Today’s presidential TV spot is an LBJ ad from the blowout election of 1964. The spot takes advantage of Barry Goldwater’s gaffe about sawing off the Eastern seaboard.
There were plenty of gaffes to choose from. Goldwater, lionized in later years for his role in launching conservatism’s rise to power, ran a spectacularly inept campaign. He would begin speeches by listing the kinds of people he didn’t want to vote for him, including the “lazy, dole-happy people who want to feed on the fruits of somebody else’s labor.” He called the War on Poverty “plainly and simply a war on your pocketbooks” — in poverty-plagued West Virginia. He railed against cotton subsidies on a swing through North Carolina and Tennessee. He warned of an explosion in crime — in geriatric St. Petersburg.
The particular comment lampooned here played perfectly into LBJ’s campaign. Johnson ran as the candidate of centrism and unity against the divisive insurgency of Goldwater and his band of right-wing extremists. And, in an era of peace and prosperity, he rode that message to a landslide victory. Although Goldwater’s stumbles and the borrowed halo from the slain JFK doubtless padded Johnson’s margin of victory, his win was all but inevitable for one simple reason: the times were far too good for Goldwater’s doom-and-gloom jeremiads to have broad appeal.
But times would quickly change. LBJ’s historic triumph (he won 44 states and 61 percent of the vote) would prove a pyrrhic victory. Vietnam on the one hand, and urban and campus unrest on the other, would wreck the liberal consensus for good. It has never been restored.