George W. Bush’s second inauguration as the president of the United States marks the continuing march of the Reagan Revolution.
In his fascinating, well-researched, and timely book Craig Shirley makes a compelling case that the lynch-pin moment in the conservative movement was not Goldwater’s loss in 1964, nor was it Ronald Reagan’s victorious quest for the presidency in 1980. The real moment that started it all was Ronald Reagan’s losing campaign of 1976.
In 1976, Ronald Reagan challenged the establishment elitist orthodoxy of the Republican Party. Reagan disagreed vehemently with what he viewed as a leftward drift by the Nixon and Ford administrations on foreign policy. Détente, the idea that the U.S. and Soviet Union should seek "peaceful co-existence," smacked of appeasement to Ronald Reagan.
Reagan did the unthinkable: He entered the race for President in 1976 to challenge a sitting president from his own party. The establishment in the Republican Party went to work branding him as an extremist and out of mainstream American politics. Republicans in power (at the time) said that Reagan could only appeal to the far right of his party, and would be a general election disaster for the GOP.
What is remarkable about Shirley’s stirring account of the start of the revolution is his description of the state of the GOP in 1976. The party establishment had been practicing a move to the left strategy for years, unhappy conservatives were beginning to talk about forming a third party, and open talk about a “brain dead” Republican party devoid of ideas was commonplace.
As I read his book, I felt I was reading the description of the Democratic Party of today.
The change in the direction of the Republican Party and our nation, and indeed the world, did not start with rearranging the deck chairs of the Republican National Committee— it started with that failed 1976 campaign for the presidency based on ideas: Ronald Reagan’s ideas and the ideas of the conservative grassroots.
In 1976 as the campaign season rolled into Florida, the campaign of President Gerald Ford attacked Ronald Reagan for one of his “radical” and out of the mainstream ideas. Reagan had mused that Social Security should be voluntary, not mandatory, and had gone on to suggest that Social Security funds should be invested in the stock market. Ford and the Republican establishment attacked this idea relentlessly with seniors in Florida and defeated Reagan in the state. And Ford, with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld as key members of his administration, went on to secure the GOP nomination and then lose the presidency to Jimmy Carter.
In 2005, George W. Bush takes the oath of office for his second term as president of the United States of America. One of the central ideas and goals of his term, the privatization of Social Security, was an idea Ronald Reagan had 29 years ago.
No losing campaign in history has been more victorious than the 1976 losing campaign of Ronald Wilson Reagan. The inauguration of George Bush, and the ideas that fuel his presidency prove Craig Shirley’s point—it all began in 1976.
For the many Democrats who will view Bush’s inauguration with chagrin, I urge they read Shirley’s book— it provides an object lesson on how a party thought to be on its deathbed changed course, rose to fight for what it believed in, and is still winning to this day.
Joe Trippi is a Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and is the author of the recent book “.”
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