After Barry Goldwater lost the 1964 election to incumbent President Lyndon Johnson in one of history's great landslides a decision that would have far reaching implications was promptly made and implemented.
The 1964 battleground had been contested on ideological grounds that Johnson, a seasoned and skillful politician, used to his advantage. The incumbent used Goldwater's strong right wing ideological base against him.
Johnson seized the moment by appealing to the group that determines presidential elections, what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. termed the "vital center"- and made his challenger and supporters look like a third party and a disorganized one at that.
The linkage was made easier after Goldwater in his acceptance speech used the phrase "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice"- while the Arizona senator's chief primary opponent, Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York, repeatedly referred to his conservative opponent, even at the party's national convention in San Francisco, as "outside the mainstream of American political thought."-
The Republican comeback was launched early in 1965 with the selection of Ray Bliss of Ohio as party chair. Having lost a landslide presidential election that ultimately cost the party seats in the House and Senate as well, the Republican professionals of the mid-sixties chose Bliss because he was a technocrat and non-ideological.
The mandate entrusted to Ray Bliss was to bring the party back toward the center as a more attractive vehicle to the American voting mainstream.
Bliss' superb organizational skills enabled Republicans to take advantage of national discontent over Johnson's handling of the Vietnam War along with establishing a "Southern Strategy"- in the wake of passage of a landmark omnibus civil rights bill in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
While the end result was decidedly bitter medicine for progressives with the victory of Ronald Reagan as governor of California in a Republican banner mid-term 1966 election and that of Richard Nixon as president two years later in 1968, the strategic point was that the Republicans were pragmatic after their disastrous losses in 1964.
The current Republicans are a far different breed and the Obama strategy team is engaging in smart politics in seeking to endow blustery Rush Limbaugh as the current titular head of the party.
Presidential Press Secretary Robert Gibbs drew a laugh from the journalistic corps when, in the wake of Dick Cheney's recent attack on Barack Obama, he stated with a smile that the party's leader Limbaugh must have been busy that day.
At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference the group's chairman David Keene said, "When conservatives lose, conservatives get mad and get more active."-
Who was the conference's feature speaker? Who drew the loudest applause? Rush Limbaugh. "I hope Barack Obama fails,"- Limbaugh blustered at a point when the president's national poll standing ranks in the sixties.
When Lou Dubose of The Washington Spectator sought to get a feel for the conference's rank and file on the figures the group admires as role models the selected triumvirate was Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, who has called liberals "traitors"- and Newt Gingrich, whose own party dismissed him as Speaker of the House. It was Gingrich who led an impeachment effort of President Bill Clinton when his polling figures ranked in the sixties.
If the Republicans continue strategically cooperating with a hard right ideological push showcasing the Limbaugh-Coulter-Gingrich triumvirate, Democrats can capitalize by co-opting the vital center and obtaining enhanced working majorities in both houses of Congress.
This would afford a chance to push a bolder national agenda and move the nation's vital center in a more progressive direction compared to the years when the Reagan myth was accepted by large segments of the electorate.