. However, recent polls of Congressional seats are showing signs of a similar trend.

Goldwater adamantly railed against large government and supported tax cuts (sound familiar?). He opposed "social" programs and wanted to unpack much of the New Deal agenda. He advocated making Social Security voluntary and selling off the TVA, neither of which garnered him many votes in 1964, a time of economic expansion. Although in theory people may be for "small government," in practice they are fond of programs in which they personally benefit. People vote their pocketbooks, regardless of the hawks.

During the presidential campaign of '64, the war in Vietnam was just beginning to sizzle. There were dissidents, but the majority still subscribed to the domino theory of communism, and accordingly supported the war. Vietnam hadn't become an election issue until after Johnson took office and expanded the war. Goldwater's talk of dismantling programs like Social Security and the TVA was not greeted with flowers. As our current economy goes into meltdown and Iraq is put on the backburner, McCain is getting the same message from the electorate.

Goldwater's statement that he would sell the TVA for $1 was so skewered by the press, especially in Tennessee, that he didn't even bother to campaign there. But his running mate, William Miller, tried. He backtracked on Goldwater's privatization plans, saying their administration would never sell the TVA; no one believed him. Sarah Palin, has also made contradictory statements in the name of her running mate, though it's hard to tell how much of it is pure lack of knowledge about the McCain policy platform and how much is contradictory talking points coming from the campaign itself.

In the past, McCain has talked about privatizing at least part of Social Security and making some of it voluntary: his current budget plans call for cutting Medicare and Social Security, both programs that share wide national support. Although he is trying to backpedal on that message, given the economic crisis, he may have to write off more than just Michigan. Obama is gearing up to publicize this part of the McCain agenda and McCain's record could derail his candidacy as surely as it did his mentor's.

Of course history doesn't follow a straight path. Some of the Great Society legislation enacted by the Johnson administration would eventually stand to benefit Obama. The food stamps Obama's mother turned to as a struggling single parent, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ushered in a new era in race relations both helped to form Obama's views of the world and the role of government. Although it took a couple of generations, a black man couldn't vote in many parts of the US before the passage of the 1964 legislation, no less run for president. In keeping with his conservative core, Goldwater voted against it.

A New York Times analysis after the '64 election stated that: "Mr. Goldwater was believed by many observers to be seeking the so-called 'white backlash' vote from white persons alarmed at the pace of the Negro rights drive." It didn't seem to help Goldwater all that much, even 44 years ago. Although the few states he did win were all in the Deep South (except for Arizona), his other positions were so anathema to mainstream America, that if it was the plan, it surely didn't work. Although he has since apologized, in 1983, long after the white backlash against integration had subsided, McCain voted against legislation designating a federal holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. This was not a maverick vote (President Reagan opposed it; he signed the bill because it had veto-proof support ); nor was it a position that won him black votes. The 2008 McCain campaign has been accused of using racist tactics, but it, too, seems to be backfiring.

In '64, as in the current election cycle, heavy turnout favored the Democrats; it had been more than 100 years since we had had a president from a southern state. Record numbers of young blacks voted for the first time. Coupled with the historic first black candidate, this election expects historic turnout, especially among minorities and first time voters.

President Johnson had campaigned on making it a priority to set up a medical program for the aged and he made good on his promise. Goldwater was against the program but he had resigned his Senate seat to run for president so he was not able to cast his vote accordingly. Obama wants to set up a universal health insurance program. McCain, however, has consistently opposed efforts to enact some type of plan for government funding of health insurance, including the children's program commonly known as S-CHIP (nay vote cast 8-2-07). He also voted against adding prescription drugs to Medicare (nay vote cast 6-27-03). McCain's prescription is tax credits. These votes were not the votes of a maverick either; both were in sync with President Bush.

By the time of the Johnson/Goldwater match-up, the days of television campaigns had taken root, but televised debates were still a new part of electoral politicking. In our current election cycle, the importance of the Internet is being recognized as the agent of change and debates are not if, but when. Johnson was considered a better speaker than Goldwater and he was much better dealing with large crowds, as is Obama. McCain is not known as having a gift for public speaking and has often complained about the format of the debates, preferring the smaller town-hall-forum style. Johnson's wide lead in the polls by mid-September led him to turn down a chance to debate his opponent; he didn't think it would gain him anything, especially since debating skills were not among Johnson's assets. His refusal didn't seem to have any effect on the outcome. Today, however, network television broadcasts the live debates, and cable and the Internet repeat the broadcasts. Watched by millions, they do matter. McCain's suggestion to cancel the first debate last week was not well-received and he had to take back his words.

In the early days of his campaign, Goldwater was able to draw large crowds who enthusiastically turned out to hear him. In another twist of irony, the Goldwater campaign was built on grass-roots conservatism and the young Hillary Clinton, still in high school, counted herself as a Goldwater girl. By the fall of '64, however, Goldwater's crowds were dwindling and Johnson commanded a growing lead that he never lost. Goldwater continued to insist that he was "moving up" in the polls and could make it over the top; he refused to concede until the morning after the election, even though it was obvious that he had lost. He blamed his loss on the Republican Party split.

While all the parallels are interesting, what's most striking is the concept that history may be made not only if Obama becomes the first black president, but also if his victory margin parallels the Johnson win over Goldwater, a man who opposed the Civil Rights Act and was the mentor of Obama's opponent.

Sign up for our email.
Find out how much you really know about the state of the nation.