Blogs > Cliopatria > Shades of '64 and '40

Jan 16, 2008 7:30 am

Shades of '64 and '40

A central principle of postwar American politics has been the power of the Republican establishment. From Tom Dewey (1948) to Dwight Eisenhower (1952, 1956) to Richard Nixon (1960, 1968, 1972) to Gerald Ford (1976) to Ronald Reagan (1980, 1984) to George H.W. Bush (1988, 1992) to Bob Dole (1996) to George W. Bush (2000, 2004), the GOP establishment has not only rallied behind its candidate for the nomination, but has generally done so with ease.

There is, however, one obvious exception to this pattern—the 1964 nomination of Barry Goldwater. Establishment Republicans struggled to come up with a candidate. New York governor Nelson Rockefeller seemed viable—until he divorced his first wife and married his mistress. (If Rockefeller"wanted to play Antony and Cleopatra," Al Landon scowled, he shouldn't have run for President.) The year featured periodic booms for Pennsylvania governor William Scranton, but the"Hamlet of Harrisburg" took months to make up his mind whether or not to seek the office. (When he finally decided to do so, in June 1964, he had almost no chance of victory.) Henry Cabot Lodge, II, at that point serving as U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, had impeccable Establishment credentials and polled much better than any other Republican against LBJ—but had earned the ire of many GOP activists for his lackadaisical campaigning as Richard Nixon's 1960 running-mate.

The one person who might have unified the Establishment, Dwight Eisenhower, instead was maddeningly indecisive. In December 1963, he told the New York Times' Felix Belair that Lodge would be the party's best nominee. But a few days later, he backed off his statement, and suggested that he only meant Lodge should consider running. In the days before the critical California primary, Eisenhower gave a statement seeming to back Rocekfeller as leader of an anti-Goldwater coalition, only to reverse himself the next day, when he said he wouldn't be part of a movement to stop any particular candidacy. And after Rockefeller's defeat, Eisenhower first promised Scranton his support only to back out with a telephone call as Scranton was on his way to a TV studio to announce his candidacy.

The current GOP campaign, in many ways, recalls the 1964 experience: at various points, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, and even Rudy Giuliani has seemed to be the Establishment choice. This indecision helped provide an opening to the clearly anti-Establishment Mike Huckabee and the continued presence of McCain after the Establishment abandoned him.

Yet there's a critical difference between 1964 and 2008. In 1964, two candidates fared consistently well in the march to the convention. Throughout the late winter and spring, Lodge led in every national poll, and either won or fared much better than expected in every primary until the penultimate one in Oregon, where an upset defeat killed his candidacy. Goldwater, meanwhile, gobbled up delegates at state caucuses or conventions, especially in the South and Mountain West.

In 2008, on the other hand, no candidate has shown any consistency. In this respect, the current campaign resembles not 1964 but 1940, when none of the prospective GOP nominees gained traction, setting the stage for the whirlwind candidacy of Wendell Willkie to sweep the convention.

It's extremely doubtful—despite the hope of some political commentators—that the current year could end in a deadlocked convention. But with Hillary Clinton reassuming the status as Democratic front-runner by re-creating the coalition (senior citizens, union households, and lower-income/education voters) that nominated Walter Mondale in 1984, the GOP Establishment might look back on this election as a missed opportunity.

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More Comments:

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 1/24/2008

If a deadlocked convention turns to a fresh face this year, it will not be to a liberal like Willkie. The man who sweeps them away will be more like Newt Gingrich or George Allen.

John Richard Clark - 1/16/2008

...he left the post as ambassador to SVN hoping for a "Draft Lodge" movement at the convention. Lodge was also a significant player in the JFK/LBJ administrations by then and would have had a hard time criticizing Kennedy-Johnson foreign policy in Southeast Asia without having the Diem coup hung around his neck.

John Richard Clark - 1/16/2008

...wasn't there a contentious battle during the convention between "Mr. Republican" and Ike over the delegates pledged to support each candidate?

I also wouldn't characterize the 1976 convention as a GOP establishment love-fest. Reagan's conservative opposition played a role in Ford's defeat.