Some of my talk radio colleagues insist that an Obama victory might be a blessing in disguise in the same way that Carter’s victory over Gerald Ford paved the way for Reagan’s election four years later. The common (and historically illiterate) formulation claims: “We had to go through jimmy Carter to get Ronald Reagan.” According to this logic, a disastrous Obama presidency will prepare the electorate for a future, Reagan-like conservative champion.
The most obvious problem with this analogy and this argument is that Ronald Reagan would have won the presidency in 1980, regardless of who won the general election in 1976. Remember, if Jerry Ford had bested Jimmy Carter in what turned out to be a very close race, he would have been term-limited under the 22nd Amendment. Reagan, who had lost to Ford in a breathtakingly close primary struggle, would have been his obvious successor due to his strong base within the party, national popularity, and support for the Ford-Dole ticket. His well-advertised policy and personal differences with Ford would have allowed him to offer a change in direction in 1980, even if Ford had been his predecessor. The idea that Reagan required the disastrous Jimmy Carter regime in order to capture the White House falls apart when considering his campaign of 1976—when, without the benefit of Democratic disgrace, he nearly captured the GOP nomination against a moderate incumbent and would have likely defeated Carter in the general election nearly as soundly as he did four years later.Reagan, in other words, won the presidency on a pro-Reagan vote (with tens of millions of loyal supporters) at least as much on an anti-Carter vote. This undeniable historical truth leaves an obvious question: who’s today’s Ronald Reagan, waiting in the wings to lead a united GOP and to unseat President Obama? The lack of any prominent conservative contender with a formidable national base is one of the most obvious arguments against the peculiar notion that, this year, Republicans can “win by losing.”
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