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The GOP Shall Rise Again! (Or Not)

07/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A few weeks ago, I made mention of how in 1964, Lyndon Johnson defeated Republican Barry Goldwater in a landslide defeat, so crushing that articles questioned if this meant the death of the Republican Party. Yet only four years later, the GOP captured the White House with Richard Nixon, who subsequently won re-election, as well.

My point was to make clear that predicting political demise is a risky business, and parties have a way of resurrecting themselves - either through their own regeneration, or though the collapse of their opponents. So, while Democrats should be pleased by the current state of political affairs, they should by no means fall asleep at the wheel.

That said, Republicans should take even less comfort. For as consoling as it might be to look at 1968 and see their party rise to victory after near-total demise, it would be the wrong lesson to take as a precursor to events today.

In fact, the lesson of 1964-1968 for Republicans is the exact opposite of what they seem to be teaching themselves.

Let's look back a moment.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater represented the most conservative wing of the Republican Party. The slogan Democrats used about him was, "Goldwater is right. Far right." President Lyndon Johnson received 61.1% of the votes, Goldwater only 38.5% - the fifth largest margin in U.S. history. Further, Johnson won the Electoral College vote by 486-52.

The Republican Party was in total disarray. Party leaders realized they had to change focus to win back the country. As a result, within four years, the GOP candidates in the running for the presidential nomination were moderates and liberals Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney (father of Mitt), and Harold Stassen. (Ronald Reagan made his first entry into national politics, but wasn't a factor.) The remaining candidate was Richard Nixon - but not the old, bitter conservative - he was marketed as "The New Nixon." Warmer, kindler, gentler. (This, of course, before most Americans learned of Watergate and then his ultimate resignation.) His being successfully marketed as "The New Nixon" was so legendary that it spawned a best-seller analyzing the whole effort, The Selling of the President by Joe McGinniss. And the moderate "New Nixon" won the nomination.

With the Democratic Party falling apart after the disastrous Chicago convention riots, and the party painted as the home of left radicals - and with a third-party candidate, George Wallace, running a far-right campaign on race, and taking 13.5% of the vote, most of it from the Deep South, then a Democratic stronghold - the Republican Party sat in the middle and sneaked to victory over Hubert Humphrey by seven-tenths of a percent.

The point here is this:

In 1964, the Republican Party lost in a landslide when it ran a far-right candidate. It moved to the middle with moderates and liberals, put up a "new" moderate, and won the White House back.

That is the exact opposite of what the Republican Party is doing today.

Today, after winning the White House in 2000 by running towards the middle as new and "compassionate," the Republican Party has moved farther right than Barry Goldwater ever was.

Only 21% of Americans call themselves Republicans. There are zero GOP representatives from New England in the House. It's had two sitting senators bolt the party. Moderate is seen as un-Republican. It is a party solely of the right. And the result is that the Republican Party has lost the White House and last two elections in Congress.

Because Republicans today are lead by neocons - who believe in ignoring reality and creating their own - they have forgotten history and therefore its lessons. They are actively doing the very things that caused them to lose in a landslide and face party death. Rejecting what brought the party back. They are living life in reverse, the Benjamin Buttons of politics.

If Republicans think they can take comfort from the lessons of 1964-1968, they are living in a Fool's Paradise. They are recreating the very conditions of their own landslide defeat. The difference is that 35 years ago, the GOP quickly attempted to reverse this. Today, the party is enthusiastically embracing it..

I want to see the Republican Party strong - because a strong two-party system means a strong America. A strong two-party system pushes each party to their best, to serve the public the most. And a strong Republican Party means strong Republican conservatives, moderates and liberals - which means that even should a Republican win an election, it will be someone who has the breadth of the nation in mind, not a political ideologue of limited scope.

But for a strong party, Republicans must understand history. Must learn the lessons. Must realize that chopping away moderates and liberals from their own party and purifying it with far-right religious zealot conservatives is the very reason they last lost in a landslide - and will do so again and again and again, every time they try it.

Republicans must not take comfort from 1968. They must take it as a warning sign.