By Nick DAngelo
As a fellow student sneered at me not long ago, “For you, it always comes back to Barry Goldwater.” It’s true that I never tire of talking about the Arizona senator unapologetically associated with the rise of the conservative philosophy, especially in a modern context.
My friend may be surprised to know that another well-known figure plays a prominent role in the Goldwater story: John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy and Goldwater arrived in the U.S. Senate in the same freshman class of 1953. The young congressman from New England, wedded to liberalism, had little in common with the archconservative businessman from the Southwest. Nonetheless, the two became friendly colleagues.
During floor votes, the two senators would pass notes back and forth. “Jack,” Goldwater wrote, “your father would have spanked you for that vote.” But what is most interesting, and perhaps all-important, is that Kennedy and Goldwater were political rivals who never allowed their vigorous debate to fester into personal antagonism.
After Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, the relationship continued to be friendly, with both chiding each other over the potential 1964 campaign. It was well known that Goldwater was being pushed by activists to seek the Republican nomination.
“So you want the fucking job, huh?” Kennedy teased Goldwater during a private meeting in the Oval Office in 1961. Both men greatly admired each other, but Goldwater was concerned that the president was too preoccupied to govern, especially after the Bay of Pigs incident and the advances of the Soviet Union. The public agreed. A June 1963 Harris poll had Goldwater hypothetically beating Kennedy 54 percent to 38 percent.
As the possibility of a showdown between old friends became more of a reality, Kennedy and Goldwater frequently discussed how they would conduct the campaign.
Goldwater suggested a series of debates developed as a hybrid between Truman’s “whistle stop tours” and the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Kennedy agreed. Both men would travel to every region of the country on the same plane, debate without a moderator and then return to the same plane. It is one of the greatest “what if” possibilities of American political history.
As debates in the country began to mount over Vietnam and civil rights, that type of intense civility in a presidential campaign may have had a profound effect on the American psyche.
In the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination, Goldwater seriously considered ending his presidential ambitions. He detested Lyndon B. Johnson, who was paranoid about losing the election.
Ironically, despite the ambitious debate plans envisioned, there were no debates between the two major party nominees that year. Johnson refused and modern political polarization was born.
In 2006, The Brookings Institute wrote that it has become conventional wisdom that American politics are “deliberately polarized.” As mass media has evolved and diversified, the polarization has increased. Further, while members of Congress have always displayed separate ideological views, there was once noticeable overlap. Over the past generation, “safe seats” have been created for both parties, allowing members to vote strictly conservative or liberal agendas without fearing any electoral repercussions. Over the past decade, party-line votes have increased as members flock toward the wings.
One of the more notable manifestations of the increasing partisanship is the extinction of the Blue Dog Democrat, a Southern or Midwestern Democrat with some conservative social views.
When the Brookings Institute report was released in 2006, the Blue Dog coalition was on the rise, being one of the central strategic focuses of the Democrats’ plan to reclaim the House majority that year. Six years later, only a handful of Blue Dogs remain in Congress.
There still remains some hope for the political cooperation of yore. In the past two weeks, the U.S. Senate has made remarkable strides in balancing a bipartisan agenda. The Toomey-Manchin background check legislation, sponsored by a West Virginia Democrat and a Pennsylvania Republican, is one example. The Gang of Eight’s immigration reform package is another. While both of these pieces may be permanently extinct already because of extreme polarization, they are generally considered carefully crafted pieces of legislation.
The Kennedy-Goldwater campaign is mere fantasy, a fable of political history.
But that doesn’t mean the lessons of what might have been cannot be learned, and carried on as we combat some of the most pressing social problems of our generation.