Why All the Republican Party’s Presidential Candidates Believe the Same Thing

Nearly every nationally prominent Republican politician owes his ideas to Barry Goldwater.

Barry Goldwater, November 20, 1964.
Barry Goldwater on Nov. 20, 1964. Or is that Ted Cruz? Or Marco Rubio? Or Jeb Bush?

Photo By Ed Maker/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Campaigning for the presidency, the Republican senator from the Southwest warned that government should undertake “only those needed and constitutionally sanctioned tasks which cannot otherwise be performed.” He condemned the incumbent in the White House “for timidly refusing to draw our own lines against aggression … and letting our finest men die on battlefields (unmarked by purpose … or the prospect of victory).” He proudly stated that “this nation was founded … upon the acceptance of God as the author of freedom” and scorned liberals who “elevate the state and downgrade the citizen.”

Sen. Ted Cruz could have made those remarks during his address at Liberty University last week, when he announced his campaign for the White House. He certainly agrees with all of them. But it was a different right-wing firebrand from the Sun Belt who uttered those lines more than 50 years ago: Arizona’s Barry Goldwater, in his speech accepting the 1964 Republican nomination for president. 

Whatever you think about conservative Republicans, you have to admire their rhetorical consistency. From Goldwater to Reagan to George W. Bush to the current junior senator from Texas, nearly every nationally prominent politician on the right has upheld the same three-part credo: limited government at home, military intervention against enemies abroad, and America as God’s chosen land, which only those who cherish “traditional” religious values should govern.

Fellow lawmakers may mistrust Cruz for preening as a lonely fighter for truth. But no GOP politician with a serious chance to be nominated next year disagrees with his message of updated Goldwaterism. Substitute Obamacare for Medicare and ISIS and Iran for the Soviet Union and China, and Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, and even the allegedly “moderate” Jeb Bush would gladly sign on. Each man also fervently connects his personal faith to the idea that the Almighty has a special fondness for the United States. Sen. Rand Paul’s qualms about using the full force of the U.S. military against armed Islamists may endear him to libertarian-minded millennials. But such ambivalence will insure his defeat in a party that has longed prized bellicosity for a righteous cause.  

Adhering to an easily understood and deeply felt ideology has helped conservatives win impressive victories. After Goldwater lost the 1964 election in a landslide, they kept building their movement, taking advantage of the failure of Democratic administrations and Congresses to contain communism or soothe the rising fears of white Americans about black criminals, rebellious youths, and uppity gays and feminists. They persuaded evangelical churchgoers, anti-regulation and anti-union employers, and intellectual Cold Warriors to unite against the common enemy of secular liberalism. They elected three avowedly conservative presidents and now control both houses of Congress and wield, in effect, a majority on the Supreme Court.

Of course, the right’s big tent has not been free of conflict. George Will and Pat Buchanan railed at the messianic ambitions of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, and increasing numbers of Republican politicians no longer favor banning same-sex marriage.

Still, the conservative movement has held together remarkably well for more than five decades—a longevity achieved by no other major ideological formation in American political history. Contrast that accomplishment with the fragmentation of liberals—or “progressives”—into separate, often mutually suspicious, identities (black, Latino, LGBT, feminist) and interests (tech moguls vs. labor unions) since the 1960s. 

 Progressives did manage to unite behind Barack Obama’s two campaigns for president. But many now complain that the president’s policy successes and political skills did not live up to his rhetoric. And, so far at least, they have been unable to convince another compelling figure who shares their passions to run against Hillary Clinton, who once beamed from the House gallery as her husband announced, “The era of big government is over.”

However, the durability of the right’s ideological formula is a weakness as well as a strength. It forces conservatives in power to contradict their rhetoric on almost a daily basis. How else can they curse Obamacare as “socialist,” a program that requires most Americans to buy private insurance while praising and funding Medicare and Social Security, the largest and sturdiest pillars of the welfare state? How else can they call, as Cruz did last week, for a future of liberty in which “government regulators and tax collectors are kept at bay” but demand regular budget increases for the military and the rest of the national security apparatus—probably the most heavily regulated, and certainly the most secretive, arm of the federal government?

Veteran politicians on the right understand that the public is guilty of the same type of hypocrisy. As two wise political scientists put it back in 1967, most American voters are “ideological conservatives but operational liberals.” They dislike “big” government but support, and often depend on, any government program that directly benefits them.

But in their hypocrisy, powerful conservatives are pandering to this schizoid attitude instead of facing up to problems such as global warming and income inequality that require smart regulation and at least a modest redistribution of wealth. They don’t really attempt to limit government as much as they try to limit programs that don’t help their core voters or key donors.

Compared with Cruz and his fellow 2016 hopefuls, Goldwater was actually a model of consistency in 1964: He opposed Medicare, wanted to make Social Security a voluntary program, and voted against the Civil Rights Act because it gave the federal government the power to ban racial discrimination by employers, hotels, and restaurants. He wasn’t a racist, but he thought such power should be left to the states. But then as a man of steadfast principle, he knew something that no Republican who is now or will soon be campaigning for the White House believes: Goldwater knew he was going to lose.