"Isn't our choice really not one of left or right, but of up or down? Down through the welfare state to statism, to more and more government largesse accompanied always by more government authority, less individual liberty and, ultimately, totalitarianism, always advanced as for our own good. The alternative is the dream conceived by our Founding Fathers, up to the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with an orderly society."
Aug. 23, 1984
I wasn't a fan of Ronald Reagan when he was president. I had the opportunity to vote for him, but I didn't. I don't regret my choice. At the time, I was a Democrat, and I wouldn't have thought of voting for anyone other than the Democrat in any race. It's how I was brought up.
Even if I had not been brought up by diehard Democrats, that was age–appropriate for that time in my life, as I understand it. Winston Churchill reportedly said, "Anyone who isn't a liberal by age 20 has no heart. Anyone who isn't a conservative by age 40 has no brain." (Note: I say "reportedly" because I have found no proof that Churchill actually said or wrote those sentences. I don't know who did, but I do know that I have heard those sentences all my life, and they seem to be one of those unattributable truisms. Whoever said or wrote it was spot on in his/her evaluation of the progression of life.)
Well, I don't know what all that says about me. As I have acknowledged before, I am now an independent. I feel like Joe Piscopo, who recently wrote that he wasn't ready to embrace the Republican Party, but "[i]n good conscience ... I can't continue to call myself a Democrat."
That is reminiscent of what Reagan frequently told his audiences — that he had been a Democrat as a young man but became a Republican after the Democrats moved away from the things that drew him to the party in the first place. He would conclude his story by asking his audiences, "Did I leave the Democratic Party? Or did the Democratic Party leave me?"
I didn't understand Reagan's appeal to ordinary Americans. I suppose I bought the line of thinking that insisted Reagan was hopelessly nostalgic about a simpler time in American history and determined to revive that time instead of leading the nation forward into the future.
I couldn't understand Reagan's appeal. I knew people who voted for Reagan 30 years ago. Everyone did. He ended up winning 49 states and receiving more than 58% of the popular vote in the last real landslide in American history. Oh, I know that there have been times when candidates have won by "landslide" — even though they were no such thing. Historically, a landslide has occurred when one candidate received more than 55% of the popular vote and more than 400 electoral votes from 40 states or more.
Landslides were almost routine from 1964 to 1984. Three of the six presidential elections held in that time fit that description, but none of the seven elections held since 1984 have. Some have been called landslides, but none truly were. And, as evenly divided as America is today, I doubt that we will see a landslide like the one from 1984 in the near future — unless an extraordinarily charismatic candidate emerges.
To be honest, I never thought Reagan was all that charismatic, but, clearly, a large number of Americans did. In hindsight, I see some things differently than I did at the time, which is understandable, as I was quite young, but one thing that I have always known was that Reagan was an effective speaker. I didn't know why he was so effective at that time.
I was always envious of that. He had a folksy kind of charm that made many people in 1980 realize that he was not the warmongering ogre his critics said he was. There were a lot of horror stories spread about Reagan that seemed less and less valid to people the longer he was in office. There is no doubt that many of the things his opponents said about him were true, but reasonable people look at the record and see that Reagan was president for eight years — and he never launched a nuclear attack on anyone. His detractors warned that he would have America in a nuclear war within days of taking office. Once they got past that image, they wondered how many other falsehoods they had been told.
As a Democrat, I hoped he would be replaced when he sought a second term, that his election had been a mistake that voters would redress. But, on this night 30 years ago, when I watched him accept the Republican nomination in Dallas, I knew he would win in November.
I don't know how I knew. But I didn't tell any of my Democrat friends the conclusion I had reached. I didn't want to discourage them.
Thirty years ago tonight, Reagan told his fellow Americans that the choice was simple — it was between "their government of pessimism, fear and limits, or ours of hope, confidence and growth.
"Their government sees people only as members of groups," he continued. "Ours serves all the people of America as individuals. ... Theirs lives by promises, the bigger the better. We offer proven, workable answers.
On the surface, that sounds good. No American disagrees with that statement, right? At least, as long as "theirs" and "ours" remain undefined. It's only when you go deeper into a candidate's philosophy on individual issues that he/she can legitimately be labeled conservative or liberal.
I knew people who voted for Reagan who probably disagreed with him 70–80% of the time, but they voted for him because they thought he was a strong leader. I understood that mentality in 1980, when Reagan ran against the discredited Jimmy Carter, who rode a populist wave into the White House four years earlier. Carter was widely perceived to be a failure. Again, in hindsight, I am inclined to believe that anyone who got the Republican nomination that year was destined to win.
I disagreed with the majority's assessment, but I honestly believed Reagan's victory in 1980 had been a fluke.
But, by 1984, Reagan had a track record. It was one with which I was not impressed, but it clearly impressed others, and his acceptance speech was filled with references that resonated with his listeners, both those in the convention hall in Dallas and the millions watching at home.
Such as the misery index, a calculation Democrats used in Carter's campaign against President Ford in 1976.
"[A]dding the unemployment and inflation rates, [Democrats] got what they called a misery index," Reagan said. "In '76 it came to 12.5%. They declared the incumbent had no right to seek re–election with that kind of a misery index. Well, four years ago, in the 1980 election, they didn't mention the misery index, possibly because it was then over 20%. And do you know something? They won't mention it in this election, either. It's down to 11.6 and dropping."
Reagan never stooped to name calling. His rhetoric was almost always positive; he tended to save his put–downs for himself. Perhaps that was what people found so appealing.
It may be why he could get away with blatantly emotional rhetoric, as he did near the end of his acceptance speech when he spoke of repairs that were being made to the Statue of Liberty.
"Just this past Fourth of July, the torch atop the Statue of Liberty was hoisted down for replacement," Reagan observed. I will never forget the cameras scanning the crowd of delegates and coming to rest on the face of a young woman, a delegate standing on the floor of the convention hall, looking up at Reagan, her hands clasped in a prayerful pose, tears streaming down her cheeks as Reagan said, "We can be forgiven for thinking that maybe it was just worn out from lighting the way to freedom for 17 million new Americans. So, now we'll put up a new one."
I thought that was astonishingly corny. I was even more astonished when I realized just how many heart strings Reagan had tugged with that tale.
Reagan was no fluke.