There are some days in the lives of conservatives that deserve special recognition. Today happens to be one of those days.
In 1980, America was suffering through the last year of Jimmy Carter’s only term as President of the United States. For that, we can thank two individuals: Almighty God and Ronald Wilson Reagan.
On this date in 1980, the Republican National Convention opened at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan for the purpose of nominating Reagan to challenge Carter in that fall’s election.
The Republican primaries of that year had begun with a large, but reasonably-sized, field of candidates. Some of the early casualties included Senators Lowell Weicker of Connecticut and Larry Pressler of South Dakota, who withdrew before the first primaries; eventual 1996 nominee Bob Dole of Kansas, perennial candidate Harold Stassen, former governor of Minnesota; another former governor who, like Reagan, had once been a Democrat, John Connally of Texas; and U.S. Representative Phil Crane of Illinois.
The contest eventually settled to four men, including Tennessee Senator Howard Baker and Illinois Representative John Anderson, running behind RNC Chairman and former CIA Director George H.W. Bush.
With few of the former group classified as hard-core conservatives, Reagan, who had narrowly lost the 1976 nomination to President Gerald Ford, was able to consolidate his support early in the process. Reagan won 59.79 percent of the vote in Republican primaries and caucuses and won 44 of them.
As such, Reagan arrived in Detroit ready for a coronation. He had survived a challenge from Bush, who had made headlines by famously (and incorrectly) referring to Reagan’s supply-side economic theories as “voodoo economics”.
Reagan, however, struck back. Equally famously, he shouted down an attempt by the editor of the Nashua Telegraph to turn off his microphone during a debate. In the face of opposition, Reagan flattened editor Jon Breen by yelling, “I am paying for this microphone!” The quote sparked his campaign and he breezed to victory after victory in the primaries.
In Detroit, Reagan’s acceptance speech lasted about 45 minutes. In re-reading its text and in listening to Reagan’s words, I am struck by how far ahead of its time certain portions of words were then and how prescient they are today:
The major issue of this campaign is the direct political, personal and moral responsibility of Democratic Party leadership–in the White House and in Congress–for this unprecedented calamity which has befallen us. They tell us they have done the most that humanly could be done. They say that the United States has had its day in the sun; that our nation has passed its zenith. They expect you to tell your children that the American people no longer have the will to cope with their problems; that the future will be one of sacrifice and few opportunities.
Reagan also coined a campaign slogan that was ahead of its time. “Let’s Make America Great Again” was designed specifically to attack a President responsible for “stagflation”, and a “Misery Index”, a term coined by the late, great Lee Atwater to point out the miseries liberal economic policies had inflicted upon the nation.
This column is delibertately light on links in the hope that you’ll find time to watch this magnificent speech from beginning to end. For conservatives, especially young conservatives, it is a highly instructional experience.
Reagan, though, understood what was needed to “Make America Great Again” was not bombast, but rather a return to first principles in government. Attacking Carter’s administration as “Trust me” government, we would still do well to remember Reagan’s warning that power in a representative republic does not derive from the government or from a single man, but from the people who elect them. That, and not government, is what makes America great:
“Trust me” government asks that we concentrate our hopes and dreams on one man; that we trust him to do what’s best for us. My view of government places trust not in one person or one party, but in those values that transcend persons and parties. The trust is where it belongs–in the people. The responsibility to live up to that trust is where it belongs, in their elected leaders. That kind of relationship, between the people and their elected leaders, is a special kind of compact.
Right up until the day before his acceptance speech, Reagan was considering selecting Ford as his running mate. However, rumors that Ford wanted, in essence, co-presidential powers and choice of certain cabinet secretaries scuttled the deal and Reagan selected Bush as his running mate the next day.
Yet even Bush wasn’t a unanimous pick. His loud opposition to Reagan during the primaries led to a floor fight over the vice-presidential selection. Twelve men had their names placed in nomination including Baker, Senator Jesse Helms, future vice-presidential nominee Jack Kemp, Phil Crane and even the young Ron Paul.
Reagan’s campaign was filled with optimism, as this 1980 commercial shows. And after he buried Carter in the 1980 election, Reagan went on to author eight years of unprecedented growth in the American economy, winning 49 states when he ran for re-election four years later.
As one who cast his first vote for President for Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984, I can say with great confidence that he was the best president of my lifetime. Under Reagan, the entire Republican Party, including its governing apparatus, held a conservative bent not seen since Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s and never seen again afterward.
That isn’t to say Reagan always got his way; he did not. That isn’t to say he was perfect; like every mortal man, he was not. But he turned the tide, and that is the reason why Ronald Wilson Reagan is the stick by which every Republican Presidential candidate who followed him is measured.
And it all started on this date. Enjoy today’s open thread.