Reagan Still Points the Way for Republicans

Today, conservatives and Republicans--not always one and the same, as we have seen recently in New York State--are feeling rightfully emboldened. Any notion that America had permanently shifted toward liberalism over the last few years was blown away on Election Day 2009. And yet it remains to be seen whether or not conservatives and Republicans (and also libertarians and independents) can work together, over the long haul, in the same partisan and ideological coalition.

A new book about the 1980 presidential campaign from Craig Shirley, a veteran political and communications operative who works effectively in the vineyards of both conservatism and Republicanism, provides some historical perspective on these dilemmas, reminding us how these feuds were successfully resolved in the past. Indeed, "Rendezvous With Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America" offers more than a few pointers on what conservatives and Republicans should do in the future. And on top of that, it’s is an illuminating look back at the watershed 1980 election.

As such, "Rendezvous With Destiny" is a fitting sequel to Shirley’s previous work about the 1976 presidential campaign, "Reagan’s Revolution." Both books are a significant contribution to our historical understanding. Yes, the 40th president is now permanently enshrined in the pantheon of American greatness, but even so, as the Gipper clears brush in that Great Ranch in the Sky, he should feel satisfied that his ’76 and ’80 campaigns have been so thoroughly, and artfully, chronicled.

The “hot news” from Shirley’s book is that he settles the issue of where “debategate” came from. That was the tempest-in-a-teapot chain of events, not revealed until 1983, through which the Reagan campaign got its hands on a copy of the briefing books used by President Jimmy Carter as he prepared to meet his Republican challenger. That wayward debate book was never seen by Reagan, but then-Republican Congressman David Stockman, who played Carter during the debate prep, did make use of it. Such things happen all the time in politics, but when a Republican is the beneficiary, well, it’s time for a Congressional investigation. And that’s exactly what happened. No criminality was demonstrated, nobody was convicted or even indicted. But for a while, back in ’83, “debategate” was quite the Beltway kerfluffle. Now, 26 years later, for all practical purposes, Shirley confirms what many had long suspected: The debate-book filcher was one Paul Corbin, a veteran Democratic operative and Kennedy family loyalist, who turned on Carter after the Georgian defeated Teddy Kennedy in the ’80 Democratic presidential primaries. Corbin died in 1990, and so a precise reckoning will never be possible but historians of political micro-scandal will marvel at Shirley’s exacting accumulation of circumstantial evidence, all pointing toward Corbin.

But for those more interested in the politics of today, Shirley’s book has much to offer. In the late 70s, the country stagnated and staggered under the misrule of Carter and Congressional Democrats; yet even so, the American people were not sure that they wanted to turn the country over to Republicans, who bore the scars of both the Depression and Watergate. Happily for the GOP, Reagan was a different kind of Republican; he was not the candidate of the country clubbers. As he said in 1977, “The New Republican Party I envision will not be, and cannot be, one limited to the country club-big business image.” And for their part, country club Republicans regarded Reagan with suspicion--a suspicion fed, of course, by the media and the liberal establishment. As National Review wrote of Reagan back then, “It seems that no one likes him... except the voters.”

In fact, Reagan was always more of a libertarian than a traditional conservative. Shirley reminds us that Reagan admired Thomas Paine, one of the more radical figures of the American Revolutionary era.“Paine, like Reagan, believed in challenging the status quo, not defending it,” Shirley writes. “Paine, like Reagan, believed that power should flow upwards and not downwards.” Or as Reagan himself said, consciously echoing Paine’s famous pamphlet, "Common Sense," “I’ve always thought of myself as a citizen politician, speaking up for the ideas and values and common sense of everyday Americans.” And so it was that he always proclaimed in his campaign stump speech-- “We have the power to begin the world over again”--not a typically conservative sentiment.

Yet for all the profound change that Reagan advocated, there were many who insisted that the 1980 election--which saw not only Reagan win the White House, but also the GOP win the Senate for the first time in 26 years, as well as making huge gains in the House--was just a blip in the inevitability of liberalism. Shirley has no patience for this: “The evidence is overwhelming that the election was by and large a rejection of big-government liberalism.” And ever the scrupulous researcher, Shirley gets a confirmation quote from NBC’s Tom Brokaw: “It was the end of the New Deal.”

One can argue with Brokaw’s assertion, of course. The crown jewel of the New Deal, Social Security, survived the Reagan years, continuing its growth, even to this day. And so did other, more recent, emblems of liberalism, including Medicare, Medicaid, and the Department of Education.

But at the same time, everybody knows that Reagan’s revolution--I was fortunate enough to have a small staff role in that campaign, and in his White House thereafter--broke the confidence of old-line liberalism. Reagan’s eight years in the Oval Office proved that a conservative could govern, and govern well.

And while there’s been much water over the dam in the two decades since Reagan left office, the fact remains that his ’80 campaign--in which the Gipper stood unabashedly for spending cuts, tax rate reductions, a stronger defense, and traditional values--received a thumping mandate from the American people.

Having documented what happened in that watershed year, Shirley reminds us: We did it before--combining conservatives, libertarians, and independents, all inside a big Republican tent--and we can do it again.

James P. Pinkerton is a Fox News contributor and fellow at the New America Foundation. Read more from him at