In 1964, the GOP nominated a conservative purist rather than a candidate who might actually have won the election against one of the most liberal presidents in American history.
Now in 2012, history seems poised to repeat itself even as polls show a sitting president with high disapproval ratings.
This might be explained in part by the fact that social conservatives were spoiled in 1980 when the charisma and likeability of the Great Communicator overcame the reservations of independents to win two presidential terms.
But with no GOP candidate showing these same qualities, it looks increasingly likely that the GOP will, with pathological zealotry, find a way to repeat1964 rather than 1980.
Here is a playbook for the GOP to snatch defeat from victory in 2012:
First, continue to cater to the demands of social conservatives and nominate a candidate who takes gratuitous positions on social issues that most Americans not only oppose but consider peripheral to the critical issues of the economy, unemployment, and national security.
Second, reward with primary votes those GOP candidates who violate the Great Communicator’s Eleventh Commandment, and selfishly seek short term advantage in the primaries by expending money and energy on political ads that can be used by their opponents in the general election.
If, for example, a candidate says he opposes ObamaCare because he thinks patients should be able to choose their own doctor, reward with primary votes an opposing candidate who spins this as “see, my opponent likes to fire people.”
Third, ignore polls that show which GOP candidate has the best chance of attracting the votes of the independents who will decide the winner of the general election.
Reward with GOP primary votes a candidate who claims that, even if polls show he is 12 to 15 points down in a match-up between him and the incumbent president, his glowing personality and bedrock social conservatism will win over independents and overcome that deficit in the general election.
Likewise, withhold primary votes from any GOP candidate who has actually shown executive success in both business and government, has firmly advocated balancing the budget by putting on the block any government program that cannot justify borrowing from the Chinese to keep itself in existence, and advocates fairness to legal immigrants by not letting illegal ones jump in front of them for residence and scarce jobs, and push down their wages to poverty levels by flooding the market with cheap foreign labor.
Oppose such a candidate on grounds that he is “not conservative enough.”
Fourth, continue to expend precious resources and energy on GOP primary battles by catering to conservative purists who either don’t think a leading candidate is sufficiently zealous on social issues, or who can’t stand the thought that his religion is different from theirs.
If such a candidate succeeds in gaining the nomination, insure that his victory is a Pyrrhic one, leaving him so injured that he cannot win the general election.
Finally, as in 1964, take the “principled stand” that, it would be far better to go down in flames with a social conservative purist than to win the general election with a candidate who will concentrate on reviving the economy and addressing unemployment.
Robert Hardaway is professor of law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and the author of 18 books on law and public policy.