Reagan's Blues

11/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Julian E. Zelizer Author, 'The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society'

This has been a terrible week for conservatives. Since the financial crisis began, McCain's support has been plummeting in the polls. The most recent data also suggests that the election might result in a Democratic landslide for Obama and also in the congressional races, potentially giving Democrats a filibuster-proof Senate.

Perhaps just as bad for the long-term future of the Republican Party the McCain-Palin campaign has adopted a new vicious tone. This hearkens back to previous campaigns, when we have seen Republicans embrace a strategy rooted in Cold War conservative attacks by Republicans on Democrats for their alleged ties to communists.

This is in stark contrast to one of the most successful Republican campaigners in recent history- Ronald Reagan. He believed that to succeed, conservatives also need to sell a positive vision for America or they would suffer the fate of Barry Goldwater in 1964. The central conservative message, according to Reagan, had to revolve around what conservative policies could do to make America a better and stronger place. Reagan's rhetoric was framed in optimistic and positive terms.

While many Americans strongly disagreed with what Reagan said and he could be as tough as any politician, his insistence on counterbalancing his message with a positive outlook was essential to his victories. Jimmy Carter's pollster Patrick Caddell had noted early on how difficult it would be to turn Reagan into another Goldwater, given that his demeanor and language made him appealing to main street America. In contrast to Carter's pessimism in 1980, Reagan said that "the American people, the most generous on earth, who created the highest standard of living, are not going to accept the notion that we can only make a better world for others by moving backwards ourselves." Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign featured an ad, "Morning in America," which provided an optimistic description of the American economy and local communities.

During the past week of the current campaign, desperate to reverse the falling polls, the Republicans have decided to take the low road and have rejected Reagan's formula for conservative success. Governor Palin has been giving speech after speech focusing on Barack Obama's relationship to a former member of the Weather Underground, Bill Ayers, to suggest that Obama has unexplained relations with "terrorists." Yesterday, McCain for the first time brought up the issue and today released an ad on the subject. "When convenient he worked with terrorist Bill Ayers. When discovered, he lied," according to the television spot.

Recent postings on YouTube have captured extremely aggressive words coming from the people lined up to see McCain and Palin. Palin said nothing at one event when someone in the crowd, revved up by talks about terrorism, screamed out "Kill Him!"

The damage that Republicans are inflicting to the conservative movement could be severe, even if this causes some bounce at the polls for the GOP, which thus far it has not. Reagan understood that no party could build a strong coalition simply through hatred. If the current sounds and sights define how Americans think about the GOP, McCain could succeed in undoing what Reagan had accomplished for the party back in 1980.

Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" (Harvard University Press) and is completing a book on the history of national security politics since World War II that will be published by Basic Books.