Conservatives were unhappy with President Nixon by 1972, dismayed by his imposing wage and price controls, multiplying government programs and regulations, traveling to Communist China, and negotiating the SALT I treaty with the Soviet Union. But only one sitting Republican officeholder was angry enough to challenge the president in the primaries–Congressman John Ashbrook of Ohio, chairman of the American Conservative Union, an architect of the Draft Goldwater movement, and one of the most principled conservatives in Washington, D.C., with a 96 percent voting record according to ACU.
Ashbrook had supported Nixon in 1968 because he thought the former vice president would turn the country away from the liberal Democratic policies of the Kennedy-Johnson years. He had been mistaken, and he felt betrayed.
Although he knew he would pay a heavy political price, Ashbrook felt strongly that he had to publicly confront Nixon. He had always been a faithful Republican, but as he put it, he was "an American first, a conservative second, a Republican third."
The Ashbrook campaign had a galvanizing impact on young conservatives of the time. Young Americans for Freedom, for example, bused in hundreds of students from New England, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to work in the New Hampshire primary. Neither President Nixon nor the liberal Republican candidate, Congressman Pete McCloskey of California, was able to generate similar enthusiasm among students.
To liberals, the Ashbrook challenge was, as the Washington Post said, "partially feeble" and a "fizzle." After all, in the three states in which he campaigned actively–New Hampshire, Florida, and California– Ashbrook received less than 10 percent of the vote. He did not win a single delegate.
But the Ashbrook candidacy almost certainly led to the veto of the liberal legislation like the Child Development Act, helped keep Vice President Spiro Agnew on the ticket, and forced Nixon to address social issues like busing. His campaign preserved the conscience of the conservative movement. It demonstrated that conservatives within the Republican party could not be taken for granted. In the caustic words of the Richmond News Leader, "Responsible conservatives had not worked hard for Nixon in 1968 simply so they could eat in the White House dining room or hear Andre Kostelanetz play ’Hail to the Chief.’"
Like Barry Goldwater in 1964, John Ashbrook ran against Nixon knowing he could not win. And also like Goldwater, Ashbrook offered a conservative choice to voters, examining aspects of national security and the welfare state that otherwise would have been ignored. Goldwater started a conservative counterrevolution with his stubborn, splendid presidential candidacy. Ashbrook kept the counterrevolution alive–with few workers and little money–when many conservatives were content to go along with a president who, far from being "conservative enough," had turned into an agreeable Keynesian and an avid detentist.
Lee Edwards is the author of the forthcoming The Conservative Revolution: How a Movement Remade America from Robert Taft to Newt Gingrich (Free Press, April, 1999).