6. Challenging Ford in '76
San Francisco — Ronald Reagan is pelting Jimmy Carter with a lot more than fruit these days, and he certainly has no interest in sitting in the President's lap. He is, indeed, being taken seriously in his quest for the White House.
On that November night in 1966 when Reagan was elected governor of California , an enthusiastic supporter at the victory celebration unfurled a hand-painted "Reagan for President" banner. At the time, it probably appeared like hopeful whimsy.
But in retrospect, it seems clear that Reagan had at least one eye on the presidency for much longer than most people realize. Today, his low-key persistence, coupled with changing political and social tides, and a significant demographic shift have brought Reagan close to his goal.
The Reagan gubernatorial campaign 14 years ago, if not pitched to a broad American audience, certainly was aimed at issues of national concern: minority unrest (with its parallel issues of crime and social welfare costs), rising taxes, and campus turmoil. He had been speaking out against big government and the threat of communism for years on the lecture circuit. His campaign theme, "Creative Society," had the potential for wide national appeal.
Publicly, Reagan has always been the "citizen politician." waiting (somewhat reluctantly, we are told) for "lightning to strike."
"The man does not seek the office," he is fond of saying. "The office seeks the man."
But looking at those early days of his administration in Sacramento, it is obvious that he was already a potent force in American politics, one who had a significant "recognition factor" in the polls and was constantly being "mentioned" by columnists and other pundits.
Just month after he was inaugurated in January 1967, Reagan gained control of the California Republican delegation as a "favorite son" for the following year's presidential primary election. He said it was to strengthen his state's delegation and refused to "lift a finger" in seeking delegates elsewhere. But he also did not discourage his name being listed on the ballots of other states.
Meanwhile, his early controversial moves (taking a hard-nosed stand against the University of California and its more radical elements, for example) kept him in the national spotlight.
He had promised not to use his newly won post as a springboard for national office, but one of his own speeches revealed a broader vision:
"We are being watched; watched by those all across this land who once again dare to believe that our concept of responsible people-oriented government can work as the Founding fathers meant it to work. If we can prove that here, we can start a prairie fire taht can sweep across this country."
Writing in their 1967 book, "The Republican Establishment," Stephen hess and David Broder said, "Reagan's men are dead serious about his national ambitions." At the time, Reagan had been in office less than nine months.
"His out-of-state trips were only taken to places where there were going to be primaries where he might be on the ballot whether he wanted to be or not," recalls a former top staff member. "He knwo that I and another staffer took a leave of absence and went to Miami Beach [where the Republican convention was to be held] to set up an office down there."
Reagan may have been listening closely to his enthusiastic aides and wealthy California supporters who were urging him to run more openly and vigorously in 1968. But, practically speaking, he hesitated too long as the Republican tide swept away from him. barry Goldwater Sen. John Tower ofd Texas, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and other conservative Republicans thought the party needed someone viewed as more moderate to bring about unity and avoid a replay of the 1964 debacle. Richard Nixon was their man. Wasn't close to Nixonm
Following the August 1968 convention, Reagan campaigned vigorously for the Nixon-Agnew ticket. he stumped in 22 states (including the seven major industrial states) -- more than any other Republican governor. He worked hard for his party, and it would later reward him with the nomination that had eluded him for now.
Over his next six hears in California reagan built a creditable reputation as governor. He remained in the national limelight with programs, such as welfare reform, which was copied in other states and influenced the direction of federal assistance to the needy.
The President Nixon sent him on a number of diplomatic missions overseas. He did not appear to have strong ties with the Nixon White House and he admitted privately on one occasion that the "chemistry" between the former president and himself was not right. However, when Watergate hit he publicly defended the beleaguered President much longer thatn some other prominent Republicans did. And even when the famous "smoking gun" had been found in the case, he said that the Watergate defendants "were not criminals as heart."
Richard Nixon's abdication and the elevation of Gerald Ford to the presidency threw a hitch in Reagan's long-laid plans for 1976. He kept to the Republican "Eleventh Commandment" ("Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow REpublican") for a time, and President Ford named him to the special commission investigating the Central Intelligence Agency. It was later revealed that Mr. Ford had offered the California governor several Cabinet posts, including Secretary of Transportation and Secretary of Commerce.
In retrospect, Reagan and Ford seem to have underestimated each other early in the 1976 campaign.
"Some of my closest advisers . . . had been warning me for months to prepare for a difficult challenge from Ronald Reagan," Ford writes in his 1979 book, "A time to Heal." "I hadn'T taken those warnings seriously because I didn't take Reagan seriously."
At first perceiving his challenger as one who offered "simplistic solutions to hideously complex problems," Ford later determined that Reagan "was far more knowledgeable about a wide range of issues than many people thought." It was the same mistake that California Gov. Pat Brown had made 10 years earlier.
For his part, Reagan watched some of his old corporate supporters (as well as many California Republicans who had surrounded him during his first term as governor) drift over to the Ford camp as the Republican establishment began to close ranks around the incumbent.
At first it looked as if the Reagan effort would fizzle before it left the ground. He lost the crucial first primary in New Hampshire and the next four (including Florida) as well.
One of the causes of this early stumble, analysts insist, was his having stated that $90 billion in federal programs could be returned to the states. In the words of a conservative columnist at the time, this gave the Ford campaign "a stationary target at which to shoot."
This shadow of misstatements by Reagan (which has been seen this year as well) continued to follow him:
* He said that the poor and minorities could "vote with their feet" if welfare programs were turned over to state governments.
* In arguing against national health insurance, he said the United States had more doctors per capita "than any other nation on earth." The US, in fact, was 14th in this catagory.
* He advocated sending American troops into Rhodesia and drew criticism for his blunt statements on the Panama Canal. On this latter issue, Senator Goldwater accused him of "gross factual error" that could "needlessly lead this country into open military conflict,"
* His comments on the possibility of turning over the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to private interests probably cost him the popular vote in that state's Republican primary.
REagan went on to win key states later in the primary season, however, and the nomination was still not locked up going into the convention at Kansas City, Mo.
His flair for the dramatic and controversial was demonstrated when he announced before party delegates convened that he had chosen liberal Republican Sen. Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania as his running mate. The idea, he said, was to unite moderate and conservative republiccans. More likely, say some, the goal was to draw delegates from Pennsylvania and other Northeastern states as well.
In any case, the maneuver failed and Reagan lost the Republican nomination by a scant 61 convention votes. Roots of the 1980 campaignm
Reagan's 1980 campaign for the presidency began virtually the day after the 1976 election. With $1 million in surplus campaign funds, "Citizens for the Republic" was launched in January 1977 to enhance Reagan's political power.
In February 1979, Congressional Quarterly reported that the Reagan group had become "the Goliath of the Republicans PACs" (political action committee). With a mailing list of more than 100,000 persons, it had raised a $1 million kitty to more than $4.5 million by the end of 1978. It contributed to 400 Republican candidates across the United States -- from would-be US senators to county clerks. Citizens for the Republic accounted for 80 percent of all Republican PAC spending in 1978.
Reagan, meanwhile, kept in the public eye through his syndicated newspaper column and radio broadcasts as well as public speaking engagements, for which he charged as much as $5,000.
And while the Californian was keeping his presidential hopes alive, significant changes were occuring in the nation -- changes that added up to pluses for the candidate.
Reagan came as close as he did to unhorsing President Ford in 1976 by winning key states in the South, then taking Texas and almost all of the other Sunbelt and Western states. This reflects the important demographic shift westward (the 1980 census is expected to show that the nation's population center has crossed the Mississippi River). Also Reagan is perceived as one who would be the nation's first "true" Western President. This year's election will be the first in which most voters live in the South or West.
Just as important, the complexion of the Republican Party is changing in broad terms from "Eastern Tory" toward "Western Populist." Men like sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Paul Laxalt of Nevada are its spokesmen in Washington; people like Phyllis Schlafly and Howard Jarvis are their grass-roots counterparts. The failure of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to gain ratification and the "sagebrush rebellion" in the West are two of its symbols.
At the same time, the number of Americans who Identify themselves as Democrats (and especially liberals) continues to drop, while self-described conservatives increase in number. It is a time when a liberal Democratic senator like Gary Hart of colorado finds it necessary to say, "There is no longer an assumption that creating a government program is the way to go."
A third significant change since 1976, and one that appears to be working to Reagan's benefit, is the sharp politicization of evangelical Christians.
All three major presidential candidates this year have called themselves "born-again Christians " but it is Ronald Reagan who appears most helped by this new movement.
This was most apparent at a convention of 15,000 fundamentalist religious leaders in Dallas recently. Literature comparing the candidates' positions on such things as school prayer, abortion, tax-free status for church schools, school busing, the ERA, and homosexuality made it clear who the various groups favored. Crusading for the familym
When Reagan (the only candidate to attend) was intro that swelled, ebbed, and swelled again.
The group had heard the Rev. Jerry Falwell, television preacher and head of the politically powerful group Moral Majority, tell them: "We are not preempted from going into the political arena and fighting our battles there . . . . In fact we're obligated to do it."
A group called Christians for Reagan took out full-page ads in conventional literature, and many people there wore small, gold "VOTE" pins, with the "T" an obvious cross. Reagan was applauded when he charged that the federal government "has become morally neutral." He received a standing ovation when he quoted the Republican Party platform's support for "the primacy of parental rights and responsibilities."
"I believe that 90 percent of the evangelicals will go for Ronald Reagan: not because he is born again, but because he agrees with us on the moral issues that are facing the nation today," said one man at the Dallas meeting. "There's a new fervency among the born-again vote regarding pro-family issues."
This fervency is typified by such groups as the Rev. Mr. Falwell's Moral Majority, the National Pro-Life Political Action Committee, and Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum.
It is expressed in the Family Protection Act, federal legislation proposed by Senator Laxalt, co-chairman of the Reagan campaign committee. The bill would give parents much greater control over public schools, promoted voluntary prayer in public buildings, the deny federal funds for the purchase of textbooks "which belittle traditional women's roles in society." It would also forbid federal interference in areas of child abuse or spouse abuse and deny federal legal services funds for lawsuits concerning school desegregation, divorce, or homosexual rights.
Reagan has not spoken out publicly concerning the legislation. But Edwin Meese, his campaign staff director, told the Monitor: "I think in general he supports the basic principals that are embodies in the act."
It was clear from the convention in Dallas that newly politicized fundamentalist Christians support the Laxalt bill, even though at this point it would appear to have little chance of passage in Congress.
And it was also clear that the Dallas group and the millions of Americans it represented have helped bring Reagan to within one selection of becoming President.
Next: Ronald Reagan's family