I was an 18-year old college freshman the first time I voted for Ronald Reagan. The year was 1976 and the former actor turned Governor turned presidential challenger was attempting the unthinkable. He was trying to snatch the Republican nomination for president away from Gerald Ford, a sitting Republican president. Ford, of course, had gained the White House through the resignation of President Nixon over the Watergate cover-up. Ford, like Nixon was a moderate to liberal old establishment Republican who favored big government solutions for what ailed the country.
Ronald Reagan was a breath of fresh air injected into the smoke filled back rooms of deal making politicians who rejected core values in favor of political pragmatism. Reagan genuinely believed in America….no, he believed in Americans. He believed in smaller government and big ideas from the private sector. Reagan arrived on the scene at just the right moment. It was a moment filled with the angst of many Republicans who were disillusioned with the big government programs of Nixon and Ford. President Ford might have stopped Reagan’s historic challenge in its formative stages if he had offered him a major role in his administration. But the vice-presidential nod in 1974 went to Nelson Rockefeller. It was a move that sent a clear message to conservative Republicans. In essence, the message was we want your support but not your input in the party. In short, conservative Republicans were expected to just “shut up and vote.”
The upstart Reagan Revolution almost unseated Ford. The battle for the nomination went all the way to Kansas City where Ford eked out a win. But the dye was cast for Reagan …he had won the hearts of conservatives and he would soon win the hearts of all Americans in back to back landslide election victories. His critics decried his lack of experience in foreign affairs and they insisted his record as Governor of California proved he was no fiscal conservative (sound familiar…it’s the same argument critics used to undermine Mike Huckabee’s campaign). But after four years of Jimmy Carter, America was more than ready for Reagan. Americans wanted something to believe in and Reagan gave them a vision of a shining city on a hill.
When Ronald Reagan died, America wept. Hundreds of thousands lined the streets of his final motorcade waiting for a glimpse of the hearse that carried their hero. Hundreds of thousands more filed reverently past his coffin in the Capital rotunda. I had to explain to my then eleven year old daughter why her daddy was crying in front of the television. Ronald Reagan made me believe in all the things that make America great. He inspired me to step into the public arena and get involved in the political process believing that the best days for America were to always be seen through the windshield and never in the rearview mirror.
It now appears that Arizona Senator John McCain has the inside track to become the standard bearer for the Republican Party. Senator McCain is without a doubt an honorable man. We owe him a great debt of thanks for the service he rendered to his country during the Vietnam War. The best line from the endless debates was McCain’s when he remarked that he didn’t attend Woodstock because “he was tied up at the time.”
But even though McCain claims he will veto pork barrel spending bills with the very pen Reagan gave him as a gift he will never be able to genuinely carry the mantel of the Reagan revolution. Immediately following his win in the Florida primary McCain flew to California and shared the platform with Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger. And what a platform it was! Standing between the two most liberal Republicans in America with a solar panel factory as a background and a global warming warning on his lips McCain sent a clear message to conservative Republicans. It was the same message President Ford delivered when he chose Rockefeller as his running mate. If you are a conservative and especially if you are a conservative and a member of the Evangelical Religious Right we want you to just “shut up and vote.”
That scene is now burned into my mind. As surely as I watched the funeral of Reagan I realized in that moment I was watching the Reagan revolution being laid to rest.
Oh, I’m sure Senator McCain, before he reaches across the aisle to work with Democrats on another amnesty immigration bill, will reach out to conservative Evangelical Republicans by touting his “conservative credentials.” No doubt he will choose a running mate who will politically be to his right. That shouldn’t be hard since ninety-five percent of the Republican Party fits that description. The party will no doubt unite behind whatever ticket emerges. But I fear that even if McCain prevails in November it will be a victory celebrated under the cloud of a party that has renounced its grandest principles.