A Birthday for Modern Politics

How the worlds of Obama and Perry and Palin were conceived in a Chicago motel 50 years ago

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Darren McCollester / Getty Images; Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images; Michael Nagle / Getty Images; Consolidated News Pictures / Getty Images

Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry and Barry Goldwater

Fifty Octobers ago, in 1961, Barack Obama was an infant in Hawaii, just over two months old. Mitt Romney was a student at the Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Rick Perry was 11 years old. And Sarah Palin had not yet been born. Though they could not know it, the world in which they — and we — are now operating began to take shape that October, in a meeting whose 50th anniversary has passed without remark: the organizational session of the Draft Goldwater committee held at the Avenue Motel on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

Without the Goldwater movement, created in large measure by F. Clifton White, a political genius whose name should be better known (he was Karl Rove and David Axelrod before there was a Karl Rove and a David Axelrod), it is difficult to see what our politics would be like. The rise of the Sunbelt, the reaction against Eastern elites, the shift from the Rockefellers of the world to the Reagans all flowed from the movement within the GOP toward a 1964 nomination for Barry Goldwater, a movement that was always larger than the Arizona Senator himself. As Theodore H. White wrote in The Making of the President 1964, “The wordless resentments, angers, frustrations, fears and hopes that were shaping this force were something new and had welled up long before Goldwater himself took his Presidential chances seriously.”

The politics of cultural populism have largely defined American life since the Goldwater boom. (The Occupy Wall Street movement is one of the precious few instances of classically American economic populism to emerge in the last half-century.) While the first year or two of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency represented the high-water mark of American liberalism, the reaction to Big Government was even then in motion.

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The 2012 Republican contest is comprehensible only when we appreciate what Clif White and his allies wrought a half century ago. Before Goldwater, the distinctions between Republicans and Democrats were not as pronounced as they became. Eisenhower had essentially ratified the New Deal, and the political conversation of the 1950s, at least domestically, was about the scale of government, not its very utility. After the Draft Goldwater movement, the terms of the debate changed, and it was plausible for a figure such as Reagan to pose existential questions about the public sector. It is not too much of an exaggeration to posit that the death of moderate Republicanism began in that motel meeting in 1961.

Which bring us to today. Mitt Romney is having trouble winning the hearts of the GOP faithful because he seems a figure from the pre-Goldwater past (his father was such a figure, too) who has contorted himself into a Goldwaterite. Rick Perry is pure 1964: it is not hard to imagine him saying that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

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If Romney wins the nomination, he will do so in the tradition of George H.W. Bush, also a man who seemed uncomfortable with the harder-core elements of the world according to Goldwater. So it can be done. What’s worth pausing to recall for a moment is that a distant October day in 1961 that can seem as remote as Gallipoli still matters — vitally.