Many people have a favorite figure in history whom they like to drum up in an argument.
If the United States signs a peace treaty, someone somewhere will invoke British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s Munich pact of 1938 with Adolf Hitler that allowed fascism to expand.
If a major league ballplayer hits five home runs the first week of the season, someone is bound to see him as the next Hank Aaron.
This presidential season, political operatives in both major parties are beating nearly to death two particular historic parallels.
For Republicans, it’s Barry Goldwater, their 1964 nominee who lost in a huge landslide. For Democrats, it’s Ralph Nader, the third-party candidate in 2000 who ran against Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush.
It is easy to see how both can symbolize partisan fear.
But the similarities between Nader and Bernie Sanders, and Goldwater and Donald Trump, are superficial and shaky.
During the New York primary in April, Hillary Clinton strategist Joel Benenson asked in an interview if rival Sanders would “be a Ralph Nader, and try to destroy the party when it comes to defeating Republicans in November.”
Sanders, unlike Nader, has been running as a Democrat — and isn’t poised to appear on the general-election ballot against Clinton. Nader ran an independent November campaign, which yielded less attention and far fewer votes than Sanders’.
Nader himself wrote in a published opinion piece in March that although Sanders appears as an independent on ballots in his home state of Vermont, “He’s really a progressive Democrat” who has caucused with the party in Congress.
As for the election 16 years ago, Nader’s single-digit siphoning of Gore votes can get exaggerated in retrospect. Gore, the former U.S. senator from Tennessee, lost his home state. Had he won there, it would have made moot the famous controversy over voting irregularities in Florida and a crucial Supreme Court ruling in Bush’s favor.
Nowadays, Donald Trump’s GOP detractors try to tag him as the next Goldwater, leading his party downward through allegedly reckless positions out of step with voters’ sensibilities. A 1964 anti-Goldwater ad, featuring actor Bill Bogert expressing the views of an alienated Republican, has been making the rounds in cyberspace for how strikingly it resembles the opinions expressed by some now in the GOP.
But the late senator from Arizona, while branded an “outsider,” had worked his way to the nomination from within the Republican ranks. Goldwater served in the Senate for 30 years. Some even saw his unsuccessful candidacy as paving the way for Ronald Reagan to become president in 1980.
Every presidential race is different. Anyone can guess, but nobody can know for sure, how Trump would do on the general-election ballot.
Recently, NBC interviewed both Susan Goldwater, the senator’s widow, and surviving son, Barry Goldwater Jr., who disputed the comparison.
“Donald Trump is an authoritarian,” the son said. “Barry Goldwater had principles and he was a gentleman. Donald Trump is a cowboy.”
So it may make sense to skip all the “Naderizing” and “Goldwatering” — at least until the election is over and true parallels can be drawn.