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Reagan in Winter

Reagan sees the future on his 66th.



By John J. Pitney Jr.,
Associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College
& author of The Art of Political Warfare
February 6, 2001 9:00 a.m.

Twenty-four years ago today, on his 66th birthday, Ronald Reagan visited Washington to address the American Conservative Union about "Reshaping the American Political Landscape." The title was no exaggeration: The speech Printer-Friendly spelled out a plan to remake the Republican party and revolutionize campaign politics. To anyone who was paying attention that night in 1977, Reagan's speech would have provided genuine glimpses of the future.

The next day's Washington Post did mention Reagan's presence — in a "Style" article that described how a group of his friends threw him a birthday party in suburban Alexandria. Nowhere did the Post mention what Reagan had said. It was as if a Moscow newspaper correspondent in 1916 had heard Lenin outline the Russian Revolution, and then published an article about his hair loss.

Of course, the Post's oversight was understandable: The hot bet of the moment was not whether the Republican party could reshape politics, but whether it could survive at all. Gerald Ford had just lost to Jimmy Carter. Republicans held only 38 Senate seats, not enough even to sustain a filibuster against Carter legislation. In the House, they had dwindled to 143 seats, just one-third of the total. According to the Gallup Poll, more than twice as many voters identified with the Democrats as with the GOP. In a Fortune magazine article, election scholar Everett Carll Ladd wrote: "The GOP today is in a weaker position than any major party of the US since the Civil War."

And even if the party could survive, few pundits believed that it could prosper under the Reagan flag. When the GOP last ran a hard-core conservative, Barry Goldwater in 1964, it suffered a massive, humiliating, top-to-bottom defeat. And in the aftermath of the 1976 election, Republican moderates were muttering that Ford might have won if Reagan hadn't cuffed him up during the primaries.

Yet on that bleak February day, Reagan radiated confidence that conservative Republicanism was stronger than it seemed. He got straight to the main question: What is to be done? He “Few pundits believed that [the party] could prosper under the Reagan flag.” observed that while Republicans traditionally owned economic issues such as taxation, many blue-collar Democrats were concerned about social issues such as crime. He asked whether it was possible to unite the two forces into one politically effective whole.

"I believe the answer is: Yes, it is possible to create a political entity that will reflect the views of the great, hitherto, conservative majority. We went a long way toward doing it in California. We can do it in America. This is not a dream, a wistful hope. It is and has been a reality.

And so it would be. In later years, pundits would talk about the "Reagan Democrats," the pro-life, anti-Communist voters who were more at home in bowling alleys than country clubs. By stressing themes of family, neighborhood, and peace through strength, Reagan brought them together with the traditional Republicans who worried about capital gains.

Turning Lincoln Steffens on his head, Reagan said: "I have seen the conservative future and it works." This brief phrase captured two important features of Reaganite conservatism. The first was the practice of borrowing the Left's rhetoric — a tactic that would confuse and confound liberals for decades. The second was Reagan's optimistic orientation toward the future, something that radically distinguished him conservatives of the early 20th century. This change was essential to turning conservatism from an intellectual eccentricity to a true mass movement. Two years before Russell Kirk published The Conservative Mind, Eric Hoffer observed in The True Believer that those who would transform a nation need more than widespread discontent or even formal authority: "What seems to count more than possession of instruments of power is faith in the future."

In 1977, conservative Republicans had precious few instruments of power, but thanks in large part to Reagan's faith, they had a great future ahead of them.