Approximately once every four years, the media establishment and certain "moderates" in the Republican Party decide to destroy a conservative candidate. They sharpen their blades and their tongues and they go into action, armed with the conviction that the vitriol of their pens will wither away the candidate's reputation and potential.
Very often, it works.
After all, what would you think of a candidate the Baltimore Sun calls a symptom of "the right, the radical right, which cherishes notions that often are too simple, too negative and too risky"? What would you believe about a candidate one liberal columnist calls "patently ridiculous … frivolous"? What would you say about a candidate one writer says is incapable of "accuracy or depth"? A candidate who "cater[s] to the fears and anxieties of the great middle class"?
Would you back a candidate one New York Times columnist calls "primitive"? That The New Republic calls an "ignoramus"? That The Nation labels "the most dangerous person ever to come this close to the presidency"?
Would you support a candidate even moderate Republicans despise? A candidate whose simple legitimization by the party constitutes a "political dance macabre … the dance of death for the Republican Party"? A candidate described by a moderate competitor as plagued with a "penchant for offering simplistic solutions to hideously complex problems"?
Could you ever support such a candidate?
Yes. You did. In 1976, 1980 and 1984. Because the candidate described in each of the above quotes is not the much-maligned current media punching bag Sarah Palin. It's Ronald Wilson Reagan.
Reagan was seen as a rube, a throwback to a nostalgically nonexistent past, an empty vessel spouting radical propaganda. He was stupid, incompetent, dangerous. Katie Couric would have torn him apart on primetime television. "Saturday Night Live" would have had a field day.And he won. He won big.
He almost wrested the Republican nomination from a sitting president in 1976. He won the White House in 1980 in a landslide that makes the recent Obama-McCain matchup look like Nixon/JFK 1960. He won it again in 1984 while turning Walter Mondale into Judge Doom at the end of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."
Here's the problem for the liberal media establishment and their erstwhile allies in the Rockefeller wing of the GOP: their hatred and scorn does not ensure their victory. Every Republican who does not have any Ivy League degree, who draws significant crowds, who does not pay homage to government spending and social libertinism, is derided as a boob and a fool. "Ridicule," said Saul Alinsky, "is man's most potent weapon."
Only sometimes, ridicule does not work.
Ridicule does not work when the times are too serious to merit the quick and easy dismissal of a promising candidate. It does not work when a candidate is simply too likeable to be pilloried as a budding mass murderer (the Democrats achieved that image with Goldwater, but they failed with Reagan). It does not work when a candidate is seen not just as an ideological warrior, but also as a truly human hero by millions across the country.
After Reagan's presidency, reporter and ardent Reagan foe Sam Donaldson of ABC explained his appeal. "We thought he was a lightweight, and maybe he didn't know everything, but he was a tenacious fellow who knew what he wanted." In the end, the American people knew what Reagan wanted, and they embraced him for it. And all the ridicule in the world didn't matter.