The march of conservative Republicans to the White House, which culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, began fifty years ago this summer.
Barry Goldwater, the U.S. senator from Arizona, was nominated by the Republican Party as its presidential candidate in July 1964. He faced Democrat Lyndon Johnson, who had become president after John Kennedy’s assassination a year earlier.
Goldwater rose to prominence in conservative circles with the 1960 publication of his book The Conscience of a Conservative. It explored the perils of power, states’ rights, civil rights, taxes and spending, and the welfare state.
But this was the era of liberal activism, and Johnson’s social reforms, collectively known as the “Great Society,” were designed to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. New major spending programs that addressed education, medical care, urban problems, and transportation were launched during this period.
A number of eastern establishment moderate Republicans tried to stop Goldwater in 1964, but to no avail. He did gain the backing of then Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan, who gave a well-received televised speech supporting Goldwater.
Already targeted by Johnson as a dangerous right-wing radical, Goldwater responded with this famous retort at the convention: “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!”
Most famous of Johnson’s attempts to scare the electorate into rejecting Goldwater was the so-called “Daisy Girl” television ad, which featured a little girl picking petals from a daisy in a field, counting the petals; it then segued into a launch countdown and a nuclear explosion.
Goldwater lost to Johnson in a landslide, winning only five southern states along with his home state of Arizona. But Goldwater’s disastrous campaign planted to seeds for an eventual conservative takeover of the Republican Party. Two years later, Ronald Reagan won election as governor of California.
In 1976 he was narrowly defeated in his bid for the Republican nomination for president by Gerald Ford, who went on to lose the Jimmy Carter. However, Reagan succeeded four years later, and then bested Carter in the 1980 presidential election. The rest is history.