Skip to comments.Ford Beats Reagan! (How conservatism won in 1980 by losing in 1976)
Posted on 01/18/2005 1:43:20 PM PST by RWR8189
The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All
by Craig Shirley
Nelson Current, 417 pp., $25.99
LATE ON THE EVENING OF August 19, 1976, at the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, prospects looked bleak for the Republican party and even bleaker for the conservative movement. Gerald R. Ford had just barely survived a fierce challenge for the party's presidential nomination by Ronald Reagan. The Republican establishment at every level was furious, contending that Reagan's challenge had made it much less likely that President Ford could be elected. Not even Reagan's champions imagined that his failed campaign would be the salvation of the party and of the nation.
In Reagan's Revolution, the first book-length account of the only campaign Reagan ever lost, Republican activist Craig Shirley describes the state of the GOP at the moment of Ford's nomination in the opening paragraph of his first chapter: "By the late summer of 1974, the Republican party was in its death throes. Bereft, bedraggled, unloved, and unwanted, it stood for nothing and antagonized everyone. If the GOP had been a stray cat, it would have been hauled away to the animal shelter and immediately euthanized."
That graphic description is no exaggeration. As Shirley relates it, a sixty-five-year-old former governor of California who had spent most of his life as a B-movie actor nearly ousted an incumbent president. If Reagan had not challenged the president and had not come so close to succeeding, the subsequent history of the United States and of the world would have been quite different.
The Republican party indeed seemed to be dying after the 1974 election, in the wake of Richard Nixon's disgrace and resignation. The Democratic margin in Congress was staggering, 147 seats in the House of Representatives and 22 in the Senate. Only 13 governors were Republicans. As gloomy party members assembled in Kansas City, polls showed Ford trailing Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter by more than 30 percentage points.
Reagan's challenge was greeted by the party leadership as a stab in the back of a gravely ill person. That last night of the 1976 convention at Kemper Arena was not a happy occasion. Reagan had to be coaxed by Ford from his skybox to stand next to Ford on the podium after the president delivered his acceptance speech. Reagan said he did it because he didn't want to disappoint the cheering delegates. His impromptu remarks, eliciting a greater response than Ford's did, did not mention the president by name and praised only the conservative platform forced by the Reagan rebels on the party leadership. He had no plans to campaign for Ford, and it would be weeks before he did.
Considering the nation's veneration of Reagan at the time of his death, it is difficult to imagine the low assessment of him that prevailed in elite opinion thirty years ago. The New York Times's James Reston, the model for journalists across the country, wrote that Reagan's challenge was "patently ridiculous," an "amusing but frivolous fantasy," and an event that "makes no sense." When Theodore Roosevelt launched the last previous intraparty challenge against a Republican president by opposing William Howard Taft in 1912, he was the most popular living American. Ronald Reagan was hardly known outside California in 1976.
THE FAILURE of the Ford presidency was the reason Reagan became the first challenger since Roosevelt to threaten seriously the renomination of an incumbent Republican. His pardon of Richard Nixon is usually cited as the reason for Ford's unpopularity, but it went much deeper. He seemed to have no public purpose, and his presidency revealed no philosophy. A Republican president whose hero was Harry Truman has perception problems from the beginning. A career politician from Grand Rapids, Michigan, he appeared to share Henry Kissinger's belief that the declining West could not successfully compete with the Soviet bloc and an accommodation had to be found.
Reagan's grassroots popularity grew as the public perceived he would take a harder position against the Kremlin than the Republican president who declined to see Russian dissenter Alexander Solzhenitsyn because it might offend Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and undermine détente. But Reagan's clever and manipulative campaign manager John Sears pulled him away from such divisive issues in the interest of seeing him nominated by a united party. In the meantime, the Ford campaign pounded mercilessly against Reagan as unfit for the presidency. Ford disdained Reagan, and his attitude was spread throughout the president's campaign. The contempt for Reagan was palpable.
Stu Spencer, the feisty Los Angeles political consultant, was at Reagan's side in his first run for governor in 1966 and again when he was elected president in 1980. But in 1976, Spencer was directing the assault against Reagan and asserting he was not fit to be president.
THE SEARS APPROACH very nearly resulted in the early suffocation of Reagan's candidacy, when Ford won the first five primaries against Reagan. It was certainly no centrist but the right-wing senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina and his campaign manager, Tom Ellis, who circumvented Sears and on their own waged an active campaign in their state. Had it not been for this North Carolina upset, Reagan would have dropped out of the 1976 race and never been seen in 1980. It was that close.
Even so, nobody thought of 1976 as preparation for 1980. "Virtually everybody who left Kansas City," Shirley writes, "was convinced that Reagan's political future was over--his senior aides, maybe he himself, and certainly the political elites and the national media." Even Reagan was not aware that American politics in 1976 was in the midst of a realignment that Republicans had been too obtuse to understand, much less to exploit.
Journalists, scholars, and practical politicians all missed the migration of voters who would come to be called "Reagan Democrats" into the Republican party. By any standard, Ford's administration had been a failure. The United States was losing the Cold War, and the economy continued to be sluggish. The consensus in the political community was that a right-wing assault turned what was difficult into something dreadful. Nobody could perceive that the Republican party was about to undergo a profound transformation.
THE CLOSEST I CAME at the time to appreciating what really was going on was when, after Reagan's upset win in North Carolina, I traveled to Texas to report on that state's first Republican presidential primary and attended a Reagan rally in Fort Worth. In eighteen years of covering national politics at that point, I never had seen a Republican audience quite like this one. Shirley has quoted me as writing that the crowd of over three thousand people "lacked the sleek, chic look of Texas Republicans and seemed much more like a typical Wallace rally--women in housedresses, sports-shirted men, lots of small American flags."
I then suggested that the "collapse of [George] Wallace's candidacy is sending right-wing populist Democrats" to vote for Reagan. The phenomenon was widely referred to in political circles as the Wallace "jailbreak." But that implies a temporary quality to the crossover, born of Wallace's failure. In fact, when Reagan won all one hundred delegates in the primary, it manifested the birth of a new kind of Republican in Texas. Within a generation, the party would dominate the state's politics. It was a harbinger for the South and the nation.
THE ONLY STATEWIDE elected Texas Republican official in 1976, Senator John Tower, was Ford's national-convention floor manager. He supported Ford along with nearly everybody in the party establishment nationwide. Among orthodox Republicans, there was emotional conviction that the Reagan campaign was a disreputable distraction that could only worsen the party's grim outlook.
The subplot to the rebellion of conservatives was the struggle between Sears, leading Reagan's campaign team, and the conservative activists headed by Helms and Ellis. Incredibly, Sears was trying in those days to nominate a Ronald Reagan stripped of all ideology, in order to unite, he supposed, the Republican party for the general election and to attract non-conservative voters.
Sears gave away his concept of Reagan in an interview with Shirley for the book. Describing his impression of Reagan after their first meeting, Sears called him "a great piece of horseflesh" that could be "properly trained, properly working." Helms and Ellis, in contrast, saw him as an ideologue who would combat the left. Nobody at that juncture perceived in him the potential for a great leader.
HELMS WAS APPALLED when Sears talked Reagan into selecting as his running mate Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, who voted the straight labor line and was weak on national security (and was not, as Shirley says, "fairly conservative"). Depressing Reaganite spirits, this daring step did not pry away the forty to sixty delegates from Ford that Sears predicted.
Sears's real choice for vice president, however, is revealed by Shirley for the first time. Sears told the author he wanted Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, who had been purged by Ford from the 1976 ticket to appease conservatives. Sears is quoted as saying Helms and his friends "would have come off the ceiling in a day or two" but that he did not go through with it because he thought Rockefeller would be talked out of it after first accepting. Sears could not have appreciated how much Rockefeller's big-government Republicanism offended the party faithful.
Shirley, well known in the political community as a campaign consultant and public relations practitioner, is not a professional writer but has produced a very readable first book. It is nicely paced, meticulously researched, and packed with anecdotes. He uses both primary and secondary sources, plus interviews with surviving participants to produce an account of events that occurred when he was a junior in college. He is the dispassionate narrator, avoiding use of the first person and seldom presenting his own views.
A writer recording recent history has the problem of what to do about participants' remembering events of thirty years ago in a way that always puts them in the best light. John Sears and Dick Cheney, who was President Ford's chief of staff, were interviewed by Shirley and get generally sympathetic treatment. Shirley did not interview Clarke Reed, the Mississippi Republican leader, or Robert Hartmann, Ford's longtime adviser, and they come off very badly.
SHIRLEY DOES NOT TRY to answer the questions that have been pondered in Republican circles for the past three decades. Could Reagan have defeated Carter had he been nominated? If he had, could a Reagan presidency have succeeded if he were elected before his views on taxes were fully developed? Was it the best of all possible worlds for Reagan to lose the 1976 nomination but to be ready to run in 1980?
Nobody knows. Reagan was indeed more fully prepared for the presidency in 1980 than he was in 1976. But if he somehow could have won that election, he would have saved the country the four years of the Carter presidency--providing a service to all Americans. Shirley's task is not to speculate on what might have been. He tells the story of a losing campaign that may have saved the country, and he does it well.
Robert D. Novak is a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and a CNN commentator.
I always thought it wasn't Ford who lost that election (and it certainly wasn't Carter who won it). It was NIXON who lost that election. Or, more specifically, Watergate.
Anyone the Dems happened to nominate was sure to win. Of that, Carter was proof positive.
the only campaign Reagan ever lost
Reagan made a try for the Presidential nomination in 1968 and lost. It wasn't a full-bore attempt like in '76, but it still counted.
Ronald Reagan was hardly known outside California in 1976.
As a politician, maybe. But being a former movie AND television star, I'm sure most folks outside CA had at least heard of or seen the man. Especially since the TV show he hosted, General Electric Theater regularly won its Sunday night time slot (until Gunsmoke started.)
Interesting. I actully think that the swing in the national mood started in 1968 when the leftist radicals got their foot in the door of the democrat party. Over a period of 25+ years, they have done alot to drive people away. There is not room in the democrat party if you do not follow leftist orthodoxy.
Reagan was a leader in the conservative movement in those days and very well known on a national level. That's why he almost beat Ford for the Republican nomination.
IMHO, Reagan (c)would have won in 1976. A key driving factor in the election was a candidate OUTSIDE the Washington power structure. Reagan fit the bill. Ford did not. However, as often is the case, the existing power structure fought tooth and nail to maintain the status quo.
As destiny would have it, Reagan triumphed -- and at the appointed time.
I don't like the way that they keep referring to Reagan as a B-movie actor. Reagan was a big wealthy movie star - he just wasn't the top 3 or 4 at any one time. A B Movie actor is like Long Duck Dong from Sixteen Candles who went on to be in a few more things, or James Gandolfini before he hit it big in the Sopranos.
Ford was a horrible campaigner and a moderate to boot. To this day he stresses that Roe v. Wade is the law of the land and conservatives need to realize it, not fight it.
Gerald Ford is a RINO if there ever was one, it serves him well getting beat by the lunatic peanut farmer and his snooty wife.
Sort of off the topic of the article, but I've always wondered (since I wasnt alive at the time): If JFK hadnt been assassinated, could Goldwater have beaten him?? What would have been different had this have happened??
Correct. The Republican Party at the time still had the Rockefeller Repubs in control. Reagan Republicans knew they would have to put the nose to the gindstone to get Reagan as head of the Party. Then there is always " a man for the times" argument. which I think GW is also.
"Anyone the Dems happened to nominate was sure to win. Of that, Carter was proof positive."
Unforutnately between 1976 and 1980, many bad things happened. Carter let the birth of Islamic terrorist movement begin in 1979 unheeded. He also managed to give away the Panama Canal.
Would certainly have been possible...after all, Nixon beat JFK.
And, if you remember, that was exactly how Jimmy Carter presented himself.
In fact, though, that year was the first time I noticed media bias. The campaign coverage by Time magazine couldn't have been clearer about which candidate the Establishment favored. On one page, you would see the Ford campaign news, featuring black-and-white photo cuts, and two pages over, massive Carter coverage in full color.
Reagan gave a voice to those "hard hat" voters who were sick of the radical's antics. And the Country Club Republican establishment had no more feel for middle class sensibilities than the pampered Red Diaper babies and elite Democrat establishment did. They both catered to their respective flanks and Reagan strolled in and took all the ground in the middle.
Thank God he did.
Goldwater could not have beaten Kennedy. He would still have lost Northeast Republicans.
But this leaves aside a massive WHAT IF.
What if Carter hadn't been such an incompetent ?
As it happenned, he presided over the high water mark of Soviet military power and the high water mark of the cultural left (the whole cocaine, disco, meat rack bar, waterbed, "golden age of porn" era).
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