Ronald Reagan’s Shifting Shadow in the 2016 Election

President Reagan speaking at a rally in Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1982.

For today’s Republican presidential candidates, Ronald Reagan is practically a Founding Father.

There was a Republican primary debate at the Reagan Library. Rush Limbaugh compares Marco Rubio to Reagan. Rubio says he’s a Republican because of Reagan. Donald Trump compares himself to Reagan (and Ted Cruz rips him for it and claims Reagan for himself). Republicans have a reverence for and a fealty to Reagan that far exceeds any other former Republican president.

So why?

“If Reagan entered the Republican race today as Reagan of 1980, he would win it,” historian H.W. Brands said in an interview with Signature. “He sounded as conservative as anyone today, and he had a really appealing personality which is sorely lacking today. The Reagan who had been president, though, would have a hard time. Republicans today are looking for ideological purity, and Reagan made compromises.”

Brands, whose Reagan: The Life is one of the leading biographies of the former president, talked to Signature about the rise of Reagan and the rise of the conservative movement in the 1960s and ’70s, which culminated with Reagan’s election as president in 1980.

SIG: After the very conservative Barry Goldwater lost in a landslide in 1964, how long was it before rank-and-file Republicans thought a very conservative candidate could be viable again?

H.W. BRANDS: The answer really is 1980. Reagan tried for the Republican nomination for president in 1968 and didn’t go far at all. He lost to Richard Nixon, who was considered a moderate Republican. He tried again in 1976 against the incumbent Gerald Ford, a moderate Republican, and he lost. And in 1980 Reagan won the nomination.

It’s hard to gauge exactly where Republican conservatives were during all of that time. There was a soul-searching after the Barry Goldwater defeat. Those people who saw Reagan’s “Time for Choosing” speech on behalf of Goldwater in 1964 said the problem was not with the principles but with their candidate. If they could just get a candidate like Reagan to espouse Goldwater principles, they thought they would win.

SIG: Talk a little about Reagan’s “Time for Choosing” TV special and how important that was in his own political career. Did a lot of people see it when it happened, or was it something that people picked up later?

HWB: I have never seen ratings. I’m not even sure that Nielsen or anyone else conducted ratings. It didn’t play on the network; they plugged it into local stations around the country. It did get a lot of publicity. I don’t know how many people saw it live, but people heard about it. And it became legendary among people who became Reagan fans. If you talk to Reaganites today, all you have to do is mention “the speech,” and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. The speech started Reagan’s political career.

SIG: And he would have had pretty good name recognition from film and TV, right?

HWB: Yes and no. He had been a film actor back in the ’30 and early ’40s, but his film career had fizzled. He didn’t make any films to speak of after about 1952. His TV presence was modest. He was the host of “General Electric Theater” in the 1950s and “Death Valley Days” in the early 1960s. His face was on TV all of about two minutes each week. He would introduce, and then the real stars would go on. If he were around today, he would be on a reality TV show. He wasn’t A-list.

SIG: Was he already thinking about running for Governor of California when he gave that speech?

HWB: There’s no reason to think that he was. On the other hand, he needed a job. He needed a new career. He was 52 years old, and he didn’t know what his next act in life was going to be. Somebody gave him the chance to go on TV in politics. The speech was for Goldwater, but all of the soundbites are about the principles of the right wing of the party.

SIG: How soon after this did he start running for governor?

HWB: The very next day, there were Ronald Reagan for president committees formed in various places around the country. That was too big a step, but he began to be spoken of as a candidate for governor of California very soon after and he let it be known that he was available. He didn’t commit until the end of 1965. In those days, campaigns weren’t as long as they are now. And he ran for governor in 1966, and he won.

SIG: Did he campaign a lot?

HWB: He did. Once he got into the race, he campaigned like everybody else. Campaigning then was very retail. There was some TV, but he did a lot of traveling around the state. This was when Reagan first started to fly, which he hated. He had written into his contract with General Electric that he would travel by train. He had a phobia of flying, but his ambition overcame his anxiety.

Governor Ronald Reagan

SIG: So Reagan was elected governor in 1966.

HWB: Right, and then he immediately tried to run for president in 1968.

SIG: You wrote in Reagan that, “Some people enter politics seeking power; Reagan wanted attention.” Did he have things he actually wanted to do in office, or did that come later?

HWB: Reagan liked the job, and he liked the attention. Reagan always wanted an audience. He discovered that an audience — getting people to laugh, getting people to applaud him — eased the anxieties of life. And that never went away. He always appreciated the fact that when he was on stage he was the center of attention. Some people go into politics for the purpose of accomplishing something important. Lyndon Johnson went into politics because he wanted to change America’s attitudes and laws toward race. Ronald Reagan didn’t have that kind of agenda-driven ambition.

SIG: It’s difficult to tell what people think from their public rhetoric. Do you find much sense of Reagan’s ideology evolving from 1964 to 1980, or was he fully formed by 1964?

HWB: All of the big changes in Reagan’s political philosophy had already occurred by 1964. He made a 180-degree turn in his political philosophy between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s. He had been a New Deal Democrat, though it wasn’t so much by conviction as by legacy. His father had gotten a job in the New Deal and was a reflexive Democratic liberal.

By 1964 when Reagan gave that speech for Goldwater, he had a fully-formed conservative philosophy. If you look at any speech that he gave through the end of his political career in 1989, it had all been there since 1964. The details, the particular approaches changed, but the fundamental principles were there.

SIG: And that philosophy was: communism is bad, capitalism is good, small government is good?

HWB: Shrink government at home. Defeat communism abroad. Everything else was details.

SIG: Can you tell that he learned much as governor about being an executive or that his ideas about being an executive changed much during that time?

HWB: Yeah, he learned a lot. He learned something that today’s Republicans would hold against him, which was that a president or a governor is not a czar and that other people have to be heard. Reagan as a sitting governor and as a sitting president was quite pragmatic. He understood that you don’t get everything you want. He used to say that if you get eighty percent of what you want, that’s a good day. Reagan was not one as governor or as president to let ideology get in the way of progress. He knew not to let perfect be the enemy of the good.

Republican 2016 Race - Reagan

SIG: That’s not his reputation with Republican presidential candidates. Did his reputation start moving on two tracks at some point?

HWB: The people who want to revere Reagan today ignore the fact — even if they know it — that the Republicans’ center of gravity has moved substantially to the right of where it was when Reagan was president. And none of the candidates for president have been president. When you’re a candidate, you promise 100 percent of your agenda. You don’t run on saying you’ll get eighty percent of what you want. When Reagan ran for president in 1980, he made the promises that all candidates do. The difference is that he was elected and demonstrated that pragmatic streak.

SIG: Did his record as a pragmatic governor dog him in 1976 when he ran for president?

HWB: Surprisingly, it did not. He was running against Gerald Ford, who was more pragmatic than he was. That’s one of the reasons senators have a hard time running for president. John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Barack Obama in 2008 were junior senators with no track record. Lyndon Johnson had a hard time running for president in 1960. If you’re successful running a Senate committee, you’ve had to be successful cutting deals. Americans are willing to accept that in their legislators, but they apparently don’t want to see it in their chief executive.

SIG: The Republican candidates running this year are mostly reasonably smart people with reasonably smart people around them. Do you see some convenient misrepresentation about Reagan that you would distinguish from just not understanding what his presidency was like?

HWB: I don’t see any of this particularly as students of history. I don’t have any reason to believe they’ve looked closely at Reagan’s governorship or presidency. Even if they did, it’s not the kind of thing that would help them much. While governor of California, Reagan signed the most liberal abortion law in the country. Reagan is a cult figure with Republican voters, and candidates have no reason to point out that the Reagan they have in their head is not the Reagan who was governor and president.