Would you know, if asked, that George Herbert Walker Bush defeated Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Iowa caucuses? Our memories of 1980 (at least for those of us who have them) are so indelibly stamped with the idea that Reagan dominated everything that it seems inconceivable today that he’d have lost the first important showdown that year.
But Bush beat Reagan by four points. That was the event that occasioned his much-quoted remark about having the “Big Mo.” It didn’t last long. Reagan was the favorite in the race to begin with, and when both men turned to New Hampshire, Reagan stole said Mo with the famous statement, issued at a forum in Nashua: “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green.” The clip pans toward the end—as the crowd is giving Reagan a huge ovation—to Bush sitting there, mute, dumbstruck, surely quite aware that the moment was pivotal. Reagan crushed him in New Hampshire, and you know the rest.
The moment was pivotal, and emblematic: Bush was the centrist in the race, and if we were to try to pinpoint one single day in history that conservatism overtook centrism in the Republican Party, that day is as good as any (it also embodied conservatism’s general trouble with facts—the “Mr. Green” Reagan was addressing was actually named Breen). Bush embraced that conservatism, to a point, because he had to in order to win. But what liberals would give today for a conservative president like Bush!