Romney v. Goldwater

by Bob Schwartz

There are many things to say about Barry Goldwater. Agree with him or disagree vehemently, he knew what he believed and told you what he believed, in detail. He was capable of now-famous rhetoric—“ I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”—but he backed his words up with specific plans, which did seem extreme to many. He was compelled to tell you because he knew that without that detail, you would not know where he stood nor how to reach the America he envisioned.

That’s what still makes the Presidential election of 1964 so interesting. When pundits talk about competing visions between candidates, that is the model. LBJ was just as clear about his beliefs, especially since he had been an unapologetic architect of mid-century America. There’s nobody then or now who doesn’t know where Goldwater and LBJ stood and the size of the gap between them. Goldwater’s extremism may have been successfully overstated and caricatured, as in Tony Schwartz’s infamous, shown-only-once Daisy ad, but the differences between them could not be overstated. American voters had a choice, and they overwhelmingly chose LBJ.

In the endless talk about what Paul Ryan’s selection as Mitt Romney’s VP candidate means, one of the touted benefits is that we will now—finally—have a clear-cut discussion about competing visions because we will have a clear, executable vision from the Romney ticket. This may be. Ryan is no Goldwater, if for no other reason than American politics has only produced one Barry Goldwater. But Ryan does seem to have a vision, even if it’s not as fully-formed as that of his hero and mentor Jack Kemp (whose political career began, not so coincidentally, as a Goldwater volunteer).

When it comes to detailed vision from Mitt Romney himself, even in the wake of the Ryan pick, expectations remain low. Romney is not only not Barry Goldwater, he is the anti-Goldwater. Besides being one of the most ardent “true believers” to ever be nominated in modern times, Goldwater was a notoriously plain-spoken Arizonan, as in plainly profane, taking no prisoners. If today he came back and got Mitt Romney in the back room, his very vocal thoughts on the candidate and the campaign might leave Romney afraid to come out of the room, assuming he survived.

For better or worse, Barry Goldwater wasn’t afraid of much of anything. And when it came to the measure of truly believing and backing up what he believed, Goldwater was just the right height.