The Reagan Revolution in the 1980 campaign

The Reagan Revolution in the 1980 campaign

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On Ronald Reagan's birthday, we remember his triumph over "establishment Republicans."


SAN JOSE, Calif. February 6, 2016 – On February 6, 1911, in the town of Tampico, Illinois, Ronald Wilson Reagan entered the world. He became President of the United States at the golden age of 69.

Despite an assassin’s attempt on his life, despite cancer, despite a devastating horse-riding accident, and despite brain surgery—all after he turned 70—Reagan became one of the most important American leaders in the last 40 years. And that would be despite the negative perspective of Progressive-Leftist historians.

Reagan transformed the Republican Party through his “revolution” via the conservative arm of the GOP. He triumphed over “establishment Republicans” when he won his party’s nomination for the presidency in 1980.

Often neglected in the stories of Ronald Reagan is the effort this old man had to make to shake up the Republican establishment before he could go on to win the hearts of the American people. It was an uphill battle, but he was finally the choice of the Republican leadership to run against President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

It proved daunting for Reagan to get his party’s nomination. Although he had previously been a Democrat, he was not a centrist, and he proved far too conservative for the traditionalists in the GOP in 1976 and in 1980. Traditional Republicans claimed he was not presidential material. They did not support his efforts in 1976 when he challenged President Gerald Ford in the GOP primaries. Also, although Reagan always tried to appear to take it in stride and make light of it, the media and some of his Republican competitors tried to make the case that he was way too old, to the extent of really exasperating the California Governor.

The doubt cast about Governor Reagan’s age began from the day he announced his campaign. Reagan announced he was running for president in New York City on November 13, 1979. A story related by Craig Shirley in Rendezvous with Destiny reveals that the morning of the big announcement, Tom Brokaw interviewed Reagan on NBC’s Today show, and “the only thing Brokaw seemed interested in talking to Reagan about was… his age.” Shirley also revealed that  Texas Governor John Connally took a number of opportunities to criticize Reagan’s age. Such criticism did cause people to wonder whether Reagan could handle the stress associated with the job of leader of the Free World.

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It actually took Reagan two unsuccessful attempts at getting his party’s nomination (he tried in 1968, and again in 1976) before he was successful in the 1980 presidential election, when his ‘revolution’ won a victory over “Establishment Republicans.” Possibly distrusted by many in the GOP because he was a Democrat earlier in his life, Reagan had grown more conservative as he grew older. It was in 1962 that Ronald Reagan converted and become a Republican. And, it was only two years later when he gained national attention when he delivered a rousing speech at the Republican National Convention in support of conservative Barry Goldwater’s nomination.

On October 27, 1964, at the height of the presidential campaign, Reagan stressed his own ideological convictions in his speech, “A Time for Choosing” that is also simply known as “The Speech.” In this famed address, he argued:

The Founding Fathers knew a government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. So we have come to a time for choosing… You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down. Up to man’s age-old dream – the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order – or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism.

In 1964, “The Speech” would not help Republican Barry Goldwater overcome the shadows of the death of John Kennedy who had been assassinated less than a year before, but it propelled Reagan into the national limelight. Ultimately, during his two unsuccessful attempts at getting his party’s nomination, he had time to develop a grassroots effort that truly needed to be constructed within the GOP because much of his uphill battle was against the inner political machinery and powerful personalities of the entrenched Republican Establishment. Reagan had to wrestle with these Establishment types in order to gain support because, as a Conservative,  he was not acceptable and not considered credible, even by 1980.

At that time, as now, the Republican Party was controlled by wealthy and staunch traditional Republicans, and for those out-of-step Conservatives, it was an uphill battle for respect from within the ranks. Despite Ronald Reagan’s popularity and idealism, the leadership in his own party looked at him as an anomaly, and seemed quite dubious about offering full support. But, after two attempts at getting the party’s nomination, he had risen to the status as the man to beat in the 1980 race. In that race, as in this year’s GOP free-for-all, there were a number of contenders for the opportunity to run for president on the Republican ticket.  Reagan faced nine other GOP hopefuls, and John B. Anderson actually moved out of the GOP lane into the Independent lane.

While Illinois Representative John Anderson was not much of threat as an Independent, Reagan had some serious challengers within his own party: Former CIA director, George H. W. Bush of Texas; Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker of Tennessee, Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, former Governor John Connally of Texas, and Representative Phil Crane of Illinois. However, Reagan was viewed as the one who could pull off a victory because he had nearly defeated President Gerald Ford in 1976. This point was not lost on Connally, who according to Craig Shirley, began arguing that Reagan’s challenge of Ford during the primaries cost the former president to lose in the general election to Carter.

In 1980, most of the GOP candidates were traditional Republicans with a network of support, albeit a bit carved up, each with their own segments of support. Former President Gerald Ford definitely did not support Reagan, and is quoted as saying that he would prefer anyone but Reagan. He even appeared tempted to join the fray as well. He mentioned to Barbara Walters on ABC that there was a “50-50” chance he would run, and it came out later that he was really concerned about Reagan. Ford had an interview with John Clymer of the New York Times and said, “Every place I go and everything I here, there is the growing, growing, sentiment that Governor Reagan cannot win the election” and alluded that Reagan was too Conservative.     

Ronald Reagan suffered a stunning loss in the Iowa caucuses to George Bush, and it changed the dynamics of the race. Reagan eventually had to shake up his campaign staff which was divided, and ended up firing his campaign director, John Sears, on the actual day of the New Hampshire primary. Sear’s domineering role had become too much. Rendezvous with Destiny reveals that the Telegraph in New Hampshire, published an editorial the day of the New Hampshire primary that praised Sears as “skillful” and as a “genius” and stated that Sears was “extremely fortunate in having an easily programmable candidate.” The newspaper endorsed  Bush.

After a 50 – 23 per cent blowout victory over Bush in New Hampshire, Reagan took back his campaign and began to speak out on issues that Sears had actually restrained the governor from publically addressing. Firing Sears the day of the primary had been in the works after the loss in Iowa, and doing it after the results of the New Hampshire primary would not have been viewed as the act of a strong candidate. Reagan had finally freed himself to be the candidate that he wanted to be. Reagan went on to win nearly 60% of the vote in the GOP primaries.

In the 1980 presidential election, Reagan was also able to charm the American public to select him over the incumbent, Jimmy Carter, and Reagan won by a landslide. He carried 44 states with 489 electoral votes to 49 electoral votes for Carter, with over 50% of the popular vote while Carter got 41%. Even more amazingly, at 73 years of age, he won his second term by an even greater landslide victory by winning all but one state. When Reagan took office, the U.S. Congress was divided with a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives and a Republican controlled Senate. It proved to be an extreme challenge for his leadership, but he was able to achieve the passage of his bold legislative programs.

President Reagan helped to pull America out of the grip of a terrible recession and generated a renewed respect for the United States in the world community. Yet, when one brings up his presidency today, Ronald Reagan still remains controversial. Liberals and Leftists tend to hate him. Many major Establishment Republicans simply envy his legacy. Yet, most Conservatives still love him as an icon of the Conservative arm of the Republican Party. Current conservatives would consider Reagan the most important American conservative leader of the twentieth century. Many Americans yearn for another Ronald Reagan in this election year, as his legacy lives on. Happy Birthday President Reagan!

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