The media typically begins any Presidential campaign with comparisons to Harry Truman. The Reagan re-election in 1984 had the comparison. The Bush re-election in 1992 had the comparison. The Clinton re-election in 1996 had the comparison. Humorously, the off year election of 2002 used the Truman comparison too, as did 2004.
The media does this not only because a lot of them are lazy and not only because a lot of them talk with each other at beltway soirees where they infect each other with their various often contrived narratives and talking points, but also because they really do want to help put the election in some historic context.
Whenever a President is embattled, the media falls back to Truman.
But there is something else the media does — and typically does because of a leftward bias, a reliance on both establishment Republicans in Washington as their chief GOP sources and their Democratic friends as Democratic sources— they compare the Republican Primary to 1964.
Every conservative candidate must withstand the “Is he Barry Goldwater” question. Never mind that Barry Goldwater has been tried repeatedly by the Democrats and the only person it ever worked against was Barry Goldwater.
The Democrats have made clear, and the media is seizing on, President Obama’s campaign statements that if Rick Perry is the nominee, they’ll go with Goldwater 1964 and if Mitt Romney is the nominee, they’ll go with John Kerry 2004 as the flip flopping opportunist. Neither of these will work this year and all you have to do is follow along as I step in the way back machine and take you back to the news as it existed on the campaign trail of 1979 and 1980.
“Is defeat probable for GOP if Reagan wins nomination?” blared the headline of the Christian Science Monitor on March 5, 1980. That was just the start of it.“Can conservative Ronald Reagan possibly attract enough independent and Democratic votes to win in November?” wrote Richard J. Cattani in that Christian Science Monitor article. He continued,
“Reagan is the opponent of choice for Carter,” says I. A. Lewis, director of the Los Angeles Times Poll, a point on which most analysts agree. “But Reagan can reach across and cause mischief in the Democratic constituency,” Mr. Lewis says. “Reagan appeals to blue collar, working-class voters. He can win Democratic votes.”
“Carter could beat Reagan more easily than he could Bush or Baker,” Mr. Lewis says. “A moderate Republican would appeal to moderate Democrats, while upper-income Republicans might defect from Reagan to the Demcorats. Ford is of course, the strogest in the polls against Carter. But if he became a candidate, he could sink the same way Kennedy did after he declared.”
Elections analyst Richard Scammon, who thinks a candidate must command the political center to win the presidency, gives neither Reagan nor Ford much chance.
The Christian Science Monitor led the field for the month of March with a number of overwrought “analyses” on just how vulnerable Ronald Reagan was as a far right extremist.
Five days after Cattani’s article, Newsweek’s Dennis A. Williams penned “The GOP’s Hamlet”. Parroting talking points that the McCain campaign could have given in 2008 or the Huntsman camp this year, Williams wrote
The talk of another Ford candidacy — only three months after he formally removed himself from a string of primaries — betrayed an air of alarm on the part of many middle-road Republicans. Faced with Bush’s unexpected slide in New Hampshire and Howard Baker’s chronically weak campaign, GOP centrists — Ford among them — saw in Reagan’s resurgence the potential for another Goldwater debacle. Ford, by contrast, was an ideologically safe, fondly remembered party loyalist who very nearly beat Jimmy Carter in 1976. Gallup polls last month showed Ford leading Reagan — and trailing Carter by a narrower margin than any other GOP contender in general-election trial heats. “Jerry Ford,” argues one former aide, “is the only politician around who neutralizes Carter’s positives” — solid character and Presidential stature — “and accentuates his negatives” — primarily an inflation rate 10 points higher than when Ford left office. Thus, even though the odds are long, the hour late and the scenario strewn with ifs, Ford remains the panic-button choice of many in his party and the Republican most feared by Carter strategists.
And there it was — the Goldwater Talking Point. Only useful against Barry Goldwater, it became the media template for the “far-right” candidate who could not win over the American public because of his “far-right” extremism. The moderate candidate was “most feared” by the Democrat. Surely the GOP would not be suicidal enough to go with Reagan.
Building off the Goldwater Talking Point, George Esper of the Associated Press wrote up a press conference from moderate, soon to be third party candidate, John Anderson on March 21, 1980.
“I cannot believe that the Republican Party will condemn itself to the kind of lopsided electoral contest that took place in 1964,” Anderson told a regional meeting of business people in Stamford.
It was one of his strongest statements against Reagan. He referred to the 1964 presidential election when the Republican candidate — Sen. Barry Goldwater, like Reagan, a conservative — was swamped in a landslide victory by Lyndon B. Johnson. “I am afraid that the nomination of Mr. Reagan will only ensure the re-election of Mr. Carter and further ensure the continuing economic disaster that we have suffered now for three years,” the Illinois congressman said.
“I cannot believe that with the mounting problems America faces,” he said, “the voters in November will have a choice only between the economic policies of Ronald Reagan and those of Jimmy Carter.”
Get ready to call Jon Huntsman “John Anderson” if a guy like Rick Perry gets the nomination.
On the same day, the Canadian Globe and Mail’s Lawrenece Martin called Reagan “Ronald ‘send-in-the-Marines’ Reagan . . . whose appeal to [independents], at best, is limited.”
All of these articles were in March of 1980, around the time Reagan clearly was locking up the nomination. Back in 1979, they were just as predictable.
As early as January 29, 1979, in an article by Peter Goldman and Eleanor Clift in Newsweek entitled “The Politics of Austerity,” we learned this interesting nugget:
[I]t remains a measure of the stresses between Carter and the Democratic left that his people anticipate more trouble with his renomination than his re-election. Their winter-book bet for the Republican nomination is Ronald Reagan, and they consider him beatable, so long as Carter monopolizes the center – “just 80 per cent of the people,” says Jordan – and isolates Reagan on the outer right.
The left and media began immediately building up the concerns about Reagan being too far right.
On June 23, 1979, Barry Sussman in the Washington Post wrote, “Reagan has not picked up substantial support from party activists who represent either strong moderate or small liberal elements of the party, the poll indicates. Many appear to be concerned about some of Reagan’s followers – “arch-conservative kooks,” one poll respondent called them.”
Then, in an echo of the Perry criticisms from conservatives in Texas and elsewhere, Newsweek kicked off on October 1, 1979, with “The Leading Man” by Tom Mathews. In the article, Mathews suggests one of Reagan’s problems is surprisingly that he is too moderate for some, but is still too far right for most.
And before staking out his position on SALT last week — for genuine arms control, against any one-way street favoring the Soviet Union — he consulted Albert Wohlstetter, an academic expert on national-defense and security issues who has Democratic ties. “He wants to get the best advice he can whether these people support him or not,” says issues adviser Martin Anderson.
All this has led to some grumbling among righter-than-thou Republicans that Reagan may be sacrificing his ideological purity to his White House ambitions, a charge he angrily denies. His strategists quivered rather ambiguously last week when The New York Times reported that his latest position on SALT II was “moderately worded.” “If The New York times says he’s softening his image we can’t control that,” said Lake. “It might even help in the East, but over-all it could hurt.” And the truth seemed to be that Reagan intended to shift as little as possible. “Anyone who wants to moderate him is going to have a tough time,” said former aide Lyn Nofziger, who dropped from the Reagan campaign after losing a squabble over campaign assignments and policy issues. “They have taken a little of the hardness out of the hard line — but that’s a long way from moving him to the left.”
As an aside, the same Newsweek article notes that Reagan was in favor of a Chrysler bankruptcy instead of a bailout — a position many Republican donors were uncomfortable with.
On November 16, 1979, Walter R. Mears wrote an AP News Analysis for the Associated Press in which he wrote, “Last time, one of Reagan’s problems was to dispel the suggestion that he was too far right, too extreme a conservative, for the nomination or the presidency. When that came up, as it often did, Reagan would recite his record as a candidate and as governor of California. When Ford called him too far right, Reagan replied that the president twice had tried to recruit him for Cabinet positions.”
The Economist followed a few days later on November 24, 1979, explicitly drawing the Goldwater-Reagan connection.
Ever since 1964, when he made a rousing speech at the Republican convention that nominated Senator Barry Goldwater for president, Mr Reagan has been the darling of the Republican right. . . .
If Mr Reagan does not lose the Republican nomination, present opinion polls suggest that he will lose to either Senator Kennedy or President Carter next November. The latest Gallup poll shows Mr Reagan trailing the senator by 16 percentage points, and Mr Carter by six. The Republican party’s minority status among registered voters also puts Mr Reagan at a disadvantage.
But the Economist also did what frequently happens with the “far-right” candidate — they given a wink-wink to the supposedly “far-right” voters suggesting they should back away from their extremist candidate because he really isn’t that extreme. “Even though he practised conventional, middle-of-the-road politics as governor of California from 1967 to 1975, his political language had a hard right edge,” the Economist’s reporter wrote. So he’s far-right, but even the far-right shouldn’t trust him because his record is really that of a moderate — or something like that. Rick Perry and Mitt Romney could sympathize.
The “far-right” theme continued all the way to the 1980 convention and the election.
On July 12, 1980, Haynes Johnson, writing in the Washington Post, began his profile of the Republican Convention this way:
Gone are the conflicts between progressive and conservative wings, between East and Midwest, of the past.
Absent are the personal clashes — Taft and Eisenhower, Goldwater and Rockefeller — that marked other conventions. TheGrand Old Party that has emerged out of those disputes is smaller and ideologically purer than ever — and it stands enthusiastically behind its conservative choice, Ronald Reagan.
And yet the nagging doubts intrude. They love Reagan, all right, but they can’t quite shake their worries about him. If the delegates could speak directly to their candidatein one voice now, the message would be clear — “Don’t blowit!”
They don’t want Reagan to renounce his conservative principles, but they are concerned he will be perceived by voters as too right.
“Temper your ideology with pragmatism– up to a point,” is the way one delegate offers advice tothe certain GOP standard-bearer. “Don’t depend totally on the right-wing groups. Be sensibly conservative.”
Mirroring some of the journalistic excesses of coverage today, Johnson continued, “And in a day when political party differences have blurred or become nonexistent in the eyes of manyAmericans, and in face of the continuing rise of independent voters, these Republicans cling to their convictions.”
And then Johnson delved into responses given to the Post, which are eerily similar to those of today.
“Do not compromise in order to get votes,” says a California delegate another very conservative one.
“Continue to shoot from the hip,” remarks a West Virginian, who has stood behind Reagan in the past as well as now.
But such views do not dominate the responses given The Post. What comes over is a desire — and an appeal — that Reagan be cautious in his actions, tempered in his words, and conciliatory in his approach.Uniting the party, moderating the views of the more extrememembers of the GOP, paying heed to wider range of national opinion, expanding the circle of his advisers to include a better ideological mix — these are the major concerns expressed.
The pattern is quite striking. The rhetoric and reporting mirror the fight the GOP is having today. LIke in 1980, however, and the same with 2004, the media is missing key details in their abridged world view of elections.
In 1964 and 2004, the United States was engaged in a political campaign in the middle of heightened national security tensions. In 1964, the Cold War had escalated, President Kennedy had been assassinated, and Lyndon Johnson was trying to scale back the nuclear arms race. Using a series of ads, including the famous daisy ad and the even more direct ice cream ad, Johnson portrayed Goldwater as someone who would ignite a nuclear holocaust.
In 2004, the issue was surrender in the war on terror. John Kerry portrayed himself as strong on defense, but his record suggested otherwise. Using a now famous advertisement with a pack of wolves, the Bush campaign destroyed Kerry’s reputation as someone who could be trusted to keep us safe.
In 1980, while the media rushed to the Goldwater talking point and considered Reagan too “far-right” to beat Jimmy Carter, the nation found itself in an economic mess. It was very hard to characterize Reagan as too far right for a country craving new policies to get it out of its economic mess. Voters wanted a change from Jimmy Carter.
Carter’s campaign eventually had to drop the “he’s too radical” approach and instead do what the left is now doing to Rick Perry — claiming Reagan actually did nothing to help people in California when he was Governor. They tried to destroy the idea of California as a paradise, which in 1980 was a place millions were flocking to in search of work, just as people are now going to Texas.
It did not work. Neither the Goldwater narrative nor the “he sucked as Governor” narrative worked for Carter because, quite simply, the public had given up on him.
The greatest lesson to take away now is that the media is going to again fixate on Goldwater from 1964 and Kerry from 2004, and they will probably mostly ignore the most historically relevant election points — Carter in 1980 and George H. W. Bush in 1992.
History doesn’t repeat itself. The media does.