In reading Garance Franke-Ruta’s account of the Tribute to Tom DeLay dinner, which I just posted about, one name among the many attending the event jumped off the page: public-relations flack Craig Shirley, described as a “spokesman” for the dinner.As it happens, I recently read Shirley’s January 2005 book, Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All. In fact, the next issue of Blueprint magazine will include a review I wrote of that book and the much-better-known Before the Storm, Rick Perlstein’s study of the Goldwater campaign.Most non-conservatives looking at Shirley’s title will probably assume it’s about the 1980 campaign that signalled the conservative movement’s conquest of the GOP, and lifted Ronald Reagan to the presidency. But no: the book is about Reagan’s unsuccessful 1976 presidential effort, and as Shirley makes abundantly clear, that campaign, not Goldwater’s, was the defining moment for the younger wave of conservative activists who are now dominating the GOP and the Bush administration.Unlike Perlstein, Shirley is not a gifted writer or a particularly deep thinker, but he does cover the 1976 Reagan campaign in great detail and with considerable balance, despite his obvious intention to provide a sort of intra-movement scrapbook of the bittersweet moment that marked the transition of latter-day conservatism from noble futility to national power. And his account is replete with the names of minor campaign figures who later emerged as Washington big-timers, such as Haley Barbour, Charlie Black, Martin Anderson, and Ed Meese. Interestingly if not surprisingly, Shirley singles out Dick Cheney, then White House Chief of Staff, as both the most effective operative in Gerald Ford’s successful effort to turn back the Reagan drive, and as the one key figure in Ford’s circle who understood the conservative movement and its needs and goals.And while Shirley goes well out of his way to refute the revisionist belief of many conservatives that Reagan’s 1976 effort was ruined by his non-ideological campaign manager, John Sears, he also makes it clear that the Jesse Helms/Congressional Club zealots saved Reagan’s career by designing and managing the Gipper’s breakthrough victory in the North Carolina primary, and had the best strategy for prevailing during the Republican Convention.My Perlstein-Shirley review will focus on the dangerous belief of some Democrats that we should emulate the 1964 and 1976 conservative “noble defeats,” and one of my arguments is that Reagan’s survival in 1976 and his apotheosis in 1980 were far more fortuitous than anyone, including Shirley, seems to be willing to admit.Shirley does concede, and even emphasize, that if Reagan had lost the 1976 nomination early on, he would not have been a candidate in 1980. But he doesn’t really address the likelihood that a Reagan nomination in 1976 would have been equally ruinous to the actor’s political career, and perhaps to the conservative movement as well. For a whole host of reasons, Reagan would almost certainly have been a weaker candidate than Gerald Ford against Jimmy Carter in 1976. And by 1980, almost any Republican could have beaten Carter, given the condition of the country domestically and internationally.There’s no telling what a slightly different course of events might have meant for the conservative movement that now, in its maturity or senescence, depending on your point of view, finds itself lionizing Tom DeLay.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
After absorbing a lot of Democratic gloom-and-doom about the midterms, I offered some silver lining at New York:
The 2022 midterms don’t look great for Democrats, who will try to buck history by hanging on to super-slim congressional majorities. Thanks to the particular lay of the land, Democrats have a decent chance of maintaining control of the Senate. But the House? Not so much: The two times since the New Deal when the president’s party won net House seats in a midterm (1998 and 2002), the president in question had sky-high job-approval ratings. Even if you believe Joe Biden’s plunge in popularity has been stemmed or even turned around a bit, he’s not going to have 60 percent-plus approval in November 2022 unless really crazy things happen. There’s just too much partisan polarization for that these days.
Thankfully for Democrats, even if they lose their congressional majorities next year, Biden himself won’t be an underdog for reelection in 2024. After all, the last two Democratic presidents were reelected after historically terrible midterms. Democrats lost 54 U.S. House seats in 1994 and 63 in 2010. Yes, they had bigger majorities going into those elections than Democrats have now. But they lost the national House popular vote by an identical 6.8 percent in both midterms, which is pretty bad, particularly since Democrats suffer from a voter-inefficiency problem in House elections (too many voters concentrated in too few districts).
It’s possible for a president’s party to lose a midterm so badly that bouncing back in the next cycle is all but impossible. Consider the man whose unique comeback accomplishment Donald Trump will be emulating if he runs in 2024, Grover Cleveland. The president Cleveland defeated in an 1892 rematch, Benjamin Harrison, was a Republican whose party lost an incredible 93 House seats in the 1890 midterms. This, mind you, was at a time when the House had only 332 members, which means the GOP lost over half their caucus in one cycle (an even worse percentage than in 1894, when Democrats lost a record 125 House seats during the midterm after Cleveland’s comeback triumph). In this era of polarization, nothing like that is going to happen to Democrats in 2022.
Looking more broadly at the power of incumbency, there have been 13 sitting presidents since World War II who were on the general election ballot. Nine of them won. The four losers all faced special circumstances. Gerald Ford had not previously been elected to anything more than the U.S. House; he ascended to the vice-presidency and then the presidency when disgraced predecessors resigned, and he pardoned the president who appointed him, the especially disgraced Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter was caught up in a historical realignment that he had held off four years earlier by carrying his native South, which then resumed a massive Republican trend. George H.W. Bush suffered from a terrible economy but then also a party split (third-party candidate Ross Perot won a lot of previously Republican voters). And we all know about Donald J. Trump, who was impeached twice and seemed determined to offend swing voters.
In retrospect, what’s most remarkable is that Ford and Trump very nearly got reelected despite their handicaps, exhibiting not the weakness but the strength of incumbency. And it’s with that perspective that any early handicapping of a potential 2024 rematch should be considered. Trump benefited from incumbency in 2020, as will Biden in 2024. So the idea that the 45th president has some built-in advantage over the 46th — absent the renewed election coup so many of us fear — doesn’t make a lot of sense.