Reagan’s Resurrection: The Rise to the White House

Yogi Berra was once asked if he had read a new biography about himself. He replied, “Why should I? I was there.” Those who remember Ronald Reagan’s 1976 and 1980 campaigns might have that initial reaction on encountering Craig Shirley’s latest effort (“Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years“). Yet his work delivers plenty of insight and sharp analysis in his retelling of this remarkable story.

Shirley’s narrative begins with Reagan’s impromptu speech on the last night of the 1976 Republican convention and concludes with his decisive primary victory in New Hampshire in February 1980, which led to his nomination and election victory. There are familiar tales of long-ago issues and controversies of the Carter years — the president’s fireside chats on energy scarcity, his administration’s  attempts to engage a newly aggressive Soviet Union, the fight over the Panama Canal treaties, Billy Carter — some are more memorable than others. Shirley tells this story well with vignettes and first-person recollections of key players.

By 1980, Reagan was reshaping the country’s political, economic and moral consensus and tailoring his party’s appeal to a rapidly changing electorate.

But as Henry Kissinger would say, these were also years of upheaval where new issues emerged, alliances scrambled, and events seemed on the verge of spinning out of control. Shirley recounts Reagan’s behavior and responses in these critical years, but he also chronicles how the GOP opportunity for 1980 was born from a brew of seminal events and catastrophic miscalculations by the ruling Democrats.

Three key events set the stage for Reagan’s rise to power. First was the Great Inflation of the 1970s. The Democratic wise man Ben Wattenberg once noted, “There’s nothing wrong with the Republican Party that double-digit inflation won’t cure.” The late 1970s saw just that as inflation exceeded 13 percent annually, and interest rates peaked at nearly 18 percent in 1981. High gas prices and energy shortages led Americans to conclude that their economic well-being, and especially that of their children, was very much at risk.

Second was the storming of the American Embassy in Teheran in November 1979 by student mobs aided by Muslim clerics, and the imprisonment of American diplomats. America seemed powerless to affect the radical Shiite regime in any way, contributing to the hopeless feeling that America was a society on the decline.

Third was the decision of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to challenge President Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination. Intra-party challenges almost never benefit an incumbent president, and Kennedy’s campaign did much to diminish Carter’s standing, though he was already unpopular due to his inability to handle multiple economic and foreign-policy challenges.

But if Carter was weak, he was still president and incumbents usually win re-election. Until 1980, the only elected incumbents defeated since the beginning of the 20th century were William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover. To his credit, Reagan took advantage of the opportunities afforded him.

Shirley makes the key point that Reagan’s 1980 campaign was far different from that of 1976. In these decisive years, Reagan deepened his knowledge of policy and sharpened his views, which became more specific and revolutionary. His time in the wilderness was well-spent. By 1980, Reagan was reshaping the country’s political, economic and moral consensus and tailoring his party’s appeal to a rapidly changing electorate.

First and most important were Reagan’s evolving economic views. He began life as a traditional balanced-budget conservative, but by 1980 had fully embraced the supply-side tenets popularized by Congressman Jack Kemp, which advocated lower tax rates to encourage savings, investment, and enhanced economic activity.

This brew of “voodoo economics,” described as such by his own future Vice President George Bush, is hardly remarkable today as it is embraced by virtually every country in the world save for progressive Democrats in America. Reagan saw this initiative in economic and political terms as a contrast with Jimmy Carter’s rhetoric of limits and scarcity.

Second, Reagan embraced the “values agenda” of many in Middle America who were turned off by the moral relativism of the time. Many of these voters were traditional Democrats who had supported Carter just four years previously but were attracted to Reagan, who spoke unabashedly about moral responsibility, acceptable norms of behavior, and strong families as necessary prerequisites to economic freedom.

It’s worth noting that as a federalist and libertarian, he believed that appropriate policies to deal with potentially divisive matters governing social arrangements could best be developed by the individual states, not the federal government.

Finally, Reagan shattered a ten-year bipartisan consensus in favor of a détente that tolerated aggressive Soviet behavior to pursue ever more complicated and exotic arms control agreements. Carter had to ignore or brush off Soviet persecution of its own citizens, its support of liberation movements in Third World countries, and finally its brutal invasion of Afghanistan in 1980.

Reagan always had a clear-eyed view of Communism, but he now went well beyond containment and offered a multi-faceted plan aimed at challenging the economic and ideological underpinnings of the Soviet Union itself.

We now know, of course, that he also was appalled by the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) and pursued engagement with Russian leaders to lessen the nuclear global threat. His work with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev at the end of his presidency saw a major reduction in nuclear weapons, the destruction of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Soviet empire.

This triad of free markets, values conservatism, and confrontation with lawless international behavior has dominated Republican thinking for over three decades — until 2016. While these ideas still predominate, new ideas of mercantilism and ethnic nationalism now compete for the party’s hearts and minds. It’s also fair to note that Reagan’s sunny optimism is not shared by many Republicans today, who see America confronting dark forces at home and abroad. The results of these competing impulses are only now being sorted out.

Ronald Reagan is now a historical figure, not a contemporary political one. As such, he has become a Rorschach test for those who seek to co-opt his political legacy for their own purposes.

If Americans are still debating Ronald Reagan’s legacy nearly four decades after his election to the presidency, Reagan fans might recall these words from his Farewell Address, “We made the city stronger — we made the city freer — and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad. Not bad at all.”

Frank J. Donatelli worked on all of Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns and served as Political Director in the Reagan White House.

Last Modified: May 23, 2017, 6:59 am

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