For Nevada GOP Caucus, Lessons of '64 and '76 Don't Apply
February 4, 2012

Today, Nevada will host a crucial Republican presidential caucus. Which candidate should conservatives support to ensure the conservative movement and its principles continue to lead the Grand Old Party in 2013?

In 1964, Nevada Lt. Gov. Paul Laxalt was faced with just this question. Left with two choices, a conservative and a moderate establishment candidate, Laxalt became the first statewide western politician to support the conservative for president. He did this knowing that the candidate, Barry Goldwater, could hurt his popularity and greatly risk his campaign for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Sen. Howard Cannon.

As we now know, Goldwater eventually won over the party rank-and-file against opposition from the establishment, and was nominated before going on to lose in flames in the general election. Just prior to Election Day, when a Goldwater loss was evident throughout the country, Laxalt met Goldwater on the tarmac of Las Vegas Airport anyhow. Laxalt promptly lost his race by 48 votes statewide, still the closest Senate race in U.S. history. Despite Goldwater's spectacular loss, his nomination provided the base for the growing national conservative movement.

In Laxalt's view, it was a nomination worth losing for.

Twelve years later, in 1976, then-Sen. Laxalt faced a similar choice. Ronald Reagan was running as a conservative against the moderate establishment candidate and sitting president, Gerald Ford. Laxalt was the only GOP senator to support Gov. Reagan -- and, indeed, supported him so vigorously that he became the chairman of his presidential campaign. Many of Laxalt's Senate colleagues warned him that this was political suicide. Further, he recalls "being a freshman going against the sitting president of my own party was a daunting proposition." But he stood on that ledge because Reagan was the conservative candidate worth losing everything for.

Why did my grandfather support Reagan? The same reason he supported Goldwater: He knew what Reagan stood for and was willing stand with him even if it meant defeat. Like Reagan, Laxalt was a son of the West, and he lived the principles Goldwater espoused in "The Conscience of a Conservative" in 1960 -- namely a liberty-driven, common-sense view of government.

In both 1964 and 1976, the Republican nomination presented a clear choice between an establishment moderate and western conservative. In 2012, there is no Reagan or Goldwater running in the race. However nor is there a Nelson Rockefeller or a Gerald Ford. Importantly, each of the mainstream Republican candidates is running as Reagan conservative. Trying to figure out who is the most Reaganesque is a waste of time. At this point, conservative caucus voters should focus on two things: Who can beat President Obama and who can best govern the nation.

Two narratives pervade the Republican Party nomination process. One is that the media and elites have a decided left-wing bias and are relentlessly in pursuit of imposing their agenda on the nation. Second, there is a liberal establishment wing within the party that seeks to protect its own interest in commerce, pet projects and personal power instead of conservative principles. Many Republican voters perceive that this establishment is offended by unsophisticated GOP voters dictating the future of the party. Both narratives have cultivated an environment inside the party which allows a robust conservative movement to grow, and provides endless ammunition for ongoing battles over the GOP's future. All four candidates currently in Nevada have committed to being on the conservative side of these narratives.

As a result -- several weeks into the presidential primaries -- continuing to search for the "conservative" candidate is perhaps misguided. As voters, we should not encourage further posturing as to whom is the "real" Ronald Reagan. Nor should conservatives die on the cross of the candidate who most loudly proclaims himself to be the "true conservative." This is neither 1964 nor 1976. Rather, this is a time for conservative voters to pay scrupulous attention to who these candidates actually are, to their history of leadership, and who is most likely to beat President Barack Obama.

As voters, we must drag out the old pad and pen and list the pros and cons and choose accordingly, but it is important for conservatives to be freed from an obligation to support the "conservative" in this race. Choose this candidate based on everything else, but do not be fooled by all of the Reagan talk. There are times when conservatives must be willing to lose everything for the right candidate, but this nomination does not present that call.

As Republicans go to the caucuses today, it is worth remembering another stark difference between today and 1964 and 1976 -- or 1980, for that matter. Today, conservatives are in key positions of power. Conservatives also form significant voting blocs in Congress. Critically, conservatives are also the voting base of this party, and whichever candidate we nominate will be held accountable when he goes on to beat Barack Obama. If either candidate-turned-president opens a new federal department during a recess, then he will be treated just as President Obama is today -- and conservatives will block it. Furthermore, conservatives in Congress will produce bills that further the conservative agenda, and none of these men would dare vetoing such legislation after the principles they have gone to such great lengths to espouse.

The conservative movement has power today that was unimaginable to a conservative like Paul Laxalt during the wilderness decades of old. Let's start acting like it.

To read this article as originally published, please visit the Las Vegas Review-Journal website.