Alternate Reality 2016: What if Barry Goldwater Had Won the 1964 Election?

Goldwater Win Would Have Changed American Politics

by Josh Guckert

When Americans think of former President Barry Goldwater, one of the first things that comes to mind is the peculiar way in which he was elected. He began the cycle far behind incumbent President Lyndon Johnson, but much like Harry Truman, Goldwater pulled an unbelievable upset to defeat Johnson, who was mired in scandal.

Following the tragic assassination of John F. Kennedy in late 1963, Johnson’s approval ratings skyrocketed. Accordingly, in January, in head-to-head match-ups with Republicans, he was winning by sixty to eighty points. He took an ambitious posture in passing desired legislation.

For example, the one-time segregationist sent to the legislature what would become the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Goldwater voted for the measure, as he had every prior civil rights proposal. He made clear his opposition to Title II (public accommodations) and Title VII (employment discrimination), but indicated the need for the other portions of the bill was too much to throw away the good with the bad.

Goldwater successfully painted Johnson as a disingenuous politician seeking only votes, and meanwhile pointed to his initiative in desegrating his department stores, as well as his support for the Arizona NAACP. While Johnson attempted to use the CRA as a political weapon, it had little effect on the civil rights-friendly Goldwater.

On the attack front, the Republican nominee used television to produce ads critical of Johnson, particularly in his relationship with Kennedy. Though Johnson attempted to claim a continuance of the Kennedy Presidency and legacy, Goldwater adequately revealed the divisions and mutual hatred between the two, dulling this boast. Goldwater was able to cement this by selecting Kennedy supporter and moderate Republican William Scranton as his running-mate.

This series of events adequately baited the proud President Johnson into a presidential debate with Goldwater, just as had occurred in 1960 between Kennedy and Nixon. At one point, Johnson again claimed to continue the legacy of Kennedy. Goldwater delivered one of the most devastating blows in debate history, pointing to his friendship with Kennedy, and telling Johnson, “Mr. President, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. President Johnson, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Concurrently, early video reports from Vietnam showed that the situation had already gotten out of hand and that thousands of young men were being killed with no real goal in mind. Worse yet for Johnson, leaks from the Defense Department just a few months before the November election showed that he had falsified reports of hostilities in the Gulf of Tonkin as an excuse to increase aggression in Vietnam. This was only compounded by the release of the so-called “Pentagon Papers” in October 1964, showing that Johnson and Kennedy had each misled the public in some way on the situation in Vietnam.

Goldwater won a narrow victory, putting Southern states into play for Republicans for the first time. Though many in the South disagreed with Goldwater just as much on the 1964 Civil Rights Act as they did with Johnson, there was a sense of “betrayal” from the fellow Southerner Johnson. This was enough to carry Goldwater ahead with these voters while retaining Republican strongholds in the North. Meanwhile, black voters selected the Republican at roughly the same rate they had chosen Nixon: around 35%.

Once President, Goldwater quickly broke to pieces Johnson’s proposed “Great Society.” During his two terms, he appointed an unbelievable six Supreme Court Justices (Goldwater defeated 1964 vice presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey in a landslide in 1968). The radically conservative court would eventually rule unconstitutional Titles II and VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Even more noteworthy, the Court returned to a second “Lochner era,” striking down any legislation interfering with the freedom to contract.

Goldwater’s successes set the stage for the Republican Party to rule politics for a generation. Anti-war advocates who appreciated his prompt ending of the Vietnam conflict, as well as secularists who were in favor of privacy, became the centerpiece of the Grand Old Party. Actor Ronald Reagan, who became part of Goldwater’s campaign in 1964, later was elected Governor of California and then President in 1972, also serving two terms.

Though Democrats eventually won back the White House in 1980 using the votes of Evangelicals and a wave of disdain for the Republicans’ counter-culture movement, the Republicans’ more “progressive” vision on issues like gay and minority rights, drugs, and criminal justice put them ahead of the curve for decades to come.

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