Speaking in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, Tuesday, President Obama said “this election will probably have the biggest contrast that we’ve seen since the Johnson-Goldwater election — maybe before that.” The president may well be correct, but the extremist this time around is not the challenger.
In 1964 Barry Goldwater represented a brand of conservatism unfamiliar to a voting public reared on the New Deal, the “Leave it to Beaver” prosperity of the Eisenhower years and the romance of JFK’s tragically ended tenure in Camelot. Goldwater was easily painted as a right-wing kook, with the result that Johnson won by 23 points, the largest margin of victory for a Democratic president since 1820.
No doubt that is the outcome Obama hopes to see repeated in November. But can Mitt Romney be portrayed successfully as the second coming of Barry Goldwater? Not a chance, for at least three reasons. First, Romney has a long record of centrist politics that cannot be erased by his recent efforts to woo the votes of the Republican right. Second, thanks to Ronald Reagan, conservatism of the Goldwater variety is now in the broad mainstream of American politics. And third, Barack Obama is no Lyndon Johnson, or Jack Kennedy, for that matter.
In terms of American political history, Obama is definitely the extremist in the race. He has presided over the largest increase in federal spending in history, the biggest annual deficits in history and, in Obamacare, the most significant intrusion into the private lives of Americans in history. He has embraced the long-discredited policies of Keynesian economic theory while expanding the federal regulatory apparatus in ways assured to retard economic growth and job creation.
All of this, and more, he has done not in the name of prosperity and equal liberty for all Americans, but rather in service to a notion of fairness that demands equal outcomes without regard to effort or individual merit. As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie told the Bush Institute Conference on Taxes and Economic Growth in New York on Tuesday, the Obama administration is telling Americans “stop dreaming, stop striving, we’ll take care of you.” “We’re turning into a paternalistic entitlement society,” said Christie.
Obama must know that his is a radical vision. Indeed, before his speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention cast him as a presidential prospect, he was a proud radical, both intellectually and politically. But now that he is running for re-election on his record, which includes Obamacare and unprecedented federal spending and regulation, his only choice is to convince the voters that the other guy and his party are extremists.
So the president says that Congressman Ryan’s budget, which proposes federal spending 46% higher than in the final year of the Clinton administration, is “thinly veiled social Darwinism.” That’s a serious charge, if one understands its not-so-veiled meaning in the context of American political history. And now the president seeks to label Mitt Romney as a Goldwater-style extremist with himself playing the role of master politician and dealmaker Lyndon Johnson.
The reality is the opposite. Obama is the extremist while Romney is the moderate dealmaker. Only time will tell whether the orator of 2004 and 2008 is able to convince voters that Romney really is an extremist. The facts say otherwise, but facts have seldom been allowed to stand in the way of the Obama agenda.
Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.