The two Republicans Carter’s political team feared most were Sen. Howard Baker and George Bush. Their favorite opponent: Ronald Reagan. Handling the extremist 69-year old ex-movie actor would be an easy piece of work, they thought, especially now that the issue of war and peace would be at the center stage of the 1980 campaign. “The American people,” (Carter White House chief of staff) Hamilton Jordan said, “are not going to elect a seventy-year old, right-wing, ex-movie actor to be president.” The polls supported Jordan’s confidence. In mid-December, a Gallup Poll showed Carter leading Reagan by a whopping 60 to 36 percent in a head-to-head match-up. (Carter pollster) Pat Caddell was confident of Reagan’s weakness. “There’s so much to work with, when you look at the data you just salivate.”
— Steven F. Hayward, The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order 1964-1980
So went one of the much reported views of the day on Ronald Reagan, this one by President Jimmy Carter’s White House chief of staff and campaign manager. In the event, in the three-way race for the presidency that actually took place in November of 1980 (the third candidate was Republican Congressman-turned-Independent Party nominee John Anderson), Reagan — trailing Carter in that December 1979 Gallup poll by a 60-36 percent margin — won the White House with 50.8 percent of the vote to Carter’s 41.0 percent, with Anderson scoring 6.6 percent in third. Reagan carried 44 states to Carter’s six-plus-the-District-of-Columbia.
Four years later, Reagan — the man so many elites of the day in both parties insisted could never win a national election — won re-election in a two-way race with 58.8 percent of the vote to former Carter Vice President Walter Mondale’s 40.6 percent. Reagan carried 49 states to Mondale’s one — the latter’s home state of Minnesota. And Mondale almost lost Minnesota — beating Reagan 49.72 percent to 49.54 percent — a skin-of-the-teeth difference of .18 percent.
Taken together, in his two races as the GOP nominee Reagan won a total of 1014 electoral votes to 62 for the two Democrats Carter and Mondale.
What does this say about the state of the GOP as all these presidential candidates take the debate stage tonight in Cleveland?
Among other things, it says that the party of “bold colors” that a triumphant Reagan left in the hands of the GOP Establishment has been, if you will, Bushized. Remade from the winning party of Reagan into a moderate GOP/Establishment-run party of what Reagan disdained as “pale pastels.” Perpetually timid, endlessly bungling of presidential elections, the 2012 version producing a so-called “autopsy” report that called for even more of what makes the party of GOP moderates a record-setting loser. At the congressional level its leadership campaigns in the style of Reagan’s bold colors — yet once elected governs in the style of Bush-style caution, all too willing to find an excuse not to confront its opposition on issues until the mythical “next time” — a myth because in fact the “next time” never arrives.
Much is made currently about Donald Trump’s blunt assessments of some of his rivals. But Trump, who has made a point of repeating “no more Bushes” in reference to Jeb Bush, has nothing on Reagan when it comes to the subject. Again, let’s turn to Steve Hayward’s thoroughly researched first volume of The Age of Reagan, with Hayward writing the following of the vice-presidential selection at the 1980 GOP Convention.
“There’s a lot of resistance to Bush,” a Reagan campaign staffer told Newsweek. “And it begins with Ronald Reagan.”
Reagan had a poor impression of Bush from the campaign, especially the famous clash in the New Hampshire debate in Nashua. “It imprinted with Reagan that Bush was a wimp,” an unnamed campaign aide told (political reporters) Jack Germond and Jules Witcover. Reagan himself said of Bush that “He just melts under pressure.” “If he can’t stand up to that kind of pressure, how could he stand up to the pressure of being President?” Reagan remarked to an aide.
In the end, amid the collapse of a supposed “dream ticket” that would have paired Reagan with ex-rival and former president Gerald Ford, with time running out Bush became the fallback choice. Setting in motion the eventual succession in 1988, with Bush campaigning as Reagan’s heir for what was called in the day “Reagan’s third term.”
Except, of course, it wasn’t.
In fairness to George H.W. Bush, a remarkable man and a decided hero of World War II, no two people are alike. If Bush could not be said to be Reagan, no one else could have been either. History will never record what might have been if Reagan had picked one of his two favorites for the job — Congressman Jack Kemp or then-Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt. But it is certainly possible to believe that a less Establishment pick would have avoided setting the GOP on course for the next twenty years of presidential election defeats (Bush in 92, Dole ’96, McCain ’08, Romney ’12) and the close-run elections that were the George W. Bush 2000 election (won by those famous 537 Florida votes and the Supreme Court) and the 2004 re-election won by a 100,000 scrape-through in Ohio.
It is also more than possible to imagine that a GOP president cast more in the Reagan mold than that of the Bushes would have avoided the fatal governing conceit that Margaret Thatcher called the “socialist ratchet.” Described as having a “conservative” take office only to keep in place the last leftist creations of a left-wing government — merely managing them better until defeated and handing the government back to the next set of governing leftists who in turn push the country even further left, the cycle repeating endlessly. In the case of Bush 41, this was evidenced with his broken, “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge and the nomination of liberal David Souter to the Supreme Court. Bush 43, resolute on 9/11, was less so when it came to the socialist ratchet. Refusing to try and abolish the Department of Education, a failed Reagan goal, Bush went the ratchet route by creating “No Child Left Behind,” leaving behind yet another Big Government program for future liberals to expand with more money and more regulations.
Comes now Donald Trump. Like Reagan a fighter. Like Reagan disdained by the Establishment even as growing numbers of average Americans swarm to his cause. Not to mention he is dismissed by all-too often snooty elites as having no possibility of winning the White House. Yet in spite of it all there stands Trump center stage in tonight’s debate, his presence as with Reagan’s years ago appalling his supposed political betters. None more so than Jeb Bush, who has in the past weeks (although not alone in this) dismissed Trump and his growing legions with ill-disguised contempt.
This is, not coincidentally, a position also occupied by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who will also be on the debate stage. Cruz too has performed with a Reaganesque verve, winning the contempt if not outright hostility of much of the Washington GOP Establishment — or, as Cruz labels the problem, the lobbyist-bureaucratic complex he calls the “Washington Cartel.”
Between the two they represent a revival of serious Reagan-style conservatism. The utter fearlessness in challenging the Ruling Class GOP Establishment that has in fact run the post-Reagan Republican Party into a ditch. Not so coincidentally with both men taking head on the moderate wing of the party that has come to be identified with the Bushes.
The contrast could not be more stark. And one of the questions as the debate unfolds is just how this 21st century of the Reagan-Bush divide will be presented by front-runner Trump. Because in a very real sense the Reagan-Bush divide is at the core of today’s GOP. Will the party open up, as Reagan forced it to do with the addition of evangelicals and blue-collar Democrats — “Reagan Democrats” as they came to be called? Will it mean what it says, and do what it says? Or will it continue to be what it has become in the Bush Eras 41 and 43. A country club party, filled with calls for “civility” as a substitute for bold conservative policy, always waiting for a “next time” to fight that somehow never seems to arrive.