Last week, I ambled on up to the late Ronald Reagan’s ranch high in the mountains of Santa Barbara County. Rancho del Cielo (Ranch in the Sky) comprises 688 acres and one very small home. In fact, I was surprised by how modest it is.
The Reagans purchased the property in 1974, shortly before the late president completed his second term as governor of California. The story goes that Nancy Reagan was not thrilled because the property is so isolated and the house is tiny: six rooms, including a small master bedroom and kitchen, and no air conditioning. The Young America’s Foundation has kept the house exactly as it was when President Reagan died in 2004.
It is obvious that Reagan didn’t care about amenities. He wanted to ride his horses, chop his wood and get some alone time. My visit to the ranch confirmed that Reagan was a regular guy who valued basic things.
And that’s why he defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980.
It’s eerie. That presidential election 32 years ago is strikingly similar to the one we have today: a Democratic incumbent in big trouble with the economy and Iran. Sound familiar?
President Carter had to deal with a bad economy, folks lined up to buy gasoline, Iran taking and holding 52 American hostages in Tehran, and the perception that he was too inexperienced for the job. But Carter thought he could beat the shallow Hollywood guy, Reagan, whom Democrats labeled as out of touch with the folks.
Reagan, however, kept his message simple. He simply stared into the camera during one of the debates and asked Americans: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
The answer was a resounding no. Reagan won in a landslide, as Carter had no effective comeback.
President Obama is a much stronger presence than Carter ever was, so his challenger will have to do more than sloganeer. But the Republican candidate will have to keep it simple. If he allows himself to get bogged down in social minutiae, Obama will win.
It will not be enough to do what Reagan did, to compare the present day to four years ago. No, the Republican challenger will have to convince independent voters that he can do something Obama cannot do. He will have to be very specific about that.
Finally, there is the authenticity factor. Walking around the Reagan property, I saw that the president lived the same way he talked: simply. There were no Jacuzzis, no canopies over the bed, no designer furniture. The house could have been in Albuquerque. Reagan actually was the same guy on and off the stage.
In debating Obama, the Republican candidate will have to channel Reagan’s demeanor: cool, calm and precise. The Gipper knew how to win. So does Obama. His challenger had better learn fast.