For Democrats, Nov. 3, 1964, might be a date they should want to forget. Superficially it should be high on the list of the high holy days of the party. On that day, Lyndon Johnson swamped Barry Goldwater, having labeled the Arizonian a right-wing nut and a warmonger. So taken with that formula, Democrats have used it a lot even when it no longer applied.
The year 1964 was a bit of an exception for presidential years. The election occurred less than a year after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, and the economy was hot. Moreover, Goldwater, not that eager to run to begin with, ran a careless campaign. But Democrats persuaded themselves that it was a referendum between progressivism and conservatism.
When Rick Perry called Social Security a "monstrous lie," Democrats began to salivate. Another rootin-tootin son of the Southwest was ready to self-destruct on the supposed "third-rail" of American politics. If he got the nomination, he would be isolated as an ideological freak and quickly and decisively defeated. Break out the champagne, it's four more years.
But this is an anachronistic read on the problems of 2011. Perry's no Goldwater, and this is not 1964. As well Obama, at least for '64, is no Johnson. As for Social Security, the world has changed. Goldwater's old suggestion that retirement should be left to the individual is not as unpopular as it was 47 years ago. Despite the recession, American's expectations have grown to where a small house with a white pickett fence does not suffice.
Moreover, this formulaic approach has failed constantly since it was used in the LBJ-Goldwater race. In 1966, Democrats actually believed George Christopher was a tougher opponent that Ronald Reagan in the California gubernatorial race. Allegedly Reagan, "the crown prince of Goldwaterism," would entrap himself in a web of misstatements. He did say a great deal that raised not a few eyebrows, but he proved an adept candidate and slaughtered Pat Brown.
Despite this defeat it did not keep Jimmy Carter from adopting the same strategy against Reagan in 1980. Obviously that did not work with the Gipper routing Carter like he had Brown 14 years before. Now some Democrats still are convinced it would work against Perry. Obama fortunately has not been as reactive to the Texas governor's statements as some of his allies. But it appears the ghosts of 1964 still inhabit the walls of political "experts" offices.
Perry knows what he's doing, and he knows to whom he speaks. Moderate Republicans thought that Kay Bailey Hutchinson would eat his lunch in the governor's race in 2010. Well, that did not work. If Democrats revisit a long past election, they might place on their tombstone Jefferson Davis' benediction on the Confederacy, "died of a theory."
Every election is different, and the worries of one generation do not influence the next. Republicans would be smart not to replay 1980. For one thing, Reagan was an exceptional candidate and Obama, largely because of the Osama bin Laden raid, is given high-marks in opinion polls for his terrorism policy. Moreover inflation, which hits the voting middle class, is low. But the president better not assume that the GOP will self-destruct or that Perry cannot adjust his appeal.
Also the idea that conservatives are somehow easy to beat is false. To assume Mitt Romney is harder to beat is as fraught with fallacies as believing Christopher was tougher than Reagan. Look at the GOP record since 1976. Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Robert Dole and John McCain were proud members of the moderate wing of the Republican party and they lost. Even George W. had tough races and only in Democratic eyes could he qualify as a conservative. If they wish for Perry, they might come to regret thinking that 1964 was still a viable model for victory.