Pardons and Poland aside, the 1976 election represented a turning point in American political history. President Gerald Ford was, of course, damaged by his clearing a disgraced Richard Nixon of any legal liability from the Watergate scandal and his fall-debate gaffe where he asserted that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” And today, as we watch endless clips of the honest and honorable Ford in action, it is these images that are frequently shown to explain the political course of events that bicentennial year. But it was the competition for the Republican nomination in the winter, spring, and summer of that year that would have the more profound impact on the course of the nation. That fiercely contested battle would signal the ascendancy of conservatism and the movement’s tightening grip on the Republican party, while sounding the death knell for the liberal consensus that had shaped the country’s politics for the entirety of the postwar era.
The idea of a presidential primary challenge was not unique to that very unique cycle. Mired in the depths of the Vietnam conflict, President Lyndon Johnson dropped out of his reelection bid in 1968 after those freshly shorn, “Clean for Gene” youngsters helped bring antiwar Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy within eight percent of upending the incumbent president in the New Hampshire primary. Ford’s successor, President Jimmy Carter, would also face a challenge from the left when he had to fend off Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy’s effort to restore his family’s grip on the White House in 1980. And 12 years later, the first President George Bush had to contend with intra-party competition when conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan and his would-be pitchfork populists took after the party standard-bearer from the right.
None of these three challenges, however, would do what the upstart campaign of a former California governor did. Twelve years after his stirring, made-for-TV speech endorsing Barry Goldwater’s long-shot White House campaign, Ronald Reagan came within 117 delegates of defeating the sitting president at the August Kansas City convention. What’s more, he stole the show from the most powerful man in the world — the one who was actually nominated.
“The President of the United States gives the best speech he had ever given, and in fact gave in his life, and he’s upstaged by his opponent,” observed Ford adviser Doug Bailey years later in an interview for Craig Shirley’s account of the GOP’s ’76 campaign, Reagan’s Revolution.
Reagan’s extemporaneous speech to the delegates and voters watching at home sealed his status as the darling of the New Right and the Republican heir apparent, but his campaigning the previous year had made clear where his party was headed.
Reagan started well behind in the polls to the man who symbolized the end of the “long national nightmare.” Standing in his way was not just the genial man in the Oval Office, but the considerable infrastructure that the presidency lends to any campaign.
Such resources allowed Ford to pick up early wins in such states as New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont, Illinois and Florida. With help from a freshman senator named Jesse Helms, Reagan stanched the bleeding in North Carolina. The rest of primary contest went, as Michael Barone calls it in his incomparable study of 20th-century America, Our Country, much like “the prolonged trench warfare of World War I.” Ford won in West Virginia, Maryland, Michigan, Kentucky, Oregon, Tennessee, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Ohio while Reagan took Georgia, Indiana, Nebraska, Arkansas, Idaho, Nevada, Montana, South Dakota, and California.
As Barone notes, Ford performed well in those places that had a GOP presence dating back to the Civil War while Reagan came out on top in states where the party was still much younger. Where “Regular Republicans” reigned or still held considerable sway, in other words, the more moderate Ford did better. But in states with little in the way of a Republican tradition, Reagan won the day. The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes, in his foreword to Shirley’s book, recalls one of Reagan’s biggest victories in exactly such a state.
As conveyed by Ford’s top campaign aide in Texas, Jim Francis, the president’s team knew it was going to be a long day in the Lone Star State when Francis came to a precinct the morning of the May 1st primary to find “a line filled with people he’d never laid eyes on,” Barnes writes. Ford had gotten out his supporters, but “the turnout for Reagan swamped it.”
These new participants in the GOP’s internal politics were drawn not just by Reagan’s charisma, but by his unapologetic message of strength abroad and less government at home. Specifically, they responded to his attacks on Ford’s holdover Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and, concurrently, Kissinger’s policy of détente towards the Soviet Union and willingness to cede control of the Panama Canal. More broadly, though, they saw in Reagan the near-perfect vessel with which to place their hope for a party leader who would stand for a brand of conservatism that would squarely take on the Soviets, the Democrats, and even old-guard Republicans.
Ford, in the eyes of these feisty GOP converts, was a good and decent man, but precisely representative of this final category. A “Man of the House” who had spent almost his entire quarter century on Capitol Hill in the minority, Ford was not just an “accidental president” to these conservatives, but, worse, an accommodationist who had gotten use to Democratic domination and its attendant liberal policies.
Indeed, Ford was the sort of Chamber of Commerce Republican that dominated the congressional wing of the party in the era. Internationalist, socially moderate, and fiscally prudent, Ford embodied the good-government northeastern and midwestern party of Rockefeller, Lodge, and Vandenberg.
He was, in many ways, representative of the end of an era. His spirited and successful campaign to bat back Reagan’s insurgency marked the last stand of the moderates’ hold of the GOP. No Republican has since won the party’s nod without the backing of the conservative wing of the party.
What’s more, Ford’s party of Main Street, Grand Rapids, has been replaced by a Sunbelt brand rooted in a suspicion toward the federal government and a “trust but verify” policy toward foreign governments.
Indeed, the antecedents of the current president’s electoral success lie in Reagan’s challenge 31 years ago. Those states that, as Barone explains, Reagan won in part due to their minimal Republican tradition have something else in common — all except California are what we now call red states and form the core of the modern GOP.
— Jonathan Martin is NRO’s political reporter.