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What the Devil won't tell you

Goldwater's first principles could be GOP's way back to relevance in Tucson politics

I don’t get nervous about interviewing celebrities, not that being a political journalist in Arizona puts one in touch with many. I mean, John McCain, George W. Bush and Gopher from Love Boat are about as big as it gets.

The exception was an octogenarian who used a wheelchair to scoot around and cussed about "kids today," meaning 40-somethings.

He gave a speech in a classroom on the NAU campus and afterwards I approached him with a goofy smile and a hand held out to his. He shook it with a look that asked “who the fuck are you?”

I answered. “Senator Goldwater,” I said. “My mom is a total hippie liberal but she would want me to tell you that she always admired you.” Sure, I was using mom as a surrogate but I’m a political junkie and this was Barry Effing Goldwater. 

He even had an answer for me.

“A liberal, huh?” he said as he sat down, I remember, like a man who earned the right. “I’ll tell ya … My wife says she’s a liberal.” From the wheelchair, he let out a sigh, “But she knows where her bread is buttered.” OK, Team Woke, Goldwater was on the wrong side of history on a number of issues and I'll deal with that later. First, though, let me reveal the money line. He kind of got quizzical — maybe even whimsical — and said: “You know, I used to know what a liberal was. I don’t anymore.”

The year was 1995 and it was a hell of a question. Liberal meant favoring a five-year plan to balance the budget but not to do it on the backs of senior citizens. It meant, cracking skulls on streets with get-tough crime bills with provisions that included "the defense of women." It meant scapegoating welfare recipients but maybe not being as mean about it as the GOP. Democrats had done 15 years in the wilderness and were trying prove they weren't hostile to white male values. 

Maybe it was politically necessary but liberalism had come to mean "we're not as crazy as wingnuts like John Kasich and Joe Scarborough." The Left was so young. So naive.

I can't help it. I keep coming back to the local GOP's failure to ever launch in city elections and Goldwater's musings in my direction about the nature of liberalism seem relevant to their cause. What the hell is a conservative? I used to know. I don't anymore.

And it's relevant to the topic because a big reason Republicans have thrown in the towel here in Tucson is that they can't win running as far to the right as they want to be.

Abortive 2011 mayoral candidate and one-time talk-radio host Shaun McClusky recently griped on Facebook about the seeming inevitability of Regina Romero’s mayorship. To which I replied: "You guys could have put up a candidate, organized for that person and funded the effort."

McClusky's response was pretty typical to what I’ve heard Republicans mumble for years (it’s a verbatim response on social media so judge not his grammar).

"and yes win an empty seat primary, then lose 65/35 in typical fashion, yes every 25 years the Republicans will hold a seat.

Steve K -turned D so does he even count? Last time anyone was close enough to matter was ‘09 before that I believe it would have been K. Dunbar last on CC.

The softest of soft Republicans would have Mayor Bob Walkup -the man wouldn’t even meet w Republican nominees for CC - literally a R dressed as a D."

I should amend for a caveat. It’s a reasonable response for anyone but McClusky — who damned near won a City Council seat as a political novice against former Metropolitan Tucson Chamber of Commerce Person of the Year Richard Fimbres the last time Republicans generated an all-out push. That was in 2009.

I'm not trashing McClusky. He's just flustered like a lot of local Republicans today. Democrats are having the same talk among themselves about winning in places like Oklahoma. 

Kate Kenski, a University of Arizona communications professor, says getting voters to cross over is a real challenge.

“In polarized times, it is incredibly difficult to get people from another party identification to take a candidate seriously,” Kenski said. “Candidates need to build bridges based on policy common ground. If that common ground means that the candidate is pivoting even slightly off the party line, however, an independent expenditure group may exact retribution.”

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She raises a couple good points that put beef on the ribs of McClusky’s gripe.

For a Republican to win, they practically have to run as a Democrat. So what’s the point?

The likes of former Bush brain Karl Rove has argued about finding the most electable conservative. Theory being: Walkup may have been “soft” but he was also well to the right of opponents like Tom Volgy and Molly McKasson. Romero would make him look like Charles Koch.

First things first

I didn’t take Goldwater to mean “don’t be liberal” as much as I took it to mean “y’all have lost your way.” He was gently suggesting liberals return to “first principles” and start over. 

So when McClusky discusses “the softest of soft” Republican and Kenski talks about common ground, are they talking about the same thing? It depends.

If softest of the soft means the right is defining itself as hatred of 60 percent of Tucson's voters, than Kenski and McClusky are right. Pack it in. Democratic voters won’t vote “I suck.”

If softest of the soft means abandoning conservative values, then maybe not.

The Republicans last ran a campaign that fully backed their slate of candidates in 2009. Steve Kozachik won a seat. Ben Buehler-Garcia came within 200 votes or so from upsetting Karin Uhlich and McClusky also damned near won. Then to a lesser degree, they kinda tried in 2011 by backing Jennifer Rawson and Tyler Vogt, who came within two points of Democrat Shirley Scott. The party went all in for Buehler-Garcia in 2013 and then just gave up the ghost. They have failed to raise $30,000 for a candidate since then, while Democrats consistently reach the matching fund limit of $55,000.

Check that. They tried to sue to snuff out Tucson's hybrid election system of ward-only primaries and citywide general elections. That failed. They've since been pouting in the corner. 

A principled agenda?

Look, I'm not a right-winger so this is just spitballing on my part. 

A sustained, high-profile campaign against Tucson’s status as a low-wage town could very well open up the argument for economic policies that are better for the market. This could require a rethink about what Republican is versus what conservative is.

Conservatives could start with an approach many conservatives are already grousing about. Should the government pick winners and losers in the economy by giving sweetheart deals to lure business to relocate?

It's a question at cross-purposes with the idea that Republicans are "pro-business." I'm not talking about "Republicanism." I'm talking about conservatism.

Is conservatism interchangeable with anti-statist nihilism? Or is it simply a question about who does the fixing?

Maybe government isn’t as well-suited to address social ills as nonprofits, civic and religious institutions. Then maybe a plan to empower those.

Figure out how to organize business, nonprofits and activist groups to address problems that need addressing. In the past, the Right talked a great game on this front but maybe it should be more than just a cudgel to use to beat down government.

Tucson is about as taxed as it’s going to get, unless we let the sales tax approach 82.4 percent. Property taxes are capped. Income taxes aren’t an option so long as the state Legislature is controlled by the ruling party. So maybe creative solutions are the direction the city will have to go anyway.

Keep government small, taxes low and rebuild social institutions that have fallen out of favor but once knitted together communities with social trust.

Sounds pretty conservative to me.

And when in the name of Will Hurd will the GOP start going to Latino and African-American voters and start a dialog? Democrats have 1,000 percent taken those votes for granted and the situation in those communities haven’t done a whole hell of a lot for them. Sure, they’ll promise Medicare for all and free college to get elected, but to get re-elected they’ll come back and say “do you know how bad Republicans are?”

That, Mr. McClusky, is an opportunity. 

Ideals over party

Those three approaches would attract a bunch of liberal voters, constitute a fresh approach and compromise not a single first principle (as they’ve been sold to us for years and years). In fact, it would kickstart a form of positive conservatism.

A big reason Goldwater was so popular with liberals in the 1990s was because he was a nut on the matter of "first principles." When progressives hemmed and hawed over the political expediency of letting gays serve in the military, Goldwater just bonked the country over the head: "It's none of your goddamned business. The Constitution gives us the right to free association."

Oh, well, go with the easy argument. 

He was pro-choice because small government meant staying the state should stay the hell out of women's uteruses. 

He also went to the grave defending his opposition to the Civil Rights Act because it offended his stance that business owners have individual rights to refuse service to whomever they freaking want. In America, you have a right to be a jackass. 

He wasn't avoiding conservatism in his mind. He was embracing it, even if it was bad for Republicans.

Distorting reality

The father of 20th century conservatism probably wouldn't have any use for the overseer of 21st century conservatism because Donald John Trump has either scrambled the definition or revealed its true nature.

Donald Trump’s reality distortion field is going to fail at some point and when it does, reality will crash into anti-reality with the same force of matter meeting anti-matter. Climate change is real and people are causing it. The demographics of the country are changing and it's no use declaring war on it. Lunch-pail jobs at smokestack industries are going extinct because of automation and not immigration. The world is shrinking on dimensions that know no walls.

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All this is just known but the people who say so are just elites, right?

The GOP, for whatever juggernaut they have in rural America are full rigor-mortis dead in the cities and are heading in that direction in the suburbs.

How does a party survive if the leading indicator to its doom in a region is tied to how well that place is doing economically? Phoenix has been chugging along economically for a while now and it voted Democratic in the races for the U.S. Senate, secretary of state and superintendent of public instruction. Dallas and Houston are now driving Texas left-ward, as is the greater-Atlanta area moving Georgia into contention.

Watch out, folks because the only thing keeping South Carolina from being competitive is the urban "Uplander" vote in Greenville and Spartanburg counties. They may not stay that way for long if anti-trade talk threatens the BMW factory feeding that region's economy.

The choice put to us citizens of Planet Earth in what Thomas Friedman aptly calls “the Age of Acceleration” is simple: Embrace the future and win, or reject it and get run over. Rural voters sort of have the option to reject the transformation. Urban voters don’t have that choice.

But I'm not sure it's all or nothing, either, because there's no denying Tucsonans are not Phoenicians for a reason. We embrace our values over the generic, colorless and odorless new urban mass spreading out across the Valley of the Sun.

Tucson wants to conserve parts of itself in the face of transformation. How might conservative principles address that? The right kind of campaign here might just reveal what conservatism actually is.

And here are a couple conservative principles: Personal responsibility and perseverance. If poor people must keep working to overcome the odds, then so should you. Otherwise, your future is rallying behind independents like Ed Ackerley in his crusade for free buses and light rail. We know how much conservatives love that. Or maybe they just hate Democrats — first, last and always.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is a former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things the Devil won’t.

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The political principles of former U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, whose statue stands in the U.S. Capitol, could boost the prospects of local Republicans.