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.