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June 1, 2006 -- Mark Satin, Editor

Would Barry Goldwater
be a Republican today?

by John Avlon

Would Barry Goldwater be a Republican today?

It's a question that might have been considered sacrilegious even a decade ago. But as the Republican Party searches for its soul, post-Tom-Delay and in advance of the 2006 and 2008 elections, it is a question worth contemplating.

In fact, there are plenty of reasons to suggest that the godfather of the modern conservative movement would find the current Republican Party an inhospitable place. And that says a lot about the drift of the Republican Party toward the big-government religious right and away from its libertarian roots.

Pork-barrel spending

Exhibit A: The 2006 Pig Book, compiled by the non-partisan group Citizens Against Government Waste, which details the unprecedented $29 billion in earmarked pork-barrel spending that has come from this Republican-controlled Congress.

The record flies in the face of the traditional conservative commitment to small government and fiscal responsibility that Goldwater often spoke of, saying, for example, "We need clearly stated and clearly understood priorities for national programs. We cannot do everything at once and there are many things the Federal Government should not try to do."

This would presumably include such contemporary gems as $1 million for the Waterfree Urinal Conservation Initiative and $500,000 for the Teapot Museum in North Carolina.

Overweening influence of the religious right

Even in the early 1980s, Goldwater was wary of the growing influence of the religious right.

For example, in 1981 he took to the floor of the Senate to decry "the religious factions that . . . are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. . . . I'm frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in 'A,' 'B,' 'C,' and 'D.’ . . .

“I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of 'conservatism.'"

Litmus tests on social issues

Along with this distrust of the religious right came an increasing libertarian resistance to litmus tests on social issues.

On the issue of choice, Goldwater was frustrated that "a lot of so-called conservatives think I've turned liberal because I believe a woman has a right to an abortion. That's a decision that's up to a pregnant woman, not up to the pope or some do-gooders or the religious right."

Even on the issue of gay rights, Goldwater took a "live and let live" attitude at odds with the current social conservative playbook, saying, "The rights that we have under the Constitution cover anything we want to do, as long as it's not harmful. I can't see any way in the world that being a gay can cause damage to somebody else."

Regulating people's personal lives and enhancing federal power

Goldwater's vision of the Republican Party was simple, yet still cutting edge and relevant today. "The Republican Party should stand for freedom and only freedom," Goldwater advised. "Don't raise hell about the gays, the Blacks and the Mexicans. Free people have a right to do as they damn well please."

Goldwater's libertarian instincts would make him considered liberal by current Republican Party powerbrokers. This, in turn, raises questions about the role and influence of libertarians in the party that so many previously considered their natural home.

Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of the libertarian magazine Reason, believes that the outright split is now too obvious to be ignored. "The Republicans used to talk about cutting taxes, cutting spending, and cutting regulation," Mr. Gillespie told me. "Now, they only talk about cutting taxes and regulating people's personal lives."

This shift could rupture the long-standing alliance between libertarians and the GOP, in his eyes. "If you are a libertarian starting out today, there is absolutely no reason why you should assume that the Republican Party serves your interests and your inclinations more than the Democratic Party," he said.

Other Goldwater-influenced western Republicans disagree. "After 40 years, I believe that Goldwater would be proud that conservatives controlled government, but worried that some 'imperial conservatives' still believed that more federal government control was the answer," says Roman Buhler, a former Counsel to the Committee on House Administration of the U.S. House of Representatives.

"I believe Goldwater would have encouraged a grassroots movement of 'small government conservatives' within the Republican Party, led by state legislators and local officials, to limit the future growth of federal government power."

A growing alienation

Clearly, fault lines exist. Traveling across the country, I continue to be struck by the number of Republicans who now feel alienated from their party. One such voice belonged to Jeanne Ralston of Clay County, Mo., whom I met on the 2004 campaign trail.

A self-described "William F. Buckley groupie” in college, she was similarly inspired by Goldwater at the time. But when I interviewed her in 2004, she was sounding like a spurned lover.

"I'm a Republican because I want less government in my life," she said. "Now they want to come into my house and tell me whether or not I can have an abortion. I call that government interference at the highest level. Some people say I'm leaving the party, but the party's left me with this radical right-wing agenda."

Consciously or not, Ms. Ralston echoed the words of Ronald Reagan in 1964, when he left the Democratic Party, inspired by the libertarian common sense of Goldwater's campaign.

It is not too late to heal such a rupture, but as the party enters a debate about its future direction, those who seek to define the party by hunting for heretics -- whether by attacking Bill Weld's candidacy for governor in New York or dismissing possible presidential campaigns by John McCain or Rudy Giuliani on the grounds that they are too "liberal" on one or two issues -- ought to be restrained by the recognition that Barry Goldwater would not meet their litmus test.

When a founder of a movement is seen as a heretic by hard-line true believers, history tells us that it can spur a serious crisis of faith.


John Avlon, b. 1973, worked on Bill Clinton's re-election campaign, then worked for Mayor Giuliani from 1997-2001, starting out as an advance man and ending up as chief speechwriter.  He is the author of Independent Nation (Crown / Random House, pbk. 2005).


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