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Reagan’s Coalition Building and the Compact of Freedom

Republican candidates Ronald Reagan, left, and George H.W. Bush, right, take part in a debate in Nashua, N.H.

Republican candidates Ronald Reagan, left, and George H.W. Bush, right, take part in a debate in Nashua, N.H., moderated by John Breen in 1980. Photo courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidential Library; PD.

Ronald Wilson Reagan, Acceptance Speech to the Republican National Convention, July 17, 1980.

Thirty-two years today, on July 17, 1980, Ronald Reagan addressed the Republican National Convention and accepted the party’s nomination for the presidency. As the excerpts below reveal, his speech stressed the themes of American values, reducing government growth, balancing the budget, the need to revitalize the nation’s defense and the need to take a leadership role in the world.

Isn't it once again time to renew our compact of freedom; to pledge to each other all that is best in our lives; all that gives meaning to them--for the sake of this, our beloved and blessed land?...

As your nominee, I pledge to restore to the federal government the capacity to do the people's work without dominating their lives…

America must get to work producing more energy. The Republican program for solving economic problems is based on growth and productivity…

It is essential that we maintain both the forward momentum of economic growth and the strength of the safety net beneath those in society who need help. We also believe it is essential that the integrity of all aspects of Social Security are preserved…

Beyond these essentials, I believe it is clear our federal government is overgrown and overweight. Indeed, it is time for our government to go on a diet…

I have long advocated a 30 percent reduction in income tax rates over a period of three years. This phased tax reduction would begin with a 10 percent "down payment" tax cut in 1981, which the Republicans and Congress and I have already proposed…

It is time to put America back to work; to make our cities and towns resound with the confident voices of men and women of all races, nationalities and faiths bringing home to their families a decent paycheck they can cash for honest money…

Adversaries large and small test our will and seek to confound our resolve, but we are given weakness when we need strength; vacillation when the times demand firmness…. The administration which has brought us to this state is seeking your endorsement for four more years of weakness, indecision, mediocrity and incompetence. No American should vote until he or she has asked, is the United States stronger and more respected now than it was three-and-a-half years ago? Is the world today a safer place in which to live?... I would regard my election as proof that we have renewed our resolve to preserve world peace and freedom. This nation will once again be strong enough to do that…

Tonight, let us dedicate ourselves to renewing the American compact. I ask you not simply to "Trust me," but to trust your values – our values – and to hold me responsible for living up to them. I ask you to trust that American spirit which knows no ethnic, religious, social, political, regional, or economic boundaries; the spirit that burned with zeal in the hearts of millions of immigrants from every corner of the Earth who came here in search of freedom.

But like many modern campaigns where the real proving ground for nominees takes place in the primaries, the 1980 Republican convention was more ceremonial than decision-making. From the outset of the campaign, Reagan had the support of conservative supporters and they amounted to the majority of Republican primary voters. As the leader of the conservative faction, Reagan was also considered electable in the general election because of his efforts to build a broad coalition. Meanwhile, George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s strongest primary competitor, had not united the moderate to liberal faction of the Republican Party (and although moderate Republicans had urged Gerald Ford to run, Ford chose not to interfere with Bush’s campaign). Reagan won 31 out of the 35 primaries in which he was on the ballot and garnered 61% of the vote. Although there was talk of Ford as the potential vice presidential running mate in order unite the moderate wing of the Republican Party, Reagan tapped Bush as his running mate at the Detroit convention.

Reagan began laying the groundwork for his political career some 16 years before. Of course his landmark “A Time for Choosing” speech played an important role in kickstarting Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign and gave Reagan the opportunity to appeal to conservative segments of the Republican Party.  Because of this appeal, the Goldwater campaign also tapped Reagan for ads and campaign speeches. Reagan’s real concerted campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency began even before he stepped down from the governorship of California. It was a campaign to appeal to a broad coalition of voters and share his conservative ideas with them five days a week via nationally syndicated radio and newspaper commentaries that began in 1975, a platform that other politicians did not have at their disposal. A November 4, 1974 strategy document called “Ronald Reagan: A Program for the Future” called the commentaries, along with national speaking engagements necessary to “maintain influence in the Republican Party; strengthen and consolidate leadership as the national conservative spokesman; and enhance his foreign affairs credibility.” Even after he lost his presidential bid in 1976, Reagan wrote to supporters:

[W]e must be ready, in November, after the election, to reassess and mobilize the Democrats and Independents we know are looking for a banner around which to rally. To that end, I think I can be something of a voice and intend doing all I can to bring about a new majority coalition. Our cause is not lost and may even be possible in the days ahead. Don’t lose faith and don’t think the war is over. I’m starting my five-day-a-week radio commentaries, newspaper column and speaking tour immediately.

The essays and commentaries were a means by which Reagan began building a coalition broader than the conservative base of the Republican Party. Furthermore, they were Reagan’s policy platform for governance, which he shared with millions of potential voters. Roughly one-third of the commentaries were on foreign affairs, while the remaining two-thirds were devoted to domestic issues ranging from taxing and spending, unemployment, monetary policy, government regulation, energy, social security, Medicare and healthcare. Reagan’s vision was to appeal to a broad coalition of voters with an economic package promising prosperity and a strategy of strength and morality in foreign policy. Reagan’s speech accepting the Republican Party’s nomination in 1980 was a synthesis of the ideas he had been presenting to voters in the previous years.

Date edited: 07/17/2012 (8:45AM)


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