The catastrophic Congressional elections left the GOP feeling divided, dispirited, desperate and whipped. Strategists worried about the party’s long-term association with a bitterly polarizing President, who continued to inspire profound hatred from big segments of the electorate. With resurgent Democrats showing discipline and determination to regain the White House after two terms in the wilderness, the Republican rank-and-file felt uncertain and apathetic about the GOP’s most likely standard bearers.
Sound familiar? If so, that’s because this description applies not only to the Republican identity crisis of 2007 but to the situation which Ronald Reagan faced when he decided to make his first serious run for the White House in 1976 (eight years earlier he had made a half-hearted, last minute bid on the eve of the national convention).
If anything, conservatives in that earlier era faced even more daunting obstacles in trying to maintain their hold on the White House and to take control from the Democratic majorities in Congress. In 1975-75, Republicans held only 143 seats in the House of Representatives (compared to 202 today) and only 41 seats in the Senate (compared to 49 today). George W. Bush may be deeply unpopular with much of the public, but Richard Nixon had been driven from office by an indignant electorate for his apparent involvement in shabby criminal activity. In 2008, with Bush ineligible to run for re-election, the Republicans inevitably will present some fresh face to the public but in 1976, the GOP establishment tried to rally around the unelected, incumbent Gerald Ford (who looked vastly more formidable after his death than he ever did during his Presidency).
In short, Ronald Reagan’s historic success in rebuilding and reinvigorating his shattered and demoralized party should encourage us to replicate the transformation in the next two years. As we approach the birthday celebration (on February 6th) for this greatest Republican of our time, we should revisit the crucial victory lessons from President Reagan.
In all his campaigns for the California governorship and for the Presidency, Reagan demonstrated the timeless value of three essential political characteristics: clarity, cheerfulness and unity. If Republicans manage to emphasize and exemplify these traits they will win in 2008 and beyond and re-enforce their status as the nation’s majority party.