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Losing by Losing

Henry Farrell misunderstands the lessons of the Goldwater campaign. That's OK, the author of the best book on the Goldwater campaign--Rick Perlstein, author of the excellent Before the Storm--misunderstands them as well.

Henry Farrell writes:

The Wager Won by Losing: Firedoglake is running a bookclub on Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm, which I reckon is the best book on American politics that I've read over the last few years. It's very interesting how the book has come to occupy a near canonical position for left of center bloggers. It's not only influenced wonkish types like myself and Kevin Drum, but also netroots people like Kos and Jerome Armstrong (whose recent book, which I liked, is clearly influenced by Perlstein), and Matt Stoller (who describes it in the Firedoglake thread as the "single best book on movement politics" that he's read). But there's a sort-of-disconnect there -- or at least a part of Perlstein's argument that doesn't really fit with the netroots agenda as I understand it.

One of the very clear messages of Before the Storm is that the conservative movement won by failing. That is, when the Barry Goldwater campaign went down in flames, movement conservatives retreated into the wilderness to build up their own alternative infrastructure, and to hammer home unpopular ideas again and again until they became popular. The Goldwater conservatives, as Perlstein depicts them, were strongly committed to an ideological agenda, which was more important to them than winning in the short (or even the medium) term. But when they won, they took the grand prize, because they had effectively reshaped the battlefield of American politics on their terms. Ever since then (to mix in yet another metaphor) they've enjoyed a dealer's edge, a persistent political advantage because the terms of political debate favour them and their supporters' interests.

A political edge, yes. But not a policy edge. Medicare. Medicaid. The EPA. OSHA. Goldwaterism certainly did--in the long run--unmake Republican Party commitment to the New Deal Consensus. But in the short run Goldwaterism had other consequences: the damage it did to Republican congressional power were the only things that made the Great Society possible. The Johnson-era expansions of the social insurance state and the Nixon and post-Nixon-era expansions of the regulatory state were possible only on congressional foundations that had been created by Goldwater's Samson act directed against the Republican establishment.

To make possible the Great Society--and then to cheer when Ronald Reagan rolls back 10% of it--Goldwaterism was the greatest own-goal and act of political delusion by conservatives in the twentieth century.

They didn't win by losing, they lost by losing.