The Nutjob Gambit and the Goldwater Conundrum

Building the Special Relationship

Barry Goldwater, “Uncle Barry” to those of us in the conservative movement, famously griped in the late ‘80s that the Party had been taken over by “a bunch of kooks.”  He was more or less right as usual, but there was irony in this complaint.  The ‘kooks’ he spoke of had been invited into the Party to solve problems exposed by his own ’64 campaign.

Find any honest, reasonable GOP operative and get him or her in a casual environment over a few beers and you may get them to explain the Goldwater Conundrum.  They may not recognize the term, since I just made it up, but they will tell you about the problem.  Leave aside for a moment any arguments about the validity of the conundrum while I explain how it reads.

It goes like this:  We live in a country that leans decisively middle-right, but it is still consistently difficult for Republicans to hold power, particularly at the local level.  Why?  The Democratic Party has a built-in advantage in any election.  From President to dog-catcher, the Democrats have at their disposal a reserve force of paid or quasi-paid staffers.  This is not because they raise more money.  They don’t.  It’s because the Democratic Party is nothing more than a large patronage engine.  Don’t waste air talking about values or policies, whatever political positions the Democratic Party endorses are contingent on their relationship to the party’s patronage demands.

What this means on the ground, according to the Conundrum, is that every Democratic candidate has access to a standing army of union members, “community activists” (like ACORN), and especially in Northern cities – local government employees who owe their jobs to party patronage.  These folks assist with phone banks, get out the vote efforts, canvassing, and other critical duties that can make or break a campaign.  What’s more, these folks are often paid for their work through public grants to “community organizations”, through their unions, or through other largely public means.

What do the Republicans have to match this force?  Traditionally, nothing.  Appeals to ‘fiscal restraint’ and ‘limiting federal power’ may be popular, perhaps more popular than Democratic policies, but they lack the force to blast people off their couches and into the streets to back a candidate.  That’s the Goldwater Conundrum.  This problem gets its name from its most iconic moment, Goldwater’s failure to overcome a powerful Democratic patronage machine in spite of running what conservatives saw as a clean, compelling, and reasonable campaign.

So what can a Republican do about the Conundrum?  This was a question that Reagan’s campaign staffers took very seriously in the ‘70’s as they planned his Presidential campaign.  They hit on a promising though risky solution in the form of the emerging Christian fundamentalist movement.  Looking back, the alliance seems obvious, but at the time it was a bold move.

Christian fundamentalists were a growing, but as yet fringe constituency.  Their influence was becoming particularly strong in the South, where the Reaganites saw an opportunity to break the long Democratic stranglehold on local politics.  They were a poor match for the Reaganites on traditional libertarian priorities.  They were volatile, undisciplined, politically unsophisticated, and considered wacky to the point of being hard to stomach.  But they were motivated, willing to show up and do the hard work of campaigning without pay.  This willingness to work was, and still is, a powerful multiplier that allows them political influence far beyond their numbers.  And most importantly, they were fiercely and reliably anti-Communist.  For Reagan, everything else was just details.

The expectation was that under the shepherding leadership of cheesy schlocks like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, these folks would be ‘convenient idiots’ who could be used like cannon fodder and kicked to the curb when necessary.


The Reaganites were wrong about the future power and scope of the fundamentalist movement.  Not just the Christian and American versions, but the various flavors of foreign fundamentalists they linked up with and nurtured over the course of his Administration.  Reining them in would be someone else’s problem.

Wait just a minute, you say.  Are you implying that Christian fundamentalists are all nutjobs?  No.  I am not.  As a matter of fact, I think they have a key role to play in the Party which I’ll describe in more depth later on.  No doubt they provide fertile ground for the loony tree to bloom, but Christian fundamentalists are not necessarily nutjobs in the strict meaning I’m using.

How do they fit into this story?  Because they were drawn into the Party as part of an early, primitive, and wildly successful use of the Nutjob Gambit to solve the Goldwater Conundrum.  They were pulled in by careful manipulation of a single issue, abortion.

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