THE BLOG
11/22/2015 09:08 pm ET Updated Nov 22, 2016

Ted Cruz Misinterprets Ronald Reagan's 1980 Election Victory

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U.S Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) is running for president as an unreconstructed conservative Republican. Cruz suggests a Republican nominee can win the presidency by waving the conservative banner and galvanizing conservatives rather than by making inroads with centrist persuadable voters.

Cruz's template for this strategy goes back to 1980 when Ronald Reagan won the presidency. Cruz told the Conservative Political Action Conference that he is "convinced 2016 is going to be an election very much like 1980." Cruz often repeats a line Reagan uttered four years prior to his 1980 victory: "Raise a banner of bold colors, not pale pastels."

However, the circumstance in 1980 and 2016 are markedly different. In 1980, Reagan had the propitious fortune of running against an unpopular incumbent Democratic president. Moreover, Reagan won the presidency by mustering not solely the votes of conservatives, but also the votes of liberal and moderate voters.

Unlike Cruz, who sports a pristine conservative voting record in the Senate, Reagan's record as Governor of California, coupled with some of the rhetoric he used in 1980, would be sacrilegious with contemporary conservative voters. In addition, the 1980 election was a referendum on an unpopular Democratic incumbent, and any standard Republican should have defeated Jimmy Carter handily. The Democratic nominee in 2016 will not be an unpopular sitting president.

Reagan did not govern California as an intransigent conservative, but as a technocratic pragmatist. In 1967 Reagan signed what was the largest tax increased in California history. Reagan did this to eliminate the state's gaping budget deficit. When he ran for re-election in 1970, Reagan promised voters his feet were "in concrete" against establishing a withholding system of state income tax. However, as Governor, Reagan reversed course, signing a tax increase to obliterate the state's $200 million deficit. Using humor as opposed to an excuse, Reagan commented: "that sound you hear concrete cracking around my feet." In addition, Reagan signed the Mulford Act, restricting the use of firearms by the citizenry. Reagan also signed the Therapeutic Abortion Act, liberalizing state abortion laws, which he later came to regret.

Reagan unsuccessfully ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976 against president Gerald Ford. Reagan ran to the right of Ford, particularly on foreign policy. Ford supported a detente (relaxation of tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union). Reagan excoriated Ford for signing the Helsinki Accords, intoning they put a "Stamp of approval on Russia's enslavement of the captive nations." Under the agreement, the U.S., the Soviet Union, and 39 other nations agreed to respect the autonomy of every nation-state in Europe and not encroach on their territory.

The fight for the nomination was whisker close, with neither candidate winning the requisite number of delegates during the primary. The nomination was decided at the Republican National Convention. Reagan announced that if he garnered the nominating, he would select one of the party's most liberal Senators, Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, as his vice presidential running mate. This show of pragmatism set off a raging inferno of indignation among conservatives. Cruz, in sharp contrast to Reagan, would never consider picking a liberal Republican as his running mate.

In 1980, unlike 2016, the Republicans had the luxury of running against an unpopular incumbent Democratic president. Americans were beset by stagflation, gas shortages, and a failure to secure the release of 44 American hostages held captive in Iran. President Jimmy Carter was blamed for all three situations and harbored job approval ratings in the low thirties. An AP-NBC poll taken in 1979 showed that 70% of Americans believed Carter could not be re-elected.

Furthermore, there was little enthusiasm for Carter within the Democratic base. They believed he was too conservative for the party and had focused on fiscal austerity rather than on expanding the social safety net. Consequently, Carter barely eked out renomination. The Democrat's liberal bloodline had supported U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and California Governor Jerry Brown. Both men ran against Carter for the nomination. There was also a movement by panicked Democrats (who feared Carter was unelectable in the General Election) to draft U.S. Secretary of State Edmund Muskie for the nomination. Muskie did not accept the draft effort.

In July of 1980, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) met with fifteen of his Senate colleagues, asking them if Carter could win their respective states in the General Election. The only Senator who answered in the affirmative was Sam Nunn from Carter's home state of Georgia.

Accordingly, the 1980 election should have been a slam-dunk for the Republican nominee. However, in part because of his move to the right in the 1976 campaign, Carter was successful in styling Reagan as a conservative extremist. He called Reagan "dangerous "disturbing." This forced Reagan to spend much of the General Election campaign trying to assure the American people that he was in the mainstream of American political thought.

There was just one debate between Carter and Reagan that year. It occurred just one week before the election. Despite Carter's anemic job approval ratings and the hunger from the electorate for change, the election was a dead heat. During that debate, Reagan essentially won the election by proving he was not a right wing ideologue. When Carter accused Reagan of having opposed the establishment of Medicare, Reagan soothingly replied: "There you go again." In his closing statement, Reagan did not delineate a wish-list for conservatives but calmly asked the question: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Thus with enough of the electorate confident Reagan was not a reactionary, the American people got the green light to vote against Carter.

Reagan did not win the General Election by appealing only to conservatives. Astoundingly, he also pocketed 48% of the moderate voters and 27% of the liberal voters. By contrast, in 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney won just 41% of the moderates and 11% of the liberals.

The last example of a GOP nominee running as an unreserved conservative occurred in 1964. That year, disaffected conservatives launched a mutiny against the party's moderate establishment by successfully working to nominate U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), a full spectrum conservative.

In his oration accepting the nomination, Goldwater made no effort to counter critics who called him extreme. In fact, he doubled-down, declaring: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me also remind you that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." Consequently, Goldwater ceded the political center to his opponent, Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson. With only conservative support, Goldwater was trounced, winning just six states.

Cruz uses Reagan as the archetype of a Republican who won the presidency by proudly wearing the conservative label. He fails to mention that Reagan's perceived conservatism was a hindrance that Reagan successfully overcame. In addition, Reagan won an election any Republican should have won handily. Currently less than 40% of the American electorate identify themselves as conservatives. Furthermore, the Democratic nominee will not be an unpopular incumbent president. Accordingly, in this political environment, like in 1980, a successful Republican nominee needs to appeal to more than just conservative voters.