CPAC musings: Why Reagan won

Early on day two of CPAC (Friday, March 4), author and talk show host Mark Levin gave a stirring tribute to Ronald Reagan in his address to the convention. Mr. Levin accurately and passionately chronicled President Reagan’s record of principled conservatism. After culminating with describing Reagan’s two massive electoral victories in 1980 and 1984, Levin quipped, “Who says conservatives can’t win elections?!”


Reagan put CPAC on the map with his visits to the conference before his presidency, and his appearance as President in 1981. Reagan is invoked for his conservatism, again no surprise. In what I interpret as mainly Trump-driven sentiment, there’s also mentions here to the effect of, “We’ll never have another Reagan, but we need to emulate his qualities.” And that almost always circles right back to conservatism.

Discussions of Ronald Reagan’s success often include mentioning his belief in the “three-legged stool”; how he united fiscal conservatives, defense/foreign policy conservatives, and social/moral conservatives into an inexorable coalition that guaranteed electoral victory. It’s interesting though that the “three-legged stool” is attributed nowhere to Reagan himself. It seems to have come entirely from people who believe Reagan won because he was conservative.

We hear the same sentiment from other large personalities like Rush Limbaugh, who includes among his long-running one-sentence roster of comments, “Conservatism wins every time it’s tried.”

Ronald Reagan was no doubt a conservative, and was far more conservative than the historical record of the Republican Party before and after his presidency. But that doesn’t explain why he won. Reagan’s conservatism was merely a bonus.


Ronald Reagan won because he was Ronald Reagan.

What does that mean? It means his personal qualities like connecting with people personably, effective communication of his beliefs, and use of humor outweighed the content of his policies in his success. What he said was not as important as how he said it. He also wasn’t afraid to attack when necessary, and stick his neck out like on Labor Day, September 1, 1980, when he kicked off the final phase of his Presidential campaign in deeply Democratic Hudson County, New Jersey and Liberty State Park.

If it’s a definition [Jimmy Carter] wants, I’ll give him one: a “recession” is when your neighbor loses his job. A “depression” is when you lose yours, and “recovery” is when Jimmy Carter loses his! (clip below starts at that spot)

And the crowd went wild. Now consider the optics of that moment. No jacket or tie. Top few buttons of his shirt undone. Sleeves rolled up. He was one of the people. And they loved him for it. I believe that Reagan could have followed up that section of his speech with content we’d hardly consider “conservative”, and people would have still eaten it up. He sold it, and he sold himself, to America. And we bought it. (Aside: Reagan lost Hudson County in 1980, but won it in 1984.)


Contrast Jon Huntsman’s 2012 presidential campaign announcement at the same spot in July of 2011, a site chosen specifically to echo Reagan. Suit, tie, wooden personality, unenthusiastic delivery, non-raucous crowd response, and resultingly a campaign nobody wanted.

The effect of Reagan’s personality can not be underestimated. I went to a talk here at CPAC on Thursday morning given by Mrs. Peggy Grande, who worked for President Reagan during his post-Presidency years, including six years as his executive assistant. The session was billed as, “If Reagan Ran Today: What 2016 Activists Must Learn from Reagan’s Leadership Style.” Not once did Mrs. Grande mention a “three-legged stool”. Her talk was almost entirely about the human Ronald Reagan: how he engaged, how he connected, his humor, his caring for his fellow man.

Reagan’s conservatism is also the supposed explanation for the “Reagan Democrats”; folks who, like Reagan, were “left” by the Democrat Party. Those voters weren’t drawn by conservatism. They were drawn by Ronald Reagan, and that should be obvious given how since Reagan left office conservatives keep asking, “Where are the Reagan Democrats?”

It’s simple. They’ve been voting their traditional party loyalty, until inspired to do differently by a Republican candidate that engages and inspires them better than the Democrat.


Reagan persuaded people to vote for him, and he was also a master of persuasive leadership. That’s how he got his Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 through a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives (244 to 191, 56% Democrat) by a vote of 323-107 (75% yea). Assuming every Republican voted “yea”, that means 132 Democrat representatives voted with Reagan – 54 percent.

When the Tax Reform Act of 1986 came along, President Reagan faced an even more Democrat House (253D, 182R, 58% Democrat) but still got his bill passed 292-136 (68% yea), with at least 44% of the Democrat members voting with him.

Contrast that with President George W. Bush. The Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 was passed with a Republican-majority House (222R, 211D, 49% Democrat) by a vote of 230-197 (53% yea). Just eight Democrats (4%) voted with Bush. Two years later, the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003 was passed by a more Republican House (229R, 206D, 47% Democrat), 231-200 (also 53% yea). President Bush got just two Democrats (1%) to vote for the bill.

An argument can be made that Democrats are more progressive in the 2000s than they were in the 1980s, but that does not and can not explain how Reagan’s legislative program got the support from the opposition that it did. Reagan was loathed by the media of the day, and loathed by Democrats. But he still won them to his side, and it wasn’t because he convinced them that conservatism was correct. He led them. The Democrats could have stopped everything that Reagan wanted to do, but they didn’t.


Senator Ted Cruz is very much a “Reagan conservative”: principled and unapologetic. He would probably be wildly popular, if only his personality didn’t tend to alienate people. In my opinion (and I like Senator Cruz) he directs, he does not persuade, and in politics persuasion is everything.

Today, we’re presented with another Republican candidate who is winning on the strength of his personality: Donald Trump. Mr. Trump has amassed a supporter base that cuts across demographics and party loyalty. And that’s good on the surface. What’s bad is that while Trump is aping Reagan’s “We will make America great again” from that 1980 Labor Day speech, his vagrancy and whim of rhetoric-framed policy positions does not indicate conviction, merely belligerence. He is an authoritative leader, not a persuasive leader.

Part of that is Donald Trump is his own favorite special interest, and it’s all about him (when was the last time Donald didn’t name a business venture after himself?). Whereas one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite expressions was, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.”

From what I’ve seen so far, Donald Trump connects with people and brings out their worst.


Ronald Reagan connected with people and brought out their best.

It’s a big difference.

Allan Bourdius is a co-founder of Vigilant Liberty Radio and the founder and editor of Their Finest Hour. Follow him on Twitter as @allanbourdius (or direct your hate mail there).

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