The campaign goes from being whether Romney can coast on the economy, to Johnson-Goldwater.

The US presidential election of 1964.

If you don’t know anything about it, it was the election in the year after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Lyndon Johnson, longtime powerful Texas baron of the Senate, was JFK’s vice president. He’d only succeeded Kennedy a few months before.

In those days, Republicans were fairly moderate, and on social issues were actually more liberal than the Democrats as a whole. It was really the last generation of the “Party of Abraham Lincoln”. The insurgents were followers of a man named Barry Goldwater, who was a Senator from Arizona. These people wanted the Republican party to move away from its soft, East Coast establishment bearings, and even the more earthy Midwest isolationist and small town conservatism, to a stark choice: no federal government unless absolutely necessary.

Somehow, Goldwater got the Republican nomination in 1964. As it seems to me, this was because of some sort of fluke. Richard Nixon was unavailable, having lost governor of California in ’62. Rockefeller (NY governor and Standard Oil scion) was unacceptable to certain factions of the party, and Pennsylvania’s William Scranton didn’t have enough pull.

So the party ended up with Barry Goldwater.

The election was a disaster for the Republicans. In part, this had to do with the bare-knuckles way that Johnson fought. But more so, because the stark choice that Goldwater laid out—scrap the New Deal, scrap the then-incipient Great Society legislation that Johnson had been advancing through the Congress, and get much tougher militarily on America’s Cold War foes, was enough to scare the ordinary voter from voting from Goldwater.

Here is the famous “Daisy” ad, by the way. It insinuated that Goldwater would use nuclear ballistic missles against America’s enemies, and what that might lead to:

Only a generation old, the New Deal was very popular with the public. The idea that Social Security should be ended went over with a dud. There was significant support for Medicare, which had not even gotten out of the Congress in November 1964. Goldwater was also on the wrong side of the Civil Rights Movement, with an overwhelming number of the public, outside of the Deep South, very much in favor of federal civil rights protections. Most of the states outside the South had state civil rights laws for at least a generation. New Jersey had a modern civil rights statute in 1945—the Law Against Discrimination or “LAD”.

Not only did Goldwater lose bad, but the Republicans lost significant numbers of seats in Congress. This made it much easier for President Johnson to pass more Great Society legislation in 1965. (Ironically, it also made him more confident to escalate the Vietnam War the same year.)

Fiscal Goldwaterism is back again on a GOP ticket. Mitt Romney doesn’t have Goldwater’s “extremism in the defense of liberty” eloquence, but the meat of what he has been proposing is, yes, to overturn the progressive reforms and legislation of the 20th century. Adding Paul Ryan to the ticket just solidifies that message.

Before, it was just a strategy of coasting on bad jobless numbers—that the Republican House of Representatives helped create through sabotages like last summer’s phony debt crisis, and shouting down significant stimulus in the two years before that. (We got stuck with modest stimulus, which didn’t do the trick.) Now, the Romney-Ryan ticket is going to have to explain to the public why their ideas of dismantling social security and Medicare is the way to go for the future.

I already saw a little of this on 60 Minutes tonight, and there were too many nervous laughs and evasions to make me think they will hoodwink enough people on that.

The more they have to explain about their far-out plans to gut the benefits the American middle class expects, the more the polling is going to trend to what Goldwater did in 1964.

[Update: Johnson’s Ice Cream ad: