The Magazine

Reagan in Opposition

The lessons of 1977.

Jun 1, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 35 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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In 1977, as in 2009, the future seemed dark for the country's conservatives, shut out of all of the conduits to power, with nary a bright spot in sight. "The result of the 1976 election was Democrats in power as far as the eye could see," wrote Michael Barone in Our Country (1992). "It was almost universally expected that the Democrats would hold on to the executive branch for eight years; it was considered unthinkable that they could lose either house of Congress." "Once again, the death knell of the Republican Party was being sounded," added Steven F. Hayward, in his two volume study of Reagan. Notes historian John J. Pitney Jr., "The hot bet of the moment was not whether the Republican Party could reshape politics, but whether it could survive at all."

At the time, the New York Times said the party was "closer to extinction than ever before in its 122 year history." House minority leader John Rhodes thought it could go the way of the Whigs and vanish completely. Robert Novak said the election showed the "long descent of the Republican Party into irrelevance, defeat, and perhaps eventual disappearance."

Gerald Ford had just lost to Jimmy Carter. Republicans held 38 seats in the Senate, and just 143 seats in the House. According to a Gallup poll, more than twice as many Americans identified with the Democrats as with the Republicans. In Fortune magazine, election scholar Everett Carll Ladd pronounced that the GOP was "in a weaker position than any major party of the United States since the Civil War." Jimmy Carter, the incoming president, was widely regarded as the cure-all for what ailed the Democrats, a social conservative who had been a career Navy officer before coming home to take over the family business (a peanut farm in Plains, Georgia), and who planned to restore simple and homespun American virtue to a scandal-wracked land.

If the GOP seemed washed up, so did Ronald Reagan, who had led a conservative revolt inside the party and then lost to Gerald Ford, who would lose in November. He seemed too extreme (and too much an actor) to run again. Conservatism had two big losses in just 12 years-in Reagan's 1976 primary run; and Barry Goldwater's disastrous 1964 run for the presidency. Reagan was also old: He would be 69 when the next cycle came round and 73 when, as expected, Carter finished his second term. But Reagan believed that a different, expanded, conservative movement could grow beyond the Goldwater model, that a new and expanded Republican party could grow beyond the Nixon-Ford model, and that he was the man who could bring them together. In two speeches in Washington, before and after the Carter inaugural, he explained how to do this. And then, four years later, he did.

When the messiah from Plains put his hand on the Bible, Reagan had been running for president for a little more than two years, having completed his second term as governor of California in January 1975. He had done this mainly by speaking and writing, following a program devised by three of his aides as he was about to step down from office, designed to keep him in the public eye when he was no longer governor, and establish him as the country's premier conservative voice. The plan, an idea of radio producer Harry O'Connor refined by Reagan aides Peter Hannaford and the late Michael Deaver, called for a five-minute radio address five days a week and a twice-weekly newspaper column based on those addresses, appearances on Meet the Press and other interview programs, and two to three speeches a month. In time, Reagan's radio talks were carried on 286 stations while his column appeared in 226 papers, giving him regular access to a national audience of about 20 million people a week. He began this regime days after he stepped down as governor, stopped it in November that year to run against Ford in the primaries, resumed it in September 1976, weeks after the convention ended, and then suspended it permanently three years later, when he began his second, and this time successful, campaign. In this program, the radio talks would emerge as his principal weapon.

"The personal campaign machine that Reagan built and ran from 1975 to 1979 was his pathway to the presidency," wrote two of his editors. "His speeches and columns were important and necessary, but his radio commentaries were the driving force." "His radio talks were ways of both keeping himself before the voters and developing the arguments that he would later put before the American people," said John O'Sullivan. "He later remarked that he developed his political views .  .  . mainly by writing and so having to think his way through problems. Several aides testify that they could recall him losing his temper only when he was interrupted while trying to finish a column or speech." In these years, he would think his way through nearly 1,400 addresses as he refined his philosophy, while establishing himself as the country's leading Republican. In late 1980, a broadcasting magazine wrote that if Reagan won, he should "give a low bow in the direction of Harry O'Connor."

On January 19, 1977, Reagan gave his first talk of the new Carter era, warning about the growing strength of the Soviet Union, which he felt that the outgoing Ford administration had not done enough to address. From his point of view, Carter would not be an improvement: For three years, Reagan would produce a running critique of the Carter administration's foreign policy, and the administration would give him a great deal about which to complain. In the first year alone, he protested when Carter proposed to withdraw all U.S. ground forces and nuclear weapons from South Korea without trying to force North Korean concessions; complained when Carter planned to cut $57 billion from the seven-year defense spending plan, complained when Carter suspended the development of the neutron bomb, planned to cancel the Trident nuclear submarine, and canceled the B-1 bomber in June. He protested when Carter declared that the Cold War was over (without concurrence from the Soviet Union), he opposed the SALT II treaties limiting weapons on the grounds that the arms race was the symptom, not the cause, of the Cold War and its problems, and he opposed the treaties to turn over the Panama Canal to Panama as compromising the defense perimeter of the United States. Above all, he opposed the idea of détente.

"Détente" was the policy first instituted by President Richard M. Nixon, under the tutelage of Henry Kissinger. Bearing in mind the scars of the Vietnam debacle, détente held that (1) America's power was limited; (2) America's moral authority had been compromised (by Vietnam, and resistance to civil rights measures); (3) that the Communist powers were permanent fixtures; and (4) that the United States therefore had neither the right nor the might to impose its will upon others, and must lower its sights. -Hayward quotes a 1970 assessment of Kissinger: He "feels that the United States has passed its historic high point .  .  . is on the downhill and cannot be roused by political challenge .  .  . [and] his job is to give us the best deal we can get."

Reagan dissented from all these perceptions. He thought the aim of American foreign policy should be not to get along with the Communist powers but to hasten their end. He opposed the Helsinki accords because he thought they codified the captive status of Moscow's East European satellites. He believed détente conferred a false legitimacy upon states whose governments were not installed by the consent of the governed. He opposed arms control negotiations for their own sake because he thought the arms race was the symptom, not the cause of international tensions, that the cause was the Communists' expansionist tendencies, and that in these agreements the United States always gave up more than it gained. He agreed with Churchill and with the Democrats' mid-century presidents that the best way to avoid a war was to be ready to fight one, and he quoted in one of his radio addresses the phrase "No nation ever saved its freedom by disarming itself in the hope of placating an enemy," from NSC-68, one of the Cold War founding documents of the Truman administration. Thirty years earlier, these beliefs were the views of politicians of both major parties, but by the mid-1970s they were considered eccentric and dangerous, not only by the Democratic party of McGovern and Carter, but by the Republican party of Nixon and Ford. Reagan's aim was to restore these views to the national dialogue, and in time he did.

Reagan's second big theme was expansion of government, and the dangers he thought it entailed. As an ex-FDR fan, he was not wholly against government, and when he said government was the problem and not the solution, he made it clear that it became the problem only in overstepping its bounds. Its proper province, he said, was the defense of the realm, the defense of the citizens against one another, the assurance of equal opportunity for all of the people, and the care of those truly unable to care for themselves. Beyond that, he said, it was apt to cause trouble: strangling growth through regulation and taxes, and stepping on personal freedoms, including those to make choices, even unwise ones. As he told the Conservative Political Action Committee in 1977, "Liberty can be measured by how much freedom Americans have to make their own decisions, even their own mistakes."

"Reagan devoted innumerable columns, often very witty ones, to the absurdities of state regulation," wrote O'Sullivan in his book The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister. And his speeches gave specific examples of the cost: Government-mandated paperwork on one campus raised administrative costs from $65,000 to $600,000. The president of Eli Lilly told him that "his firm spends more man hours on government-required paperwork than they do today on heart and cancer research combined."

Reagan regarded the New Deal, Hayward wrote, with a "studied ambivalence" that was neither the total acceptance of the unalloyed FDR loyalist nor the total dismissal of early conservatives. "Reagan delighted in annoying New Deal fans" by reminding them that he voted four times for their idol, and really enraged them with claims that he was FDR's heir. To this end, he was fond of quoting Roosevelt in a 1935 utterance, to the effect that "continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber .  .  . a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit" in violation of the American way.

"Reagan's principal theme, threaded through four years of broadcasts .  .  . was defense of America," wrote O'Sullivan. "He defended America's postwar foreign policy on the grounds that it was a bulwark against totalitarianism, America's free enterprise system on the grounds that it was more productive than government regulation, and America's traditional values on the grounds that they were both more decent and more realistic" than those that the counterculture tossed up. It looked radical, but only because it followed two profound dislocations: the overreach of the Great Society, and its attempt to enforce happiness and/or equality by government fiat, and the malaise related to the floundering in Vietnam. Reagan reached back beyond them to what had once been core tenets, a strategy that allowed him to unite people who voted for Goldwater and Johnson, people who voted for Nixon and Kennedy, the Asia-first anti-Communists of the Goldwater movement with the Europe-first anti-totalitarians of the World War II and Cold War consensus, and people who disliked the New Deal on principle with people (the Reagan Democrats and the neoconservatives) who liked the New Deal, but thought that the Great Society had gone much too far. These all disagreed, but all could cohere around certain core principles. "If Reagan was going to succeed," as Hayward wrote, "he would have to do so by proving that amidst the ephemera of modern life there were immutable aspects of the American character that could provide the way out."

In 1977, Reagan laid the intellectual groundwork for the campaign that followed and established himself as the opposition voice to the administration in power, beginning to shape an alternative vision on a myriad of fronts. In 1978, he began to build an organization around it, creating a PAC that he used in promoting his issues, campaigning for Republicans in the midterm elections, and taking two trips abroad. In April and May, he went to Japan, China, Hong Kong, and Iran, where he made a side trip to meet the shah, who was ill and besieged by Islamic insurgents. In November, he went to London where he met with Margaret Thatcher, who was then months away from becoming England's prime minister, and traveled from there to Paris, Bonn, Munich, and West Berlin, the frontline of the battle against Soviet tyranny. Meanwhile, his aides had reached out to different constituencies, including Democrats unhappy with the drift of their party and Republican regulars loyal to Ford. On June 19, he dined at George Shultz's home on the Stanford University campus with Alan Greenspan, Caspar Weinberger, and William Simon. In the same month, he met Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Nathan Glazer, and Irving Kristol at a dinner arranged by the American Spectator's R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. None had backed him in 1976; all would back him in 1980. Reagan, who began 1977 as a losing candidate to the losing candidate in a party that seemed to have lost everything, ended 1978 as the de facto head of a party poised for a comeback that he was now starting to see.

Four things stand out about Reagan's behavior while in opposition. First, he was focused on large, central themes. Of the radio talks, over a quarter were on defense and foreign policy issues, more than a third were on the economy or energy policy, and 15 percent addressed government excess, another favorite theme. By contrast, education, health, and crime got 3 percent each; social issues and welfare 2 percent. Out of 1,044 talks over a four-year span, abortion was the main topic once. The culture wars were waged around Reagan, but largely not by him. His mind was on other things.

Second, his tone was unfailingly gracious and civil, and focused on issues, not men. He did not oppose for the sake of opposing. He criticized Carter's ideas, but seldom the man, and he almost never uttered the president's name. "A typical Reagan column was almost never partisan or even explicitly conservative," wrote John O'Sullivan.

It selected a topic .  .  . provided some recent information about it .  .  . proposed evidence or expert testimony to suggest that the administration's proposals were mistaken, and finally reached some wider conclusion or moral. .  .  . Though Carter was rarely mentioned, his policies were logically examined and found wanting in clear terms, and in the most amiable tone of voice.

The "tone of voice" was important, as it did not rouse hostility. As he won in the end by bringing in large blocs of ex-Democrats, this was a critical point.

Third, Reagan was an optimist, who seized the banner of hope on behalf of his party and turned its eyes to the future, and away from the past. Traditionally, conservatism in America was a cranky and negative movement, chronically angry, and focused on what it opposed. Old-fashioned conservatism, as John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge claim in their book, The Right Nation, was preoccupied with "constraints and scarcity," which gave it an odd form of overlap with the national Democrats, who had gone in the past decade from being the party of growth and expansion to being the party of limits and gloom. Vietnam had damaged their faith in themselves and the future, while the emerging green movement framed consumption as turpitude. There were limits to victory, so the United States had to accept détente as a permanent strategy; there were limits to resources such as land, water, and oil, so there had to be limits to comfort, expansion, and growth. "For some varieties of the liberal mind, gloom is exhilarating, and the limits to growth offered a large-scale sequel to the Vietnam War," as Hayward tells us, noting that environmental extremism opened dazzling vistas for even more orgies of national guilt. For different reasons, leaders on all sides seemed to agree the country's best days were behind it. Reagan did not.

Reagan emerged just in time to reframe conservatism in his own image and set it up as the perfect foil to a liberal governing party that had fallen in love with decline. He was self-assured and patriotic in the sense of the old Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and John Kennedy Democrats, and optimistic in his belief that a Goldwateresque program of less interference-i.e., lower taxes and less regulation-could liberate the creative genius of the American people and lead to still greater prosperity. Unlike Goldwater, he was both inclusive and cheerful; unlike Whittaker Chambers, he believed that his side could and would win the Cold War; and unlike William F. Buckley, who urged his followers to shout "stop!" to the onrushing currents of history, he thought history would be on his side. Because of him, Wooldridge and Micklethwait could write later that "American conservatives believe in man's ability to transform the world for the better," and point to Reagan's use of the Thomas Paine line: "We have it in our power to begin the world anew" (a line that made George Will and some other conservatives cringe). In 1977, Reagan was one of the few people who thought this was possible and to a demoralized country it would prove irresistible. According to Pitney, it was "Reagan's optimistic orientation toward the future .  .  . that radically distinguished him from conservatives of the early twentieth century. This change was essential to turning conservatism from an intellectual eccentricity to a true mass movement," capable of winning elections, and millions and millions of votes.

Fourth, as an ideologue who was also a great politician, he was able to lead both a movement and party, setting out a coherent and principled message while forming and leading a diverse coalition made up of three different strands. While a movement conservative, he ran, Hayward wrote, as the unity candidate, "reaching out to Republican moderates," especially in the north and the east. The two men he picked to run with him as vice president-Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania in 1976 and George Bush four years later-were moderates, eastern in outlook (though Bush had moved to Texas years earlier), and not greatly loved in conservative circles. He did not campaign for his former aide Jeffrey Bell who mounted a conservative primary challenge in the 1978 midterms to Senator Clifford Case of New Jersey, and when Bell won the primary, Reagan hailed it mainly as a triumph for the tax cuts that he and Bell had supported. (Bell lost to Democrat Bill Bradley in the general election that fall.) To conservatives thinking of leaving the party, he issued a warning that if they were unable to win a majority within the country's more center-right party, they were unlikely to find one outside it. To conservatives angry at liberal Republicans, he urged them to try to persuade them, and if not, to seek common ground. "Conservatism is not a narrow ideology, nor is it the exclusive property of conservative activists," he said to those activists, and warned them that one does not become a majority party by "searching for groups" to exclude.

Seventeen days after Carter's inaugural, Reagan addressed a conservative audience six blocks away from the White House in which he described the Republican party he would build, which would be in effect a whole new creation, built of three different parts: the original base of business or fiscal conservatives, added to the new group of social conservatives-people concerned with law and order, abortion, crime, quotas, and busing-added to the foreign policy hawks and Cold Warriors, who had been pushed to the right by McGovern and Carter, and their weakness on foreign affairs. This was the "three cornered stool" of the Reagan coalition, built by adding the original Goldwater base to two sets of ex-LBJ voters, people repelled by the post-60s drift of their party, and seeking a new place to rest. Of the second group, he would say, "The New Republican Party I envision will not be .  .  . one limited to the country-club-big-business image. .  .  . [It] is going to have room for the man and the woman in the factories, for the farmer, for the cop on the beat, and the millions of Americans who may never have thought of joining our party. .  .  . The Democratic Party turned its back on the majority of the social conservatives during the 1960s. The New Republican Party of the late 70s and 80s must welcome them, seek them out, [and] enlist them, not only as rank-and-file members but as leaders and candidates." Sarah Palin, Wasilla moose-hunter, would have been eagerly welcomed by Reagan, and would never have left him unnerved.

For the liberal hawks, who looked back (as did Reagan) to the FDR era, there was a liberal dose of his freedom agenda, expressed in the language of Winston Churchill (but not of Nixon or Carter or Ford). Sounding like Churchill at Fulton College, Missouri, he brought the Iron Curtain up to date more than 30 years later.

From the western border of East Germany, through middle and eastern Europe, through the awesome spaces of the Soviet Union, on to the Bering Strait in the north, down past the immensity of China, still further down to Vietnam and the South China Sea-in all that huge, sprawling, inconceivably immense area, not a single political or personal or religious freedom exists.

He called the Soviet Union "the very heart of the darkness." He went back past Vietnam to the language of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy, and past them to Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, to the "righteous might" evoked by FDR after Pearl Harbor, to their abiding belief, as he would put it later, that "America is still the abiding alternative to tyranny. That is our purpose in the world-nothing more and nothing less."

Reagan's conservatism was one part Barry Goldwater (the small government part), one part the foreign policy of Truman and Roosevelt, and one part the traditional social mores that had been the common currency of people in both major parties until the late 1960s had blown it apart. As such, he was able to rally the Goldwater base, and then to shake loose many millions of Democrats, among them the onetime Young Socialist Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, who would become Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations, and at the Republican convention in 1984 would blow the roof off the building when she said that the post-60s Democrats, in every crisis, would "blame America first." Kirkpatrick remained so at odds with the domestic approach of the small-government faction that it was only years later that she became a Republican. Reagan did not seem to mind.

Everything Reagan became while he was president came into focus during the first two years of the Carter administration. He defined and remade the conservative movement, made himself into the voice of that movement, and then made himself into the lead opposition to Carter, and to the liberal forces Carter led. Reagan recast the conservative movement from a fringe to a vast, inclusive political presence, and rebuilt the Republican party around it, as a large and a national force. He was optimistic, inclusive, positive, disciplined, and focused on large issues. He was a conservative and a Republican, who understood the two roles of a movement and party, and how the two roles can converge. Charm did not hurt, but he made his case through exposition: He never opposed without proposing an alternative, and he understood that his role was less to attack than to persuade. He understood that the Republican party has no obligation to present the conservative movement with a nominee to its liking, but that the conservative movement has the obligation to lay out its case in so convincing a manner that it persuades most Republicans, most independents, and even some Democrats to follow its banner. This is what Reagan did while in opposition. It is what conservatives could start doing right now.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.