The Magazine

Reagan's Majority

From the June 28, 2004 issue: What the Class of '94 learned from the Gipper.

Jun 28, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 40 • By NEWT GINGRICH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

(4) Ideas can be complex but the language has to be simple. Reagan advocated the economics of von Mises, Hayek, and Friedman, but he did it in simple language. He was always talking to the American people--not to the elites--and that meant the language had to be grasped by them. He understood Margaret Thatcher's proposition that first you had to win the argument, and then you could win the vote. He was prepared to argue over very complex ideas, but he understood that the argument itself had to be simple. Reagan did not dumb down his speeches or turn them into generalities. Indeed, if you read his best speeches, you will be surprised by how many specifics they include. Our greatest political success in the House may have been in 1996 when we won the argument over reforming Medicare and ran nine points ahead of the Republican presidential nominee among seniors. That margin was the key to our becoming the first reelected Republican House majority since 1928. It was a Reaganite victory that came from our being very simple and very clear about our message.

(5) Movements defeat candidate-centered campaigns. Reagan started the Republican gubernatorial primary in 1966 behind a popular mayor of San Francisco and won decisively. He took on a sitting president (Gerald Ford) in 1976 and almost won the nomination--something no one has done in American history. In all his campaigns, Reagan relied on a broad movement of activist supporters who surrounded and energized the campaign far beyond the reach of the official campaign structure. It was a very different model from the modern centrally controlled consultant-dominated system, and while it was far less efficient, it was far more effective.

(6) Perseverance is indispensable in a leader who would change a country. Think of all the years Reagan spent traveling the country talking to large and small audiences. Imagine the years of doing a weekly radio show while Jimmy Carter presided over a decaying economy and diminishing morale. Imagine the four decades' commitment to the defeat of communism dating back to 1947 when he first encountered Communists in the Screen Actors Guild and began studying what made them favor a totalitarian system. This was a man of enormous patience.

(7) Politics is like vaudeville. No matter how often the entertainer performs, each crowd is seeing him for the first and perhaps only time. This morally obligates the performer to give his best. It was this understanding of a very old tradition that enabled Reagan to be so stunning day after day and event after event. He could take the same cards out of his coat pocket, reshuffle them, and give a speech he had given 30 times but turn it into a sparkling moment for this audience at this moment in this hall. It was that sense of doing your very best in the here and now combined with the depth of thought and preparation behind the cards that made him so powerful a public speaker.

I feel privileged to have supported and worked with President Reagan. I know that without him we would not have had the Contract With America, and we would not have won and kept a Republican majority in the Congress. Conservatives who hope to keep that majority should think long and hard about the lessons President Reagan taught us.

Former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is the author of the Civil War novel Grant Comes East.