Ronald Reagan: Political Confidence and Social Conservatism

This weekend I have on display in my home a remembrance of Ronald Reagan, in honor of his 100th Birthday. It is a small 1984 campaign placard showing a large red heart and “Women for Reagan.” The president himself signed it during a huge campaign rally in Macomb County, Michigan–home of a new faction of voters who became known as “Reagan Democrats.”

In 1980 I was one of thousands of Michigan volunteers who worked hard to win the state for Ronald Reagan. Like the Tea Party activists of today, we were motivated to get involved and to influence public policy from the grassroots up. After four years of Jimmy Carter’s “malaise,” we wanted to reduce tax and regulatory burdens that were hurting the economy. We also worried about Cold War threats, and what had become a demoralized “hollowed out” military.

These were compelling issues in 1980, but not enough to win. There was no conservative infrastructure or media–just a candidate with self-confident vision. The movement was not ready to take off until a third force joined with economic and national defense conservatives to build a new coalition. This powerful new faction, the pro-family movement, was motivated by the successful ten-year battle to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, the Roe v. Wade decision, and by excesses of feminism that became apparent in the late 1970s.

At the 1977 International Women’s Year conference in Houston, ultra feminists Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, and Betty Friedan shared the stage with First Ladies Roslyn Carter and Betty Ford. Liberal media and feminists, some of whom claimed to be Republican, darkly warned that the 1980 presidential candidate would lose if he did not support ERA and abortion. Even when Reagan became the front-runner in 1980, some pundits recommended that he choose former President Gerald Ford as his running mate, in order to balance his own social conservative views. I still have a small campaign button from the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit, reading “Reagan & Ford – Put Them Together for Victory”

Ronald Reagan knew better. At that convention the platform committee opposed the controversial ERA and adopted the enduring pro-life plank that Republicans have reaffirmed every four years. Under Reagan’s leadership the pro-family movement joined with economic and national defense conservatives to build a strong and effective political force. The resulting coalition became Reagan’s famous “three-legged stool”–a redefined, stable conservatism that expressed unequivocal support for sound economic principles, national security, and traditional family values.

The combined platform appealed to Reagan Democrats, thousands of whom had never been active in politics before. When newly-motivated pro-family grassroots activists joined forces with what had been a small conservative movement, the result was something big: the Reagan Revolution.

Fast forward to another emerging force, the Tea Party movement of today. Working primarily at the local and state levels, the decentralized grassroots movement has developed real clout. The movement rose up to confront the big spending, big government policies of the Obama Administration and the Nancy Pelosi/Harry Reid 111th Congress–and it’s just getting started.

The potential for political victory in 2012 is strong, but as was the case in 1980, some short-sighted observers don’t recognize it. Like the mistaken minority of convention delegates who wore Reagan/Ford buttons in 1980, some misguided factions today are misinterpreting the dynamics and trying to redirect forces they do not understand.

In November 2010 a group called GOProud, an offshoot of the Log Cabin Republicans, initiated an open letter to Republican leaders suggesting that the party should respond to the Tea Party movement by concentrating on economics and dropping “special interest” social issues–except those they favor, of course. GOProud opposes the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which protects traditional marriage, and pushed for legislation to repeal the 1993 law regarding homosexuals in the military, which Congress recklessly approved during last December’s lame-duck session.

Here we have a gay activist group centered on controversial “special interest” social issues, claiming that their own token support for some conservative causes entitles them to demand the exclusion of social conservatives who have a proven record of success in recent elections and many more prior to 2010.

The divisive group has even criticized Senator Jim DeMint, named 2010 Conservative of the Year by Human Events, because he does not meet liberal expectations for what a Republican should be. In contrast, for decades social conservatives have demonstrated the wisdom of standing for core principles and working with compatible fiscal and national defense conservatives in order to win.

According to a Rasmussen poll released on Friday, 32% of voters are conservative on both fiscal and social issues–up eight points since 2007. Only 6% are liberal on both fiscal and social issues, down from 9% in 2007. The same poll indicates that 69% of GOP voters say they are social conservatives. The potential for a strong new coalition exists, since economic freedom and national security cannot endure when government policies undermine or weaken free enterprise, our military, and the institutions of marriage and family.

Convergence of the Constitution-centered Tea Party movement with pre-2009 conservatives brings the entire movement to a turning point that is not a crisis–it is an opportunity. Happy Birthday, Ronald Reagan–May your legacy and the principles you stood for change American history again.


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