|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
But there is another rendition of the story of modern conservatism, one that doesn't begin with Goldwater and doesn't celebrate his libertarian orientation. It is a less heroic story, and one that may go a much longer way toward really explaining the Republican Party's past electoral fortunes and its future. In this tale, the real father of modern Republicanism is Sen. Joe McCarthy, and the line doesn't run from Goldwater to Reagan to George W. Bush; it runs from McCarthy to Nixon to Bush and possibly now to Sarah Palin. It centralizes what one might call the McCarthy gene, something deep in the DNA of the Republican Party that determines how Republicans run for office, and because it is genetic, it isn't likely to be expunged any time soon.
The basic problem with the Goldwater tale is that it focuses on ideology and movement building, which few voters have ever really cared about, while the McCarthy tale focuses on electoral strategy, which is where Republicans have excelled.
McCarthyism is usually considered a virulent form of Red-baiting and character assassination. But it is much more than that. As historian Richard Hofstadter described it in his famous essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," McCarthyism is a way to build support by playing on the anxieties of Americans, actively convincing them of danger and conspiracy even where these don't exist.
Republicans continue to push the idea that this is a center-right country and that Americans have swooned for GOP anti-government posturing all these years, but the real electoral bait has been anger, recrimination and scapegoating. That's why John McCain kept describing Barack Obama as some sort of alien and why Palin, taking a page right out of the McCarthy playbook, kept pushing Obama's relationship with onetime radical William Ayers.
And that is also why the Republican Party, despite the recent failure of McCarthyism, is likely to keep moving rightward, appeasing its more extreme elements and stoking their grievances for some time to come. There may be assorted intellectuals and ideologues in the party, maybe even a few centrists, but there is no longer an intellectual or even ideological wing. The party belongs to McCarthy and his heirs -- Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Palin. It's in the genes.