October 27, 1964. Fifty years ago. It was a Tuesday night, one week from election day. As the Johnson-Goldwater campaign wound to its end, with Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society liberalism he was championing poised to win in a landslide over GOP nominee Senator Barry Goldwater, Americans turned on their television sets to see one last political commercial. They quickly discovered a very familiar face in a very unfamiliar setting.
Actor Ronald Reagan, longtime movie and TV star, newly the host and occasional star of Death Valley Days, a weekly TV series based on the old West, was introduced by an off-screen voice for a “thoughtful address” sponsored by the Goldwater campaign. Suddenly, there was actor Reagan (here) standing behind a bunting-draped podium in front of a live audience. Within seconds, Reagan was on his way to changing American history. He began as follows:
Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you and good evening. The sponsor has been identified, but unlike most television programs, the performer hasn’t been provided with a script. As a matter of fact, I have been permitted to choose my own words and discuss my own ideas regarding the choice that we face in the next few weeks.
I have spent most of my life as a Democrat. I recently have seen fit to follow another course….
For the next thirty minutes, Reagan, fully aware of Goldwater’s impending loss, sailed directly against the prevailing political winds. He made the case for conservatism, illustrating repeatedly what biographer Steven F. Hayward terms Reagan’s belief that “government is a threat to liberty.” In the face of a landslide for LBJ and his Great Society Reagan was the warning :
This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.
You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There’s only an up or down—up to man’s age-old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.
Reagan directly addressed a charge that is heard today — that by opposing liberalism conservatives are always saying no, rejecting the charge out of hand:
Yet anytime you and I question the schemes of the do-gooders, we’re denounced as being against their humanitarian goals. They say we’re always “against” things—we’re never “for” anything.
Well, the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they’re ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.
Recalls biographer Hayward of the speech:
Reagan exuded a forward-looking optimism rooted in the latent greatness of America…. For Reagan, faith in America transcended its material accomplishments….[His] stylistic conservatism promised to lead the Republican Party out of the post-New Deal-era wilderness.
Time magazine said Reagan’s talk was “the one bright spot in a dismal campaign,” with columnist David Broder saying Reagan had “the most successful political debut since William Jennings Bryan.” Three weeks later, with Goldwater defeated and the 1964 campaign now in history’s rearview mirror, Reagan and his speech were the focus of the very first paragraph in a post-election New York Times analysis, written by the Times’s venerable Washington bureau chief Arthur Krock:
Washington, Nov. 18 — Perhaps the most cogent exposition of the conservative political philosophy during the campaign of 1964 was delivered by a professional actor, Ronald Reagan. At least this was indicated by the fact that his speech on television drew almost $1 million in small contributions from the video audience to Senator Goldwater’s campaign fund.
Krock’s praise was but one indicator that the speech — later titled “A Time for Choosing” — which had featuring Reagan in his first appearance on national television in an overt political role, had been no ordinary speech. Krock erred on the financial aspects. In fact, as Reagan himself later noted, the speech — which had a fundraising pitch attached at the end not made by Reagan himself — raised a stunning eight million dollars for the about-to-lose-in-a-landslide Goldwater campaign. Yet as important as were the financial results, the real importance of the speech was that Reagan had looked Americans in the eye and stood for something.
This coming October 27th marks the fiftieth anniversary of that speech, the one that history records as launching Reagan’s own stunningly successful political career that saw him just two years later elected governor of California in a million-vote landslide. Not to mention kick-starting the conservative movement and the GOP into serious high gear.
Fifty years later, as (depending on the predictor) the GOP is on the verge of either a “wave election” that will return the Senate to its control, an obvious fact presents itself. The Washington Post/ABCpoll reports that the favorability rating for the Democratic Party is 39 percent — but that of the GOP is lower still at 33 percent. So if in fact the GOP wins this election and retakes the Senate, why is the GOP as a whole held in such miserably low esteem?
The answer, it would seem, is obvious. What Reagan accomplished in 1964, as Krock described, was to present a “cogent exposition of the conservative political philosophy.” And as the years moved on, he never ever stopped doing this. Unfortunately, in the world of Republican presidential nominees and Republican presidents who would follow him, Reagan remains a stand-alone.
The other day, the Washington Post ran a story headlined: “People think Democrats ‘get’ them. But they are voting for Republicans.”
Among other things, the story — based on the Washington Post/ABC poll — reported that even with the “brand” of the Democrats being the worst in thirty years, “they remain the party that Americans empathize with the most. It’s almost as if Democrats are the party people would like to vote for, but they just can’t right now.” Reporter Aaron Blake goes on to note three “empathy questions” asked of respondents. They were:
1) Which party better represents your own personal values?
2) Which party is more concerned with the needs of people like you?
3) Which party better understands the economic problems people in this country are having?
In each case, the Democrats led Republicans here between eight to fourteen points.
Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech was the very embodiment of those three questions. He clearly presented conservatism as a representation of the personal values of Americans. He illustrated conservatism as “more concerned with the needs of people like you.” And he communicated in vivid terms that conservatism understood the “economic problems” Americans were having.
Look back on that “Time for Choosing” speech and contrast it with the Karl Rovian politics of GOP moderation that is causing such heartburn with conservatives. A few months back, for example, Mr. Rove noted: “Full disclosure: I donated to Mr. Cochran’s campaign and the super PAC that I help, American Crossroads, donated to Mississippi Conservatives in the primary and runoff.” Was the victory of Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran really a victory for conservatism — or Washington’s lobbying crowd?
As Brent Bozell wrote recently in Politico:
Today, Reagan is one of the most well-remembered American presidents and remains the standard-bearer for what it means to be a conservative Republican, popularizing a small government message that GOP moderates said was too extreme to resonate with voters. As with Rove’s predictions about Mitt Romney’s chances in 2012, GOP moderates couldn’t have been more wrong about Reagan.
Rove and his ilk have opposed every significant conservative leader who has ever dared to challenge liberal or moderate Republican orthodoxy. A history lesson: Moderates wanted Gerald Ford and then George H.W. Bush over Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980. Similarly, Karl Rove and his friends wanted Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey in 2010. They wanted Charlie Crist over Marco Rubio in 2010. They wanted David Dewhurst over Ted Cruz in 2012.
Karl Rove kneecapped tea party candidates in 2010. He called Rick Perry’s policy prescriptions, many which have had great success in Texas, “toxic.” Rove said Sarah Palin lacked “gravitas.” He has said Rand Paul “causes GOP squeamishness.”
And what does he think about conservatives in general? He’s called us the Republican Party’s “nutty fringe.” This is the same man Media Matters has dubbed the Republican “voice of reason.”
Reagan did not dilute his message. Reagan made the conservative case in bold, principled terms, over and over again. He did not seek to “move to the center”; instead he determined to move the center to the right. And he succeeded. The reason for the miserable ratings accorded the GOP in these polls is precisely that the party is seen as not standing for anything other than holding power.
In fairness to Mr. Rove, while he is most prominent here because of his White House service, he is far from alone in these moderate beliefs. This is standard GOP consultant mush. Programmatically it can mean anything from refusing to pledge to abolish the Department of Education, as Reagan attempted and Bush 43 refused to do, but instead furthering the federal interference with “No Child Left Behind.” Or it can mean Romneycare in Massachusetts. Or it can mean sponsoring — or signing into law — the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform that runs afoul of the First Amendment.
Why did Ronald Reagan win those landslides? Why did George W. Bush have such a difficult time winning and keeping the White House? Why did Mitt Romney and John McCain lose? Why is the Tea Party so powerful?
All one has to do to understand is re-visit that “Time for Choosing” speech from fifty years ago this month. It’s all right there — if one cares to look.