Wednesday, April 4, 2012

How “Bitter” Conservatives Got Us President Reagan

If not for the “unreasonable” refusal of conservatives to vote for Gerald Ford in the 1976 presidential race, we might have missed the presidency of Ronald Reagan altogether.

Would that have been a good thing? Avoiding Carter's disastrous four years?

Indeed, we could have gone straight from a 6-year Ford presidency (1974-1984) into an 8-year Bob Dole or George H.W. Bush presidency (1981-1988) without even bothering to change business as usual in the GOP.

Just imagine. A regime of moderate Republican control – Nixon, Ford, Dole, Bush… Maybe culminating decades later with Mitt Romney.

We could have seen four decades of Republicans, with only brief, one-term Democrat “corrections.” None of the controversy over “divisive” social issues. None of the pain of reducing government. And, in fact, none of the rabid dislike of Republicans by liberals – why hate those whose differences are merely a matter of degree?

Without that jolt of cold-shower Carterism, would the conservative movement have been strong enough to put Reagan over the top in 1980, against strong challenges by “Vice President Bob Dole” or perhaps “Senator George H.W. Bush?” President Ford would have steered the nomination in their direction. Without Carter, the inadequacies of the Republican establishment would have gone un-exposed, the yearning for a conservative hero uninspired.

In 1976, the incumbent president, Gerald Ford, had taken over from a wounded and resigned Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter took him on – a fresh, up-and-coming governor from Georgia, with a promise to govern as a moderate, not corrupted by Washington politics.

The decision in November wasn’t really a post-Watergate blowout, like many assume. The fact that Carter won by 57 electoral votes obscures the fact that he took only 50.1% of the popular vote (Ford 48%) and a switch of only 29 electoral votes – Texas and Delaware would do it, or New Jersey and Missouri – would have given Ford a full term of his own.

Ronald Reagan spoiled his party.

Reagan, formerly an actor and new-ideas governor of California, didn’t feel Ford met the test for wise government policy. Ford was an example of the “traditional, Rockefeller Republican” who agreed with Democrats that government could provide the solution to problems… IF used in the “right” way. So Reagan declared to run as the conservative alternative to the presumptive nominee.

Everybody knew how THAT had worked out before – 1964, Barry Goldwater. The “failure of conservatism.” Eyes were rolled.

Conventional wisdom said it was stupid to boldly defy the Soviet Union, or to drastically shake up government structures and spending, to try out new, untested economic policies.

But conservative Republicans – the “Tea Party” of that day – were fired up about a paradigm change in Washington. They got behind Reagan in the primaries, and Reagan and Ford entered the Republican National Convention with virtually a 50-50 split in delegates. The decision hung in the balance. Some historians suggest it was Sen. Goldwater’s endorsement of Ford – “for the good of the Party” – that tipped the scales and barely allowed Ford to prevail.

Ford mounted a competitive race against Carter. In the end, he lost the General Election by the slim margins described earlier. Most historians partially blame the bitterness of conservative Reagan supporters who wouldn’t come around behind the more moderate nominee. For many conservatives, Ford was just too tainted with old, country-club tradition to support. This wasn’t why they’d gotten into politics – to choose the lesser of two evils.

Wouldn’t it have been better to choose the “better candidate,” when given a choice between only two people who were likely to win? Why not vote for Ford, if a non-vote or a third-party vote were essentially a vote for Carter? Many Reagan supporters “sucked it up” and voted for Ford, while holding their nose.

But others stuck defiantly to principle, and refused to endorse a moderate, “government is the answer” political philosophy that they felt was already destroying the country.

Without this outgrowth from the bitter primary battle, Ford might well have won. The entire course of American and world history would have been different.

No President Ronald Reagan. No conservative takeover of the GOP. No shakeup of the Washington establishment. No challenging military buildup against the Soviet Union. No “pesky” divisions over the abortion issue.

If conservatives had just been “sensible” and supported the Republican nominee, no matter who he was, or what he believed, would that have been a good thing?

Ronald Reagan required two things to have a chance to win in 1980 – for Gerald Ford to lose… AND for Jimmy Carter to win! The dismal failure of the Carter presidency set up Reagan’s victory in 1980, by showing just how bankrupt, and how mistaken, the Left’s progressive, pro-government fiscal policy and timid foreign policy ideas were.

If there had been no President Carter – and if Gerald Ford had continued those same left-thinking policies the modern GOP had typically accepted – there would have been no conservative revolution.

Would that have been a good thing?

At least the GOP would still hold the White House, right? Isn’t that what’s important? The lesser of two evils? Perpetually?

In the end, withholding one's vote, as a matter of principle, is how principled voters change their party - NOT in the short-term, but definitely in the long-term. Parties DO NOT change unless voters reserve the power to withhold their vote on principle - they only get worse, and less principled, taking their voters for granted.

A vote for a “moderate Republican” today may stifle the conservative movement – cutting off the career of the next Reagan - and continue to habituate the GOP to cultivating more moderates in the confidence that conservatives will vote for whomever they give us.

The wise move for conservatives is to vote for the nominee if he is a conservative, and to hold out for better if he’s not. Don’t feed the trolls in Washington!

Ed Hanks is a former political speechwriter and press secretary who currently works with the pro-life Personhood movement, and consults for pro-Personhood candidates.

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