For GOP, is it Reagan or Goldwater?

Ted Cruz, in blue shirt, in Little Rock Aug. 12.
Ted Cruz, in blue shirt, in Little Rock Aug. 12.

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Campaigning for president in Little Rock Wednesday before several hundred onlookers braving the midday heat, Sen. Ted Cruz said Republicans must nominate a “real and genuine conservative. That’s the only way we win. If we nominate Democrat-lite, we will lose once again.”

Many conservatives believe that’s true. Is it?

President Reagan won by campaigning as a conservative, which he undoubtedly was, and then President George H.W. Bush, who really wasn’t a true believer, only served one term. Sen. Bob Dole, more of a pragmatist, lost, and then President George W. Bush won running as a conservative and then expanded government in almost every direction. Republicans then lost with Sen. John McCain, whom conservatives distrust, and lost with Mitt Romney, who had to pretend to be more conservative than he was.

On the other hand, there’s Sen. Barry Goldwater.

Twice in the television age, Republicans have nominated candidates seeking to move the country rightward. One was Reagan, who won 44 states in 1980 and 49 states in 1984. The other was Goldwater, who won only 38.5 percent of the vote in 1964.

The problem with trying to determine anything about presidential elections is that there are so few of them. Scientific experiments require many subjects. In the last 80 years, we’ve had only 20 elections, and there have been only eight elections since World War II when an incumbent wasn’t running. The taller candidate usually wins, too, but no one is suggesting that Republicans stand back to back at the next debate.

That said, here is another generalization: The optimistic candidate who inspires and unifies the most people usually wins. Reagan wasn’t elected simply because he offered a conservative message. He also offered a hopeful, empowering one. Goldwater, on the other hand, came across as divisive and scary. Scoff if you will at President Obama’s hope and change, but it got him elected. George W. Bush offered a positive message, and he won, too, assuming the numbers were right in Florida in 2000. President Clinton talked about hope, too, while President Carter offered a fresh face in 1976 and President Kennedy spoke of a “New Frontier” in 1960.

Of course, candidates try to slice and dice the electorate in order to cobble together 270 Electoral College votes, but pitting us against each other isn’t a good message. We’ll never know if Romney would have won if he hadn’t been caught saying that 47 percent of Americans are freeloaders, but it certainly didn’t help that he said it, and it was worse that he believed it.

I’ve never seen the country so divided, but then again, I’m “only” 46. So maybe what I’ve just written no longer applies. It’s possible that the next president will have no choice but to be divisive if he or she wants to be elected and wants to get anything done in office. Obama campaigned as a unifier and initially tried to work with Republicans. That didn’t work, and now he’s not even trying to connect with Americans not inclined to agree with him.

Cruz is not concerned with appealing to the other side and doesn’t mind making enemies. Speaking in Little Rock, he said the Obama administration is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism because of the Iran deal. On the Senate floor, he said his own majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, had lied. He really hasn’t passed anything of significance in the Senate. Then again, almost no senator has lately.

So maybe it’s the perfect time for an openly divisive candidate like him. Unlike McCain and Romney, he won’t be forced to move to the right during the primaries, say things he doesn’t believe, and then move back to the center for the general election. Cruz can stay where he is for the next year and then move slightly toward the middle to try to pick off states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The best possible scenario is for the country to elect a problem-solving leader with a unifying message, regardless of party label. That would be somebody like Reagan, actually, who held sincere beliefs but didn’t hate anybody and often compromised with Democrats while in office. The worst possible scenario – for Republicans and probably for the country – is for the party to nominate a candidate that conservatives don’t like who then loses. If that keeps happening, the GOP eventually will nominate another Goldwater, if it doesn’t happen this year.

3 thoughts on “For GOP, is it Reagan or Goldwater?

  1. In the last 6 presidential elections Republicans have lost the popular vote. They would rather hold on to an unpopular ideology than win. I hope they keep this up.

  2. Hi, Sandy. Bush did beat Kerry in the popular vote, so it’s actually five out of six. If the GOP doesn’t do a better job of reaching out to women and minorities, it’s going to be six out of seven.

  3. The 1964 election was the first one I was old enough to know what was going on. So I have watched a lot of presidential elections take place. John Kasich is the closest candidate we have for 2016 to the spirit of Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1980.

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