30 years later, Reagan's words echo

Given his huge popularity, why were Republicans unable to establish an enduring majority?

July 12, 2010|By Thomas F. Schaller

Thirty years ago this week, former California governor Ronald Reagan delivered his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Detroit. The moment signaled an important pivot in modern American politics.

Some references made by Mr. Reagan — who that November easily unseated incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter — are outdated today. But parts of his script are so timeless, one can easily imagine them coming from the 2008 Denver acceptance speech delivered by Barack Obama, whose election has been described as bringing the Reagan political era to a close.

"More than anything else, I want my candidacy to unify our country — to renew the American spirit and sense of purpose," said Mr. Reagan. "I want to carry our message to every American, regardless of party affiliation, who is a member of this community of shared values."

"Reagan correctly intuited that this was what successful acceptance speeches are about: They must address and galvanize party unity and then pivot to national unity in a seamless rhetorical swoop," Wesleyan University political scientist Elvin Lim, who is an expert on presidential rhetoric, wrote to me by e-mail. "Conservatives today continue to celebrate Reagan, their hero, because no one before and no one after has managed to unite them the way he did."

Channeling Ronald Reagan still retains an undeniable electoral potency. During the 2008 Republican presidential primaries, almost every GOP candidate at some point invoked Mr. Reagan's name or tried stake claim to the Gipper's legacy. Even Mr. Obama noted that Mr. Reagan "changed the trajectory of America" more than the likes of Richard M. Nixon or Bill Clinton.

"As we sat in that Detroit arena with tears in our eyes and so full of hope, we knew we were part of something big and that the country would never be the same again," Republican consultant Ann Stone recalls. "He was our bright light of optimism that would lead us out of the darkness. I know that sounds corny, but it really is how all of us felt."

Between talk of unity and shared purpose, Governor Reagan produced a laundry list of complaints about the Carter administration and promised a drastic shift in the role of government.

"I believe it is clear our federal government is overgrown and overweight. Indeed, it is time for our government to go on a diet," Mr. Reagan declared, calling for an immediate federal hiring freeze and promising to turn programs that "can be run more effectively" by state and local governments over to them. He added: "We are going to put an end to the notion that the American taxpayer exists to fund the federal government."

What followed in 1981 was a cut in the marginal income tax rate that many Americans remember. (Those with shorter memories forget that Mr. Reagan soon thereafter agreed to raise the income tax rate not once but twice, and also supported the payroll tax increase of 1983 recommended by the Robert Dole-led Social Security commission.) President Reagan turned tax antipathy into a powerful electoral tool, so much so that Mr. Obama still brags about cutting taxes for 95 percent of Americans. The result is that we have become a myopic nation that would rather borrow and run huge deficits than pay our bills on time.

The other major policy shift Mr. Reagan foreshadowed in Detroit was vigorous resistance to creeping communism. "America's defense strength is at its lowest ebb in a generation, while the Soviet Union is vastly outspending us in both strategic and conventional arms," Mr. Reagan warned. What followed were U.S. investments in new weaponry that put greater pressure on the U.S.S.R. which, we know now (but didn't then), was never as militarily potent as it projected itself to be.

I've been thinking a lot lately about President Reagan and his legacy. Last week, I contracted with Yale University Press to publish my next book, the subject of which is the fate of the Republican Party and the conservative movement from the start of the first Bush presidency to the end of the second Bush presidency — that is, during the 20 years after Mr. Reagan left office.

The question that most intrigues me is this: Did the Republicans fail to build an enduring majority after Ronald Reagan because they refused to replicate the Reagan model, or because that model was impossible to replicate without Mr. Reagan and the exigencies of his political moment?

I'm not sure of the answer yet. But I'm quite certain we haven't seen a Republican acceptance speech since 1980 to match Mr. Reagan's Detroit address.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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