All Head, No Heart

Ouch. Deleting 900 words that took you an hour to write is never fun. But when you're approaching a thousand and you're still not sure if anyone will catch what you're talking about, it generally means your point is muddled and it's time to put the kill on it. So I did. Suffice to say that I'm not a big fan of the Goldwater debate swirling around the blogosphere. I like that Brad and Matt have donned their contrarian capes and swooped down to reality-check Barry's legacy, but I think they're taking a very narrow view of what Goldwater meant.

Goldwater emerged at a very strange moment for the Republican party. They had spent the past 30 years ceding domestic issues to the Democrats and running their campaigns on a combination of red-baiting and, well, more red-baiting. They had no real domestic critique, instead, government was almost a joint custody arrangement, with liberals taking the home-front and moderate Republicans setting the terms of the foreign policy debate. But Kennedy and Johnson proved themselves tough on communism, and suddenly Republicans were robbed of their primary critique.

So Goldwater emerged and smashed the consensus. He created an anti-government message that lost at the outset, but ended the Republican's unilateral disarmament on domestic issues. Democrats crushed him (largely on foreign policy), and then nominated McGovern and ceded their newfound national security strength without ever updating their kitchen table arguments beyond "elect us entitled competent technocrats". That's why liberalism, which now means dull empiricism, has been personified by robotic wonks like Gore, Kerry and Dukakis. Our message is stuck in the 50's, but it exists without any of the advantages we had then, and it cohabitates with the shattered and grotesque husk that is our credibility on national security. Thinking that Goldwater's extremism simply screwed the Republican party is exactly our problem -- it did hurt them by some metrics (though Johnson was going to have major coattails no matter who his opponent was), but it also gave them an intellectual energy that, in very real ways, made their party's ideology whole again. Our analysis is all head while Goldwater's effect was all heart. And, in politics, I'm convinced that heart, not head, wins elections.

Mark Schmitt's corrective to the Goldwater revisionism concludes:

What the think tanks and grassroots groups and Karl Rove and Frank Luntz figured out over the 36 years after Goldwater was how to retain the language of ideological conservatism, leave unchallenged the facade of operational liberalism, and use that combination to exercise power long enough and aggressively enough to destroy every future prospect for operational liberalism. I think they have scuttled much of the strength of real conservatism in the process, but I don't think that's anything for liberals to be glad or complacent about.

Entirely true. Goldwater gave them the energy and ideology that served to power their rhetoric, his loss gave them the motivation to build the institutions that could control the debate and hide their intentions, and the combination of head and heart gave them the full toolset needed to gain total dominance over the government. His run changed the Republican party from a bunch of comfortable technocrats who engaged in a genteel struggle for power into a movement. Meanwhile, liberals are still talking about how reality-based and empirically-sound we are, and now we're beginning to turn on the Goldwater moment as a net negative for Republicans. To me, that looks like an acceptance, even a glorification, of our party's march towards oblivion. Goldwater restored the Republican party's gut, that Democrats were finally looking at him and realizing we need to do the same was the most positive development I'd seen. I'd hate to see us turn trigger-shy now.

Update: Also see Ed Kilgore's take on this.