Would Reagan campaign like these dour Republicans? Actually, he did.

Ronald Reagan is famous for the optimism of his 1984 reelection campaign. But before that, as an outsider, his tone wasn't so different from those of today's Republicans.

Red McLenden/AP/File
Then-President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan are shown in their Olympic red jackets with USA Olympic medalists at the Los Angeles Summer Games in 1984.

A recent New York Times article was titled "Gloomy Republican Campaigns Leave Behind Reagan Cheer.” Like other recent think pieces, it suggested that several GOP candidates are painting a grim picture of the American condition, in contrast to the Gipper’s sunny optimism. 

Such articles err badly by overlooking historical context.

True, Republican contenders are talking a great deal about our nation’s problems. But there’s nothing unusual here: out-party candidates always do that.  In 1984, amid one of the great economic booms of the 20th century, Democratic candidate Walter Mondale said that “working Americans are worse off, and the middle class is standing on a trap door.” The most famous speech of that year was Mario Cuomo’s keynote: “There are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn’t show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or an education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day.”

During that campaign, President Reagan was indeed that optimist that many remember, running on the slogan, “It’s morning again in America.” But Mr. Reagan, just like his opponent, was working true to form. He was an incumbent running for reelection, and such candidates accentuate the positive just as predictably as their opponents stress the negative.

For most of his political career, by contrast, Reagan had been an outsider preaching that America had taken a wrong turn. He entered the national political stage in 1964 with an electrifying television address on behalf of Republican Barry Goldwater. “Somewhere a perversion has taken place,” he said. “Our natural, unalienable rights are now considered to be a dispensation of government, and freedom has never been so fragile, so close to slipping from our grasp as it is at this moment.” Toward the end of his speech, he spelled out the stakes: “We'll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we'll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”

Not very sunny, that.

Eleven years later, he launched his challenge to incumbent Republican Gerald Ford for the GOP presidential nomination, and his tone was only slightly less apocalyptic. In his announcement speech, he said: “In just a few years, three vital measures of economic decay – inflation, unemployment, and interest rates – have more than doubled, at times reaching 10 percent and even more. … A decade ago we had military superiority. Today we are in danger of being surpassed by a nation that has never made an effort to hide its hostility to everything we stand for.”

In 1980, Reagan was the GOP nominee against Jimmy Carter – and it was evening again in America. A few examples:

  • “And tragically as the cost of living keeps going up, the standard of living which has been our great pride keeps going down.” (Announcement of candidacy, Nov. 13, 1979)
  • “Never before in our history have Americans been called upon to face three grave threats to our very existence, any one of which could destroy us. We face a disintegrating economy, a weakened defense and an energy policy based on the sharing of scarcity.” (Acceptance speech, July 17, 1980)
  • “Our credibility in the world slumps further. The president proclaims we’ll protect the Middle East by force of arms and two weeks later admits we don’t have the force.” (VFW speech, Aug. 18, 1980)
  • "Eight million out of work. Inflation running at 18 percent in the first quarter of 1980. Black unemployment at about 14 percent, higher than any single year since the government began keeping separate statistics. Four straight major deficits run up by Carter and his friends in Congress. The highest interest rates since the Civil War – reaching at times close to 20 percent – lately down to more than 11 percent but now going up again. Productivity falling for six straight quarters among the most productive people in history." (Speech at Liberty State Park, N.J., Sept. 1, 1980)
  • “They're leading us into an economic dark ages.” (Speech in Houston, Oct. 29, 1980)

He continued his warnings even after his inauguration, and a major paper scolded him for his negativity. “President Reagan went on television 10 days ago to brace the country for the economic program he'll unveil on Wednesday. He painted a bleak picture then, but are things really so bad?”

The paper was, of course, The New York Times.

Jack Pitney writes his "Looking for Trouble" blog exclusively for the Monitor's Politics Voices.

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