Would they let Barry Goldwater into CPAC?

Movement conservatives recently left Washington whipped into an anti-government frenzy following their annual Conservative Political Action Conference.  Fueled by anti-Obama rhetoric, tea-party populism (which at times resembled more of a Renaissance Festival than that a policy conference), CPACers salivated at the prospects of a Republican take over of the House and potentially even the Senate in 2010.  Speaking at the conference, Senator Jim DeMint, the Republican Senator from South Carolina and a darling of the far right, declared:  “I’ve been criticized by some of my Republican colleagues for saying I’d rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who believe in the principles of freedom than 60 who don’t believe in anything. “

The question for Senator DeMint and other social conservatives is: were he alive today, would they welcome Barry Goldwater into this “pure caucus of 30”?

Many credit the 1964 Republican presidential nominee, longtime Senator from Arizona, and the man dubbed “Mr. Conservative” with laying the fundamental groundwork for the election of Ronald Reagan and establishing the tenets of the modern GOP.

Yet later in his life, frustrated by what he saw as the “frightening influence” of the religious right on his libertarian brand of conservatism, Goldwater ultimately spoke out forcefully in favor of abortion rights, gay rights and other controversial social issues that made fellow Republicans cringe.  Such stances certainly wouldn’t ingratiate him to those consumed with “purifying” the Republican Party.

To be fair to CPAC speakers and attendees, the topic de jure at this year’s conference was greater freedom from government intervention – an edict Goldwater championed from his earliest days in politics.  His 1960 opus The Conscience of a Conservative echoed many of the themes of this year’s CPAC conference.  Goldwater believed preserving freedom of the individual was the most important – if not the only role - of the federal government, and famously quipped “I go to Washington to repeal laws not to pass them.” 

Undoubtedly, Goldwater would shutter at the recently enacted federal stimulus package, President Obama’s health care proposal, and the so-called “card check” legislation that would eliminate secret ballot elections for union officials. (Goldwater rose to political fame through vicious criticism of unions and their practices, which he viewed essentially as impeding capitalism.)  Furthermore, Goldwater, never one accused of being dovish on foreign policy, could have written Dick Cheney Cheney’s surprise speech at the conference in which former Vice President emphasized the importance of continuing to forcefully wage the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan

Yet to Goldwater, the freedom so essential to his political composition meant complete freedom for the individual.  Freedom for a woman to choose, freedom for gay Americans to live absent government scrutiny, and freedom to practice the religion of one’s choosing without fear of persecution.  While Goldwater’s early record on civil rights were not as forward thinking, he later admitted he was wrong when opposing then embracing civil rights reform calling it “one of his greatest regrets.”

Likely taking their cues from the savvy campaign run by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, CPACers this year largely avoided the controversial social issues many speculate could someday splinter the Republican Party.  McDonnell, a strong social and fiscal conservative running in what has officially become a purple state, focused his campaign not on abortion or gay marriage, but instead on jobs, transportation, promoting small business, and limiting out of control litigation.  Socially conservative voters knew McDonnell’s record on the hot button issues and McDonnell gambled they would stick with him despite his absence of emphasis on these issues.  The gamble worked.  McDonnell ran to the center, and successfully courted moderates and independents in a state President Obama won by an unprecedented seven points only one year ago.

Despite these shrewd political calculations, Republicans must address their ideological divide if the party is to return to prominence. 

  For the moment, both wings of the Republican Party seem to have found something to agree on: an intense dislike with the way Barack Obama is running the country.  Unity around this topic, while a potent rallying point, won’t last forever, and Republicans will need to ultimately answer the question about broadening or contracting their party’s membership.  Furthermore, Republicans risk being seen as the “party of no” at their own peril.  Simply blocking any and all action by President Obama may be a decent enough strategy for the 2010 elections, but that tune could ring sour and tired come 2012. Republicans need to propose viable alternatives to current Democratic proposals to convince the American people they are serious about solving problems and not just intent on obstructionist tactics.

We certainly can speculate where Barry Goldwater would fall on the “big tent” party question.  As Republicans, we would be wise to remember he was the conservative wing of the GOP’s choice for President in 1964.

Lynch is a former aide to U.S. Senators Bob Dole, John Ashcroft and John McCain and Executive Vice President of the Bipartisan Policy Center. He is the President of The Lynch Group – a Republican government affairs and political consulting firm.