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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Conservative Movement’s Defining Campaign

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.

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