Without doubt Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan were both gentlemen to their core.
Yet as the headlines and airwaves fill the beginning of the New Year with the inevitable and much deserved tributes to the late President Ford, it will also be an appropriate time to have a respectful review of the struggle for the soul of the Republican Party that brought the two men into such ferocious political combat exactly thirty years ago. The substance of their debate, similar in importance to a latter day GOP-style Lincoln-Douglas debate, is a struggle that continues today, looming ahead for the 2008 election and beyond.
Simply put, in 1976 Gerald Ford represented the long-dominant moderate wing of the Republican Party, Reagan its underdog conservative champion. For Reagan even to challenge Ford was a dramatic statement of what was at stake within the GOP. The only un-elected president in history was in the White House in the first place because of the double trauma that was Vice President Spiro Agnew’s corruption conviction followed by Watergate. There were many Republicans who felt the last thing the party needed in the wake of Richard Nixon’s resignation was a challenge to his well-liked successor.
But Reagan went ahead anyway. As much of a nice guy as Jerry Ford was, Reagan was convinced Ford and the moderates were just plain wrong about their policy towards the Soviet Union and the entire go-along-to-get-along approach that Reagan believed was responsible for keeping the GOP locked into a seemingly endless minority status in Washington.
The story of 1976 has been told and retold often. How the upstart challenger lost primary after primary to Ford and the GOP establishment, how his campaign gained a new life with victory in the North Carolina primary that focused on Ford’s support for giving away the Panama Canal, in reality a debate over America’s role in the world. There followed the grueling cross-country duel between the two that ended in a dramatic razor thin Ford victory at the Kansas City Convention — where Reagan stunned the delegates with an impromptu post-nomination speech that left many convinced they had just nominated the wrong guy.
BUT THERE’S MORE TO THE STORY. The story, in fact, continues right to this day, the Ford-Reagan storyline emerging unmistakably in the current debate over Iraq as well as in the upcoming debate over the future of Social Security.
Beloved as he most deservedly was, outside of the courageous Nixon-pardon (for which history now gives him credit) Gerald Ford’s legacy in the Republican Party is not his own. It is, rather, the legacy of a mindset — the cautious, some would say timid, mindset of the Eastern liberal Republican establishment. In 1976 that mindset favored accommodation with the Soviet Union instead of victory, viewing the latter as impossible, its advocates (read: Reagan) extremists. When it came to taxes, it listened to Keynes rather than Friedman. The then brand new issue of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion found Ford and the moderates in favor of letting judges make the law while Reagan both opposed abortion and favored leaving the choice to the people through their state legislatures. Opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment was something the moderates considered a game of primitives, Reagan another issue for legislatures and the Congress.
The difference was between, as Reagan liked to say, a party of “pale pastels” (moderates) and a party of “bold colors” (conservatives). Ford was the Pastel-in-chief of the day, Reagan the undeniably boldest and brightest of party colors. Ford, a man of the Congress, approached issues with an eye to accommodation. Reagan, the liberal-turned-conservative, believed in leadership by principle. One wanted to get along, the other wanted to bring you along in his direction. One sought the political center, the other sought to move the political center.
Thirty years later, the results of each man’s record are in. Without question the Republican Party was successfully remade in Reagan’s “bold colors” image — not that of Ford’s pastels. To the extent that there was a Ford Republican successor in the White House it was the first President Bush. Elected as a Reaganite, once inaugurated he followed a Ford-like accommodationist, “get-along” approach. Reneging on his Reaganesque pledge not to raise taxes drew praise from Democrats in Washington — but promptly caused conservatives to abandon Bush to defeat, a defeat at the hands of a thoroughly Reaganized base.
Yet it is precisely the moderate sentiments of the Ford administration (and sometimes Ford’s actual advisers — national security advisor Brent Scowcroft to name one) who have been most outspoken in the internal GOP debates opposing the current President Bush’s bold move into Iraq. Iraq is in effect the Ford-Reagan debate over the Panama Canal and America’s role in the world all over again. Indeed, one report now surfaces from Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein that Ford himself opposed the invasion of Iraq. Press accounts have Ford Pastels rolling their eyes at George H.W. Bush’s son as they once rolled them at Reagan, some left speechless by the post-9/11 transformation into Reagan-like hardliners of former Ford staff members Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.
IN THE MIDST OF ALL THIS, incredibly, comes word that the Bush administration has opened the door to the decidedly un-Reagan idea of raising the payroll tax cap to get a Ford-like “deal” with Congressional Democrats on Social Security. One is left amazed at the thought that there are those Bush advisers who are signaling that the way to a legacy for Bush 43 is to imitate his father’s greatest failure. A failure that resulted from the decidedly Ford-like view that “getting along” was the key to a successful presidency.
The late Democratic House Speaker “Tip” O’Neill was one of President Ford’s great friends in Congress. That friendship, both in the halls of Congress and on the golf course, was based on the idea that even though the two were in opposite parties they could “cooperate,” as O’Neill said in a statement released when Ford became president. Reagan, to the contrary, had what he called his “six o’clock” rule, which meant that before six at night he and O’Neill would be the most partisan of partisans — and afterwards they could have a drink together. The difference was subtle but important. Ford the pastel moderate wanted to find a way to please Tip and his friends, Reagan the bold conservative was interested in beating Tip flat out and changing the country. It is more than curious that Ford will get credit for this behavior only at his literal death, with no nation-changing policies to show for it. Reagan, on the other hand, was able to count a number of major policy changes while still very much alive and in office because he simply refused to play the “go-along-get-along” game.
Make no mistake. Gerald R. Ford was a good and decent man, a man with precisely the right personal temperament to soothe the body politic in August of 1974. But at the end of the day, his moderate sentiments won him neither re-election nor a ranking in the top tier of great American presidents. Ironically, it may well be that his greatest contribution was playing Stephen A. Douglas to Reagan’s Abraham Lincoln in the 1970s Republican Party version of the famed — and historically important — Lincoln-Douglas debates.
As the presumed 2008 Republican presidential candidates gather to honor Ford they will no doubt be pondering both the results of his unexpected presidential career and the titanic struggle he had with Ronald Reagan over the future of the Republican Party and the country.
As the country says goodbye to Gerald Ford amidst the clamor over Iraq and yet another argument over taxes, the principled debate Ford and Ronald Reagan stirred so passionately in 1976 is set to continue one more time.
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