Reagan Prepared for the Presidency in the Political Wilderness

COMMENTARY Political Process

Reagan Prepared for the Presidency in the Political Wilderness

Jan 27th, 2011 3 min read
Lee Edwards, Ph.D.

Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought

Lee Edwards is a leading historian of American conservatism and the author or editor of 25 books.


On the morning after he narrowly lost the 1976 Republican presidential nomination to President Gerald Ford, a reflective Ronald Reagan met with his downcast campaign staff.

"We lost," Reagan acknowledged to advisers and workers, many of whom were weeping, "but the cause, the cause goes on." And then he quoted an old Scottish ballad: "I'll lay me down and bleed awhile. Though I am wounded, I am not slain. I shall rise and fight again."

Politicians and reporters admired the moving delivery but took it as the final curtain speech of a defeated and aged candidate. After all, Reagan would be 69 if he ran in 1980, making him the oldest candidate for the presidency in American history. Even his closest aides believed he would not try again.

But on the flight home, Reagan was already thinking about 1980. He viewed his loss as part of God's plan for him. "Bearing what we cannot change," he wrote a supporter, "going on with what God has given us, confident there is a destiny, somehow seems to bring a reward we wouldn't exchange for any other."

Over the next four years, seemingly in a political wilderness, Reagan prepared to be president.

There were trips to London, Berlin and Paris under the guidance of foreign policy expert Richard V. Allen, who would be his first national security adviser. The economist Martin Anderson, who would serve as his first domestic policy adviser, built a formidable network of issue task forces for the unannounced candidate.

Reagan familiarized himself with a wide range of domestic and foreign issues, while doing the research for a daily radio commentary. Surrounded by newspaper and magazine clippings, government reports, and articles and books sent to him by friends and advisers, Reagan personally wrote the three-minute commentaries with a black felt pen on a yellow legal pad. As one observer put it, he operated like a one-man think tank.

The broadcasts outlined Reagan's vision for America -- a vision of faith and freedom that would restore Americans' confidence in themselves and their country, reignite the nation's engines of economic program, and initiate a winning policy in the Cold War.

The main goal of America's foreign policy, he said, should be the defeat of communism through a strong military and support of the "captive nations" behind the Iron Curtain. In one commentary, he anticipated his famous 1982 comment to the British Parliament that Marxism-Leninism was headed for the ash heap of history. He described communism as "a form of insanity -- a temporary aberration which will one day disappear from the earth because it is contrary to human nature."

In economic policy, he stressed the importance of tax cuts and less government regulation. In June 1977, for example, he talked about the need for income tax indexing -- a key provision of his 1981 Economic Recovery Tax Act.

When a listener complained that all Reagan did was to criticize the government, he quoted Lincoln that it was possible to be loyal to your government and critical of those in power. "You will never hear me assail our system or the Constitution," he said. What he wanted, he emphasized, "is the same freedom for today's young people that I knew when I was growing up."

Any lingering doubts Reagan might have had about running were swept aside by the manifold failures of Jimmy Carter, from double-digit inflation and zero-economic growth to a Marxist regime in Nicaragua and the ouster of the pro-West Shah of Iran.

When Carter self-righteously blamed the American people rather than his administration for the sorry state of affairs, Reagan's course of action was set.

Announcing his candidacy in November 1979 over a special network of television stations, Reagan pledged a 30-percent tax cut, an orderly transfer of federal programs to state and local governments, increased production of oil, natural gas and coal through deregulation, and a long-range strategy to meet the challenge of the Soviet Union and end the Cold War.

A troubled world, he said, pleads with America to uphold the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality, and -- above all -- responsible liberty for every individual to "become that shining city on a hill."

"I believe," he said, "that you and I together can keep this rendezvous with destiny."

And so we did.

Lee Edwards is Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Examiner