Political Hay

Reagan’s 1986 Election

What I learned from the Oldest & Wisest about an on off-year election in the sixth year of a two-term presidency.

By 10.16.06

Send to Kindle

As Ronald Reagan was thanking me I was both depressed and embarrassed.

It was November, 1986. After a solid two years of effort, the Congressional elections in the sixth year of the Reagan presidency had gone badly.

The 1980 Reagan landslide over Jimmy Carter had produced twelve new Republican Senate seats, giving the GOP a Senate majority for the first time since 1954. It made the Senate a critical ally for Reagan as he set about rebuilding the nation's military, getting forward-looking young conservatives onto the federal bench and passing the landmark tax cuts needed to revitalize an almost crippled economy. The House was more problematical. A bastion of liberal Democrats with a mindset still stuck somewhere between1935 and 1965 on economics. Its more outspoken members loved reliving their glory days opposing the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon.

The political goal for the Reagan White House had been to hold that Senate majority and make some incremental gains in the House, the latter last accomplished by FDR in 1934. As Reagan biographer Lou Cannon later wrote, President Reagan had agreed to an "extraordinary midterm campaign effort," for his sixth year. Certainly the President knew, as did all of us who worked for him, that year number six of a two-term presidency was historically a killer for Presidents when it came to congressional elections. The mighty Franklin Roosevelt had gotten clobbered in 1938, the beloved Dwight Eisenhower saw his party buried in 1958. Still, Reagan chose to fight. Rereading Cannon's account of that time period brings those memories flooding back.

The President traveled 24,000 miles for 54 appearances in 22 states. He raised some $33 million for Republican candidates. Over and over again, from one airport hangar to the next town square, he restated conservative principles. In the middle of it all we had to call a halt while he suddenly re-routed Air Force One to Reykjavik, Iceland, for a surprise summit with the Soviet Union's Mikhail Gorbachev. Returning in a hail of negative press for walking away from a deal to give up the Strategic Defense Initiative (it was only years later that his refusal to abandon the principle of military strength won him credit for toppling the Soviet Union), he picked up the fight. Extra campaign stops were laid on, many of us suddenly catching planes to California or North Carolina or Nevada to speak or lend a hand to the over-stretched advance operation abruptly charged with the details of yet another presidential stop at some destination we ourselves had recommended. Only once did the ever-protective Mrs. Reagan protest that I can remember, putting her foot down at the notion her husband was being sent to a Western state with a same-day return to Washington. Firmly noting the president's age (75) and the fact that he was already putting in a schedule that would exhaust a man half his years, she saw to it that there would be an overnight breather at his Santa Barbara ranch, much closer indeed.

And what did all of this win for the Reagan presidency? A loss of 9 of those 12 seats gained in 1980 and the end of the GOP Senate Majority. House races, which I was shepherding, produced a loss of five seats. While not bad for a six-year election, it was not the victory everyone wanted.

SO OUR TRIP TO THE OVAL OFFICE that November day found my colleagues and myself both depressed and embarrassed. The President had trusted us completely, followed every last piece of advice -- and we thought we had our clock cleaned. In the New York Times liberal columnist Anthony Lewis had triumphantly written a column entitled "The End Begins: Radical Right Movement Has Crested." (Notice how Lewis substituted "radical right" for "conservative." Can you say "BOO!!"?)

But there was something curious going on that day in the Oval Office. If the staff was depressed at the results, Ronald Reagan was not. The best way to describe his attitude was serene. I wondered the obvious; why?

The answer could be found in another nickname than the one he was most famous for having -- "The Gipper." In the 1980 campaign, amidst the flurry of charges that Reagan was too old to be president, he had been given another lesser known moniker by his friend Jack Kemp: The O&W. The Oldest and Wisest.

As the Reagan presidency played out the nickname not only proved accurate, it helped those of us who were in the White House realize that this was a President with a deep reservoir of experience not just in politics but in life itself. Yes, he was the oldest President and certainly the oldest amongst his young staff. He was also, as Kemp had realized, one very wise man.

The 1986 election was, in Reagan's eyes, nothing more than a solitary lost election. Would it cause his presidency problems for the last two years of his term? Sure. But had the conservative movement that he had led into the White House "crested"? One can almost see that famous twinkle in his eyes at the mere thought of Anthony Lewis's assessment.

In his lifetime Ronald Reagan had participated in a lot of lost elections, including the 1964 Goldwater landslide loss to LBJ and, perhaps most notably, his own defeat for the Republican presidential nomination to Gerald Ford in 1976. It was, in fact, his loss to Ford that summoned from Reagan an eloquent description of his thoughts on the subject. Quoting a Dryden ballad he had memorized as a child, he told his emotional supporters: "Lay me down and bleed a while. Though I am wounded, I am not slain. I shall rise and fight again."

And, of course, that's just what he did. By 1986 the idea of an election loss was something he now understood in his bones to be only a brief detour on the long road to a conservative victory in America. Reagan understood that it was not the end of the world if you lost, but it was decidedly not OK not to fight. So in spite of all the jeering from the press, he fought. A serious look at the results of that 1986 fight caused Lou Cannon to later note that, "Reagan may actually have had a greater impact in the 1986 elections.." Why? Because deep in the internals of the post-election polls it became clear that after Reagan had gone back on the campaign trail post-Reykjavik, again and again restating his conservative principles, his candidates went up -- not down. The Nevada candidate who was down in the polls by 13 points lost his Senate race by 6. The California Senate candidate lost by a razor-thin 2 points, closer than any of his poll numbers. "Nationally," Cannon reminds of the 1986 election, "Republican candidates for the Senate fared better in percentage terms (49 percent) in 1986 than when the same seats were up in 1980 (47 percent)."

The Oldest and Wisest knew that the Reagan era was in fact only a chapter -- albeit a fairly dramatic chapter -- in what was an endless story about, as he also said, "millions and millions of Americans who want what (conservatives) want...that want it (America) to be that city on a shining hill." Not from Ronald Reagan would there ever be an apology for his beliefs, nor any second guessing of what he always knew was nothing more than a momentary setback. He had relentlessly campaigned on his principles, and regretted not a moment of it. As I watched that day in the Oval Office, when we were done, he simply smiled, sat back down behind his desk and moved on to changing America -- and not so coincidentally, the world.

LET'S LEAVE 1986 AND TAKE A LOOK at the following randomly selected events from recent headlines.

* Leftist students shut down a presentation by representatives of the Minutemen border patrol group at Columbia University.

* New CBS anchor Katie Couric's ratings plummet after barely a month on the air.

* North Korea tests a nuclear weapon after promising the Clinton administration that they would never do so. Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright acknowledges that the North Koreans cheated on their promise.

Each of these issues touches on core principles of the conservative revolution which Reagan led and why he had so much long-term confidence in the response of the American people to those conservative principles.

The Columbia students, of course, illustrated quite visually a philosophy of liberal intolerance for dissent and free speech that repeatedly drives thoughtful Americans into the arms of the conservative movement.

CBS and Ms. Couric's failure illustrates a point that was easily predictable before Katie even sat down in the anchor chair. Putting Rush Limbaugh on CBS air in a "free speech" segment certainly pumped Couric's ratings for a moment. But conservatives -- Reagan were he here and surely Limbaugh himself -- realized exactly what the problem was that lie ahead. CBS tried to demonstrate that they were free of liberal bias by giving ol' Rush a few seconds of airtime. What they had no intention of doing was eliminating the liberal bias of the show's writers, producers and reporters, much less of Ms. Couric herself. Result? The new boss is the same as the old boss. The philosophical presentation of the new CBS News hasn't changed a whit from the days when Dan or Walter or Bill Moyers looked somberly into the lens to insist they were telling the news "the way it was." Still, there had to be a terrifying "ping" when CBS execs realized that Rush Limbaugh brought higher ratings to CBS News than Dan Rather ever could. Could -- would -- that ever happen? Would they have the guts to make "America's anchorman" the CBS anchorman? The people in charge of CBS News would sooner crunch down on a cyanide tablet before naming Rush Limbaugh or any other conservative the anchor and managing editor of their show. Even if it meant winning the ratings for the next century. Fair and balanced is not now or ever in the cards at CBS, and Ms. Couric's ratings have tumbled accordingly. Besides, why would Rush Limbaugh want a demotion?

Last but not least is North Korea. It's all been said, including by me in this space. Appeasement has become the staple of the modern day Democratic Party. It has been so since 1968. It didn't work then, it didn't work in 1994. It didn't work for Chamberlain, it didn't work for Carter or Clinton and it won't work now. A majority of Americans understand that. Again as Reagan knew, they also understand that conservatives understand.

No matter where you look, from think tanks to talk radio shows, from television to publishing, from religion to law to the Internet, the conservative future is not just simply here, it is the future itself. (The conservative present usually rides pretty high on the New York Times bestseller list, too!)

No deviant Congressman, no bad polls or a lost election will stop this.

Ronald Reagan understood that. Eventually so did I, never again depressed and embarrassed over the 1986 election.

Conservatives can take a lesson from The Oldest and Wisest. Smile, stick to first principles -- and go back to work. Another victory is always -- always -- just around the corner.

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.