Political Hay

Ford versus Reagan: The Sequel

Iconic battle with fanatic moderates, liberals replayed in attacks on Israel, talk radio, Roger Ailes.

By 5.24.11

Send to Kindle

"But several of his characteristics seemed to rule him out as a serious challenger. One was his penchant for offering simplistic solutions to hideously complex problems."

 "We have very little in common."

"I knew…that trying to satisfy these (right-wing) zealots would doom any general election hopes…"
-- Former President Gerald Ford on Ronald Reagan and conservatives

Gerald Ford didn't get it.

A nicer man you could not meet. Wonderful family, kind, hearty, outgoing. Your basic All-American -- literally, as a football player (center) for the University of Michigan, and certainly figuratively.

But Gerald Ford had a fatal political flaw, one that is aptly described in another fashion by James W. Ceaser in a recent Wall Street Journal review of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood's new book entitled The Ideas of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States.

The Visionary Generation was the title of Ceaser's review of Wood's book on the ideas behind the Revolution and the men we know as the Founding Fathers. The description could easily be applied to the now iconic battle between President Ford and Ronald Reagan for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination. A battle that Ford won on his way to losing a much larger war.

That war?

An epic confrontation over the role of government -- both in American life and around the world.

A crusade to speak plainly the principles of liberty and tyranny (to borrow the title from our friend Mark Levin's bestseller) that some wish to obfuscate -- whether discussing the size and scope of American government or facing the stark reality of evil as manifested by the Soviet Union in 1976 or the Israel-hating terrorist group Hamas today. 

Says Ceaser of Wood:

The historian has the advantage of hindsight. He can see the development of an idea or principle in a way that the participants along the way never can…. For this reason, Mr. Wood has conceived the proper period for studying the Revolution as running from the 1760s through the Jacksonian era, since this time span allows one to see the full shape of the event.

Which is to say, the battle over the acceptance of the democratic principle (as Ceaser terms it) was fought and won not simply in the seven-year time span of the American Revolution but over a much longer period of almost eighty years, from 1760 until Andrew Jackson's final term in the White House came to an end in March of 1837.

In a strikingly similar fashion one can easily look back and realize that what is now known to history as the "Reagan Revolution" began not in January of 1981 when Reagan himself took the presidential oath. Nor did it end eight years later when he left the White House. In fact, it began in fits and starts roughly with the emergence of the British philosopher John Locke and picking up intellectual grounding and authority as it made its way through the centuries developed by a group that includes everybody from the English-Irish statesman philosopher Edmund Burke to the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln and on to the 20th century. With the advent of the American Progressive movement and the presidencies of both Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson and (yes) Herbert Hoover (a Progressive Republican), by the time a young William F. Buckley arrived on the scene in the early 1950s with his famous line of standing athwart history yelling "Stop!" the idea of an ever-expanding state was not only mainstream it was the mainstream. In both political parties, the media, academia and religion as well.

It was an idea that was hopelessly doomed, considering the inevitable massive failures in a philosophy that was succinctly labeled by its foes as "tax and spend" domestically or mocked on national security with the slogan "Better Dead Than Red." Sooner or later progressivism/liberalism was destined to find itself perched at the very edge of the cliff where Americans find themselves and their country today. Out of cash and out of credibility. But in the day, all manner of people thought this was a big no-never-mind. And if the Goldwater -- Rockefeller fight for the 1964 GOP nomination was in retrospect an enormous political warning flare, the Ford-Reagan fight was, in retrospect, the tipping point when the balance began to shift.

Ford -- and he was not alone -- could not, did not, see it coming. As historian Ceaser posits in other circumstances, Ford was too involved in the events of the day to pull back and understand what he would ultimately come to symbolize in American political history well-beyond the standard "nice guy who rescued America from Watergate" story line.

In fact, as is clear in reading longtime Newsweek correspondent and Ford biographer Thomas DeFrank's book of private, post-presidential Ford interviews, Ford literally went to his grave not understanding what he had come to represent. DeFrank's book, Write It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations With Gerald R. Ford, shows Ford regarding his differences with Reagan as some sort of standard annoying competition from an unfathomable and irritating fellow pol.

Ford simply did not understand what he was in the middle of -- while Reagan understood with a well-spoken and out-spoken clarity. A clarity that Ford, holding fast to the stance of moderation, dismissed as Reagan's "penchant for offering simplistic solutions to hideously complex problems."

How did this play itself out? More to the point, how does this continue to play out right this moment?

Ford saw the Soviet Union as an adversary to be negotiated with -- and hence deeply resented Reagan's criticism of Ford's efforts to negotiate what was known in the day as "the Helsinki Accords." To Ford, Helsinki was part of an ongoing process of negotiation that was standard presidential fare from FDR forward. In the case of the Helsinki negotiations the triumph was supposedly that Ford had gotten the Soviets to "sign a document that pledged them to observe the basic principles of human rights." To Reagan, the Soviets were, as he later famously said, an "evil empire" who " reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat…" Hence Helsinki was a worthless enterprise. An agreement with liars and cheats.

Over and over and over the two men sparred from one end of America to the other in 1976. Ford was the adamant "moderate" -- proud that he had picked the statist New York ex-Governor Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president, ashamed of himself for dumping Rocky in a bid to stave off Reagan. Ford was about "trimming" government with a spending cut here and there when he wasn't busy negotiating with the Soviets. To Reagan the federal government was the Leviathan incarnate, an increasingly out-of-control Frankenstein which, if not sharply downsized, would bring the American Experiment crashing down around its citizens heads. And the Soviet Union should disappear. Or, as he also later said, "we win, they lose."

As we know, Ford won the battle of 1976 -- but he lost the larger war to Reagan.

Yet the war between the Gerald Ford's of America -- those within the Republican Party, the media, and the larger world policy establishments -- is still being waged every single day. How does it show itself? Here are some examples of what might be called Ford versus Reagan: The Sequel.

Israel: President Obama has come forth with a liberal version of what might be called Fordism. Demanding that Israel go back to its 1967 borders, that Israel swap this land for that or give here to get that. What Obama is unable to do is see the entire Middle East struggle with the kind of clarity Reagan brought to dealing with the Soviets. To wit: Israel is engaged in a life or death struggle with, plainly put, Jew-haters. The objective of Israel's enemies -- stated in the Hamas Charter, restated here in this very-routine news story from Reuters and held ferociously whether in Al Qaeda or Tehran -- is simple. Destroy Israel. Period. That is the beginning, the middle and the end of the story. To keep working until an Islamic Caliphate is reality and the Jews are no more. Literally. And every homicide bomber, every missile lobbed over the Israeli border, every last bit of violence until a nuclear weapon or multiples of nuclear missiles are launched, counts in this struggle.

As Andrew McCarthy has pointed out over at National Review, Obama's breathtaking stance amounts to "borderline treachery."

The Middle East is seen by many in Fordian fashion as one of those "hideously complex" problems, albeit in Obama's case with a decided pro-Palestinian bias. The refusal to plainly state the problem is the hallmark of Ford's moderate and liberal political soul mates. No wonder Israel's Prime Minister is lecturing Obama.

What should an American leader today say in Reaganite fashion on Israel? Here's this from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (the video version here in Part One and Part Two here. The text is here):

America must do everything in its power to keep Israel strong and secure. …The longstanding anti-Israel, anti-Semitic vitriol persists. But the world must no longer turn a deaf ear. It's time for America to lead….To the emerging governments of the Middle East, America must clearly state….It is not okay to vilify Israel….It is not okay to demonize Jews….And it's time to stop scapegoating Israel.

Evil empire, anyone?

The GOP 2012 Nomination: The Republican presidential chatter is awash in Fordian sentiment. Mitt Romney has decided to cling to RomneyCare and his devotion that statism is just dandy at the state level. Jon Huntsman is up in New Hampshire proclaiming himself the candidate of "civility" -- a decided Fordism that really translates into statism just less so. Ya gotta trim, don't ya know? Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels was surely about to be celebrated for expressing his own version of Ford-like electoral wisdom had he run. Indeed, these qualities are precisely what many in the current Ford-speaking Republican Establishment see as winners. And it is precisely why attacks like this one over at the Daily Caller on presidential candidates like Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann surface from Fordian columnists.

It never dawned on Ford -- who amazingly thought Reagan should have stepped aside for him in 1980 -- that his insistence on what might be called the extremism of moderation was what resulted in his loss to Jimmy Carter in 1976. Indeed, all that Ford-speak that filled the Bush campaigns of 1992 (kinder and gentler conservatism) and 2000 and 2004 (compassionate conservatism) never even came close to producing a Reagan-style landslide like 1980 or 1984. (Indeed, only when Bush 41 ran as Reagan's heir in 1988 did a Reagan-style win manifest itself.) Ford himself wrote off Reagan's electoral success -- which beforehand he was certain could not be had -- to Reagan's "flair."

John McCain on Enhanced Interrogation -- Speaking of Senator McCain, the recent dust-up over enhanced interrogation is yet another example of Fordian politics at play. After an indignant tangle over former Senator Rick Santorum's insistence that McCain had gotten it wrong on the success of the techniques that Santorum -- and many more, beginning with Obama CIA Chief Leon Panetta -- admitted had played a role in leading to Osama bin Laden's capture, McCain simply went right ahead to insist he was right, implying opponents were, in Fordian language, simplistic or zealous. Quite aside from the fact well-known around Capitol Hill that McCain and Santorum have a history of tangling and that McCain's indignation was most probably the latest example of personal pique, McCain, post his Senate re-election, is back to his Fordian, moderate ways. A sharp analysis of this can be found, again from Andy McCarthy, right here.

• Talk Radio: The Ford mindset has amusingly surfaced in the unlikely precincts of talk radio. Here the impeccably Fordian John Avlon has produced yet another modern Ford-style analysis, this time claiming talk radio is in the midst of a flame out. Avlon is well refuted in detail here by our friend Dan Riehl over at Riehl World View but it is worth noting that Avlon is putting forth nothing other than the latest version of the Jerry Ford World View, merely applying it to talk radio.

Avlon cites Philadelphia talker Michael Smerconish as an example of the future. Smerconish, whom I know and like and on whose show I have appeared, is certainly a great guy. But friend Michael has bought into the Avlon worldview that included the certainty that conservatives like -- well -- Pat Toomey were unelectable in our home state of Pennsylvania. Indeed, when Arlen Specter departed the GOP Smerconish believed Toomey would not even be the nominee, it would be the Fordish ex-Governor Tom Ridge. The GOP, said Smerconish in Fordian style, had to "moderate" and grow that big tent. Now-Senator Toomey is surely amused at the thought that running as a conservative in Pennsylvania was a loser, an idea that now-former Senator Specter also insisted to me was an iron clad fact. Did I mention the fact Ford lost Pennsylvania (wince -- I was on the campaign staff) and Reagan won the state twice? 

As a matter of fact, when one reads Avlon's columns you'd swear he channels Jerry Ford as he fumes about GOP "wingnuts" (Ford preferred the term "zealots" or "these right-wingers" or "extremists"). This argument hasn't changed since 1976 (and long before that) -- although it does surface an irony. Those who are not devoted to what might be called the "purity of moderation" are identified as "wingnuts" who can't possibly win or who are losing ground on talk radio. Safe to say, precisely because Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin among others talk principle and educate and illustrate every day exactly why the purity of moderation is the real extreme in America -- they will be on your radio dial until the world really does end.

• Roger Ailes and Fox: Which brings us to the last example, the current hit piece on Roger Ailes and Fox News appearing in New York magazine. Written in the coy style of Fordism non-lite, the piece makes the occasional bow (one might say at this point in the legendary Ailes's career, obligatory bow) to Ailes' success as a television executive and political consultant. But pieces like this don't appear without purpose, and, predictably, the purpose is to stick it to Ailes and Fox.

Seeming compliments (Ailes is "in a sense, the head of the Republican Party") have a translation to the lefty reader of the New York media scene. (In this case the message is: Ailes isn't a journalist, he's a hack.) Writer Gabriel Sherman plows on that "the wheels have come off Fox's presidential circus caravan" because some of its commentators have left to run for president and aren't doing well in the polls. The small matter of Fox's shattering rating success is, well -- pay no attention to the man behind curtain. Those candidates, by the way, are dismissed as "loudmouths" given to "all the antics that often appear on his (Ailes') network." And so on, etc., etc., etc. From Vanity Fair to New York magazine, all that changes with attacks on Ailes is the size of the magazine. There's a pause to note that Ailes speaks regularly with former President George H.W. Bush, the writer letting his Inner Ford out of the bag when he describes Bush 41 as "one of the GOP's last great moderates." Somehow, had he been old enough to vote in 1988 and 1992 one suspects the writer would have cast his votes not for candidate Bush but for liberals Dukakis and Clinton.

In one form or fashion or another, the drive for statism is now, as it was when the Ford-Reagan struggle dominated the headlines, the real underlying fight in America and around the world. Defenders of the status quo -- a status quo that in America is now hovering around a hundred years old -- is still the name of the game for some. For them, ignoring the blunt realities in pursuit of the purity of moderation is nothing more or less than the Fordism of 1976 dressed up for the 21st century.

Whether the topic is Israel or the GOP 2012 nomination fight or McCain on enhanced interrogation or the (laughable) depiction of conservative talk radio as a dying breed or the hit job on Ailes -- the goal is exactly the same as it was in 1976. Ignore the reality of politics, principle, economics, or evil in favor of tinkering at the edges. Or risk being described as a "zealot" or a "wing nut" a simpleton -- or worse.

Which is why so many millions of Americans understand the reality of evil in the Middle East, are looking for a real conservative presidential nominee on the GOP side, and understand full well that enhanced interrogation helped bring Osama bin Laden to ground. It is exactly why the same millions see talk radio and its conservative stars as not only a fabulous success but a blessing. And it is also why Roger Ailes understands full well that being a target in yet another dopey liberal establishment magazine article is yet another indication he has succeeded in a fashion that his former candidate -- Ronald Reagan -- would have relished.

What is the main difference 35 years after the first Ford-Reagan battle in 1976?

Reagan wins the sequel.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.