I never had the opportunity to meet Barry Goldwater, but I feel like I knew him.
Like so many young conservatives, I also never had the chance to talk to William F. Buckley or Ronald Reagan. The modern American conservative movement is now just old enough that new leaders and activists will have to learn about Goldwater, Buckley and Reagan through books and increasingly rare sessions with the war horses who were right there when it all began. And it all began with that 1964 campaign.
If one were asked to build a monument to modern American conservative champions, it would be hard not to start out with these three conservative revolutionaries. Buckley was clearly the cerebral, well-connected pen of the revolution. His weapon was his intellect and his ability to affect the culture through his columns, the National Review and his weekly TV show, “Firing Line.” Reagan was the eventual political victor who became the personification of the revolution — and its namesake. But there is no denying that Goldwater was the ultimate risk-taker. He was the barbarian at the establishment gate. He was willing to take on all the powers to make a difference and try to change everything. Goldwater was the sword of the revolution; he lost the bloody battle but set us up to win the war.
It is the Reagan revolution that endures today, but without Goldwater it would have been harder, if not impossible, for Reagan. First of all, Reagan was impacted by Goldwater’s thinking and public rhetoric as he matured from naive New Deal enthusiast to eventual champion of free market and limited-government Republicanism. It is also undeniable that even the charming Reagan, who clearly liked being liked, realized that in order to effectively lead in politics, you had to demonstrate grit by picking a worthy fight.
When Goldwater joined the field for the Republican nomination in 1964, his candidacy was about making a point as much as it was an attempt to wrest the nomination from the liberals in the party. Something strange happened as Goldwater started making his points: He started winning and eventually defeated Nelson Rockefeller and all his money and all his well-bred big-city friends. One can still imagine how the Rockefeller wing moved from mocking Goldwater to fearing him. Goldwater must have reveled in that. Reagan took the same path during his three attempts at the GOP nomination.
Conservatives of my generation often talk about the need for a new Reagan. By this, I think they mean a bold leader who can explain why conservative principles and policies will work, who will stand up for America and protect her from evil enemies bent on her destruction and someone who lived a life and had a career separate from politics but was pulled into the fray out of concern and duty. Reagan seemed to appear on the national stage just when we needed him, and he either changed the country or brought it back to what it once was. In either case, it is hard to imagine the world and America without the God-blessed presidency of Ronald Reagan. Perhaps we do not deserve another like him, or perhaps a leader like Reagan is so unique due to abilities and events that we will not see another like him for a long time.
However, there are undeniably different leaders for different times.
Fifty years ago, a silver-haired, sharp-tongued man of the West changed American politics forever. He knew what he thought and understood what was holding America back. He could be a vicious political opponent and still be a constant friend, and he had strong personal relationships with Democrats and liberals. He believed big government is bad but that the national government had to spend what it took to make sure that America could always protect itself. He believed in scientific innovation and the need to reform many aspects of human interaction, especially government operations. Finally, he was so dedicated to the Constitution, and each word therein, that he would sometimes agree with liberals during Senate debates, not because he liked their philosophy but because he felt bound to strictly adhere to what the Constitution guided him to do and to not do.
I will admit, when I read the headlines about the Islamic State, or the arrogance of legislative fiats from unelected judges, I pray, because this great nation deserves another Reagan. After eight years of Obama socialism and constitutional confrontation, the Goldwater approach could just finally fit the times.
Perhaps the Republicans should consider a leader who can explain with uncanny conviction why conservatism works; a leader who is not afraid to be colorful or regular; a leader who will not spin the American people; a leader who is bighearted, broad-minded, but constitutionally bound; a leader who honors those who serve in the armed forces. Perhaps in the field of candidates in 2016 there will be such a candidate.
If the Goldwater suits and black-rimmed glasses of the 1960s can be hip again, I think the values and principles of the man himself deserve an electoral second look.
• Matt Schlapp is chairman of the American Conservative Union and former White House political director to George W. Bush.