How Reagan Took the GOP Off Life Support
In the four years after Jimmy Carter’s election as president, Ronald Reagan shed his image of an out-of-it mossback conservative and then led his party back to the White House.
Human beings are social creatures and most always want to be part of some group with which they can identity. This instinct is deep in the race, from tribes to bowling leagues. What happens, then, when identity is irrelevant?
The Republican Party of the ’70s found out, the hard way.
The ’70s was a time of one political crises after another, especially for the GOP. In October 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned, humiliated, rather than going to jail. Only ten months later, President Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, also in humiliation, the only president to do so. Gerald Ford succeeded him, and his presidency, in the long run, is largely forgettable. Come the 1976 election, Ford lost to outsider Georgian Governor Jimmy Carter in a close race. Watergate, Vietnam, inflation, Soviet advances, gas lines, high interest rates—all battered the already weak Republican Party.
The GOP was decimated. It was a ship without a rudder. There were liberals, moderates, and conservatives, all under the same big tent named “The Republican Party.” Higher-ups like Nixon, Ford, and George H.W. Bush fell in one form or another in the non-conservative party.
Then there was Ronald Wilson Reagan, former actor and governor of California, barely bested by Ford at the ’76 GOP convention. Many thought he was done for, too conservative, too old, too out of it. His advanced age, his “extremism” to those left of him, and even his experience were enough to kick him out. The fact that he lost the nomination by the narrowest of margins was only a nail in that coffin. So they thought.
But it was only two weeks after Carter’s inauguration that Reagan took the stage again, not only to put himself on the frontline, but to show the Republican Party what needs to be done to survive.
On February 6, 1977, at CPAC in Washington, D.C., Reagan spoke to a large group on the future of Republicanism. Dubbed, appropriately, the New Republican Party, the speech began with a quip: “I’m happy to be back with you in this annual event after missing last year’s meeting. I had some business in New Hampshire that wouldn’t wait.” He’d been to every prior CPAC and would attend every succeeding CPAC excepting 1980, when again he had business in New Hampshire.
Then he got down to business.
He noted recent Harris and Gallup polls, which stated the country was moving rightward and desired a more conservative identity. This was ample opportunity for him to define the New Republican Party. “What I envision,” he prophesized, “is not simply a melding together of the two branches of American conservatism into a temporary uneasy alliance, but the creation of a new, lasting majority.”
Reagan hit hard against the ideological wing of conservatism, which put theories in the air and not in practice. “When a conservative says that totalitarian Communism is an absolute enemy of human freedom,” Reagan said to the audience, “he is not theorizing—he is reporting the ugly reality captured so unforgettably in the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.” The Soviet Union was back on a war footing under Leonid Brezhnev, who succeeded the equally warlike Nikita Khrushchev in 1964. It was not a criticism of President Carter—he came into the White House promising human rights, and his foreign policy gaffes came at the end of his term—but it was a small chide against Ford and his team, who, in June 1975, refused to see the famous Soviet dissident and author, at risk of offending the USSR.
What was simply an idea for Reagan in 1977 became reality four years later.
Reagan took charge. Throughout the four years between elections, he was once again branded “too conservative” by his opponents. What this accomplished, however, was an identity, a flag under which to stand. It was a rallying cry for conservatives, that this was the Republican Party. It wasn’t something like Frankenstein’s monster, part liberal, part moderate, part conservative. It was united under Reagan and his policies.
“The job is ours and the job must be done. If not by us, who? If not now, when?” That was Reagan in 1977. The Republican Party, under this new banner, won one of the biggest landslide victories in American presidential history. The Gipper’s reelection in 1984 topped that. It was here that the Republican Party was changed, and the party became one of ideas, of optimism, of the future. Young Americans flocked to Reagan and the under-thirty votes went for Reagan in higher numbers than his own generation did.
This is that legacy, of hard-identity and concrete beliefs in the Republican Party. He changed the party, indelibly. He created a Republican Party of individual liberty and true American conservatism, where the wheat was separated from the chaff.
When the 1980 election between Reagan and Carter arrived, Reagan came out on top with 44 states and 489 electoral votes. Carter, the Georgia peanut farmer who arrived in Washington four years earlier, won fewer than 50 electoral votes. The GOP was redeemed.
“You and I have a rendezvous with destiny,” Reagan was fond of saying, a refrain of Franklin Roosevelt’s call to the American people. And indeed, he showed that was true. It was in these four years, between his failure and his success, that he changed America. He was the president of American conservatism before he was president of United States—and he succeeded in both roles.
Craig Shirley is the author of Rendezvous with Destiny, Reagan’s Revolution, and the New York Times bestseller December 1941. He was the first Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, Reagan’s alma mater, where he taught a coursed titled “Reagan 101.” He is a regular commentator on many network and cable shows, and contributor to national publications, and The London Telegraph has called Shirley “the best of the Reagan biographers.” His latest book, Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years, 1976-1980, was just published by Harper.
Scott Mauer is Craig Shirley’s primary research assistant. He has earned his Master of Arts in Humanities and History from Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, and had previously been a research fellow specializing in Soviet history. He is currently assisting Shirley on his upcoming projects.