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Romancing the Right: Romney and Reagan’s Similar Struggles Winning Over the GOP Base

Reagan speaking at the Baptist Convention in DC in 1984

President Reagan delivers the keynote at the “Baptist Fundamentalism ‘84” convention led by Jerry Falwell.

With Mitt Romney’s nomination for the Republican presidential ticket all but assured, the question remains: will conservatives ever truly warm up to him? Romney’s persistent troubles galvanizing the Republican base are well known and thoroughly evinced. With 30 state primaries and caucuses in the books, Romney has garnered a majority of the vote in only four: Virginia (59.5%) where the only other name on the ballot was Ron Paul, Idaho (61.6%) which has a very large Mormon population, Massachusetts where he served as Governor (72.2%), and Nevada (50.1%). Even as conservative pundits and public intellectuals have begun to circle the wagons around the party’s presumptive nominee, according to a March 20 Gallup poll, only 40% of Republicans nationwide support Romney’s candidacy. Furthermore, his over-all favorability also remains low.

Every candidate who has been in the race (with the exception of Tim Pawlenty) was at one time polling above Romney, but each eventually succumbed to his or her own shortcomings; thus, if Romney takes the nomination, he may be viewed as something of a default candidate: acceptable to many, but no one’s first choice. As E.J. Dionne Jr. recently opined:

Mitt Romney is grinding his way to the Republican presidential nomination not by winning hearts but by imposing his will on a party that keeps resisting him. He is assembling the peripheral elements of the GOP as his rivals divide the votes of the passionate believers.

This will not be the first time that a Republican candidate has won the nomination despite initial difficulties with parts of the Republican base.

In light of the unquestioned deference paid to Reagan by today’s GOP, it is easy to forget that he – like Romney – had taken actions as the governor of a blue state that stirred the ire of many on the right. Most distasteful was Reagan’s signature of the Therapeutic Abortion Act within six months of assuming the governorship of California. Unlike Romney, whose darkest personal secret seems to be that he tried beer once (but didn’t swallow), Reagan also had serious personal baggage. He met his first wife, Jane Wyman on the movie set of “Brother Rat” while she was still married. They divorced nine years later, also a black mark to some. Especially for Evangelicals wont to flex their newly discovered political muscle, these were serious bones of contention. 

The Christian Right initially directed its attention toward other, more purist, candidates. Phillip Crane, an Illinois Congressman from a suburban district on Chicago’s north side, was an early favorite amongst many Evangelical preachers. When Crane withdrew from the race, debates arose within the ranks of emergent activist groups such as the Moral Majority as to whether to throw their support behind John Connally or Ronald Reagan.

Much like Rick Perry, John Connally had been governor of Texas and had a solid record on social issues and a strong economy back home to point to. Also like Perry, Connally was a Democrat for much of his life (including, in his case, while serving as Governor). This may not have been much of a hindrance to Connally, however, since many Evangelicals, especially in the South, were themselves newly minted Republicans. But Connally, who was counting on a clean sweep of the South, withdrew shortly after a second place finish in South Carolina.

With Crane and Connally out of the race, Reagan – like Romney – stood as the winner of his own war of attrition. Richard Zone of the Evangelical newsletter Christian Voice wrote of the 1980 primary:

Reagan was not the best Christian who ever walked the face of the earth, but we really didn’t have a choice.

Not all Evangelical leaders were so dour however. Jerry Falwell spoke optimistically of Reagan:

the only thing we’re waiting for is in our hearts to believe he’s a real leader.

By the time of the general election Reagan had done what many fear Romney will be unable to; he had turned his skeptics into thoroughgoing believers so much so that Falwell proclaimed in advance of Reagan’s selection of a running-mate, that he would support his favorite “even if he has the devil running with him.”

Could Romney take some cues from the near mythic mantle of the modern conservative movement? Unfortunately for the former governor, it may be too late.

While Reagan and Romney made decisions as governor they would have to account for, they took very different approaches to mollifying the conservative base. When Reagan was confronted by his signature of his state’s Therapeutic Abortion Act, Reagan voiced his regret about this decision and his shock at the volume of abortions that ensued. Then, on the campaign trail in July of 1979, Reagan openly supported a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution that would extend Constitutional protections to the unborn. Reagan’s radical and seemingly heartfelt swing to the right ended much of the reticence about his campaign.   

And while Reagan’s actions as governor were forgotten relatively quickly, Mitt Romney’s advocacy of the Massachusetts Health Care Insurance Reform Law – or “Romneycare” as it has come to be known – has remained a serious problem throughout his primary campaign.

Romney has never taken the position that Romneycare was a mistake for his state, only that this policy, applied to the whole nation, is unwise and Unconstitutional. As he recently wrote in an Op-Ed for USA Today:

When I was governor of Massachusetts, we instituted a plan that got our citizens insured without raising taxes and without a government takeover. Other states will choose to go in different directions. It is the genius of federalism that it encourages experimentation, with each state pursuing what works best for them. ObamaCare's disregard for this core aspect of U.S. tradition is one of its most egregious failings.

As has been mentioned by the other Republican contenders, this addresses only one of the concerns fiscal conservatives have with the Health Insurance Reform Act. To be sure, its Constitutionality is at issue but, arguably, the bigger problem is that it represents a “big government” solution to a problem the free market can and should deal with. In contrast to Reagan’s mea culpa, Romney’s attempts to account for his gubernatorial baggage have been far more nuanced and, seemingly, far less satisfying to conservatives. 

Though some of the parallels are striking, one should not overstate the similarities between Romney’s positions and Reagan’s. While the former has been known as a moderate throughout his political career, the latter was a spokesperson for the conservative movement long before he ran for office. In fact, a big reason why Falwell and other Christian Right elites finally supported Reagan was the groundswell of enthusiasm for his candidacy amongst the rank and file of their own organizations. 

While Reagan’s support was, by and large, a bottom up phenomena, Romney’s has been much the opposite. Elites have been far more eager to settle on Romney than the grassroots of the conservative base. Thus far, their pragmatic appeals to conservatives have been based on electability. If Romney wins the nomination, and it appears that he will, his victory will owe largely to a calculated decision rather than a turn of heart. With Reagan, conservatives got both a candidate they were passionate for and – on account of Carter’s weakness – a potential winner besides. Obama presents a much less vulnerable target for Republicans. And at least for the duration of the primary contest, Obama’s perceived strength may be Romney’s greatest asset. 

John W. York is a graduate student at the University of Virginia studying American Politics.  His recent work has focused on the Tea Party and its effects on the conservative movement.

Date edited: 04/02/2012 (7:24AM)


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