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Robert Bennett: Americans are anchored in the center

Published: Monday, Feb. 27 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

FILE - In this November 1985 file photo Republican President Ronald Reagan talks with Democrat House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill Jr. in the Oval Office of the White House.

Scott Stewart, File, Associated Press

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I have been following politics all my life. The first Republican convention I remember in which there was a contest was 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower narrowly outmaneuvered Robert Taft to win. From then until now, I have never seen a nomination fight like this one. All conventional wisdom, including mine, has been turned on its head at various points along the way, as things that appeared to be settled, time and again, have returned to uncertainty. Why has no single candidate been able to seal the deal?

Perhaps it is because many primary voters are looking for a politician who has never strayed from conservative dogma, a dynamic communicator who will seize the nomination by taking down the Republican establishment with rock-solid conservative positions and speeches. They see this champion then going on to drive the incumbent out of office, cut the government back to its (small) constitutional roots, pay off the national debt, spur unprecedented economic growth, and leave a legacy of conservative dominance that will last for decades. They say they want a new Reagan.

Actually, the Republican candidate of the past who best fits this profile is not Ronald Reagan but Barry Goldwater. Movie-star handsome, he was an excellent speaker and the strictest of strict constructionists.

He insisted that the Civil Rights Act — requiring a department store, restaurant or hotel to serve all customers regardless of race — was unconstitutional because the government shouldn't require people to associate with those whom they disliked. (He was no bigot and later changed his mind — flip-flopped? — on that issue.)

Despised by the establishment — some of its members refused to endorse him even after he had won the nomination — he rallied conservatives to take over both the convention and the party in 1964 and threw critics' charges of extremism back in their faces, proclaiming, "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice! ... Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue." Convention delegates loved it, but the voters didn't. The election results were worse than a loss; they were a wipeout.

Goldwater carried only his native Arizona and those southern states where the Civil Rights Act was hated. Johnson got 64 percent of the popular vote and a Democratic Congress willing to do his bidding on all things. Instead of a conservative emergence, we got The Great Society. Many of the entitlement programs whose mandatory spending levels contribute to our current deficit problems were created at that time.

Conservatives also lost ground inside the party. After the election, Goldwater's man was ousted from the Republican National Chairmanship to be replaced by a Rockefeller supporter.

America's general political position has always been anchored in the center, toward which President Barack Obama is now moving as fast as he can. Reagan was a Democrat for most of his early life, but started edging away from that party as he grew older. Conservatives should remember that the Republican who convinced him to cast his first Republican vote was Dwight Eisenhower, the man who defeated Taft and then won the presidency by running as "center-right" rather than "far-right."

A reincarnation of the Goldwater candidacy would thrill many strong conservatives but repel stubborn independents, who, in 2010, rejected Senate candidates they saw as too extreme in Delaware, Nevada, Colorado and Alaska, thus preserving the Democrats' hold on the Senate.

Polls show that voters are willing to remove Obama, but they want to hear more than ideological slogans before they do it. They want workable solutions to our problems, which means a willingness to compromise when necessary — something both Eisenhower and Reagan portrayed but Goldwater didn't.

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