At the close of the 1976 Republican convention in Kansas City, after President Gerald Ford barely squeaked out the nomination against Ronald Reagan, the Reagan aide David Keene gave a revealing interview to The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Drew.
Keene is a conservative movement lifer. In college he was national chairman of Young Americans for Freedom. He ran for public office only once, for Wisconsin state senate, in 1969, and lost, then worked for Spiro Agnew in the White House back when the loud-mouthed vice president was the conservatives’ Great White Horse for president (“Spiro of ’76”). He became an assistant to the conservative senator James Buckley (William F.’s brother). He was chairman of the American Conservative Union from 1984 until 2011. At the time Drew spoke with him, Keene had been the head of Reagan’s presidential campaign in the South. In my Nation cover story last week about the Tea Party’s continuities with conservatism past, when I wrote about the right’s “ideological entrepreneurs” who work to leverage grassroots outrage into conservative power, Keene is exactly the sort of figure I had in mind.
In Kansas City, Keene spoke to Drew of the anger against Reagan among conservatives for his last-minute gambit to save his failing presidential bid by choosing a liberal running mate, Senator Richard Shweiker of Pennsylvania, who had received a 100 percent rating from the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education. Reagan had defended his decision by stressing Schweiker’s agreement with him on abortion and gun control. Carped Keene, “These are all window-dressing issues. What about the economy?” Keene insisted that it was “economic issues” that conservatives really cared about. He explained, “The picture of hardhats taking to the streets over abortion and gun control is misleading. Those issues aren’t what people care about. What it really comes down to is the economic system and the theory that the government is too big. The big things that thinking conservatives think about involve questions of economics and questions of freedom. They draw on the frustration in the country from the increasing feeling that people can’t do anything about anything.”
He was wrong—as the organizers of the nascent New Right would soon be concluding en masse. Yes, people were feeling plenty of frustration about not being able to do anything about anything when it came to their economic lives. But conservative leaders proved entirely ineffectual at “drawing on that” to get people to believe conservative solutions were the answer to their economic frustrations.
It is, in fact, a truism, confirmed by nearly half a century of political polling, a fact brilliantly explained in a must-read article at Salon.com from Paul Rosenberg. It was true even after Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential victory, and his 1984 landslide reelection. Consider the statistics compiled in the perennially useful 1986 study Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics, by Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers. One poll they cite from Opinion Research Corporation asked voters in 1980 whether “too much” was being spent on the environment, health, education, welfare and urban aide programs. Only 21 percent thought so, the same percentage as in 1976, 1977 and 1978. The amount saying the amount spent was either “too little” or “about right” was never lower in those years than 72 percent. The number favoring keeping “taxes and services about where they are” was the same in 1975 and 1980—45 percent. The pattern continued well into Reagan’s presidency. In 1983 the Los Angeles Times found that only 5 percent of Americans found regulations “too strict,” while 42 percent called them “not strong enough.” Between 1978 and 1982, according to surveys from the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, the number of voters who wished to “expand” rather than “cut back” not just social spending in general but the dreaded “welfare” programs, increased by 26 percentage points. And finally, in 1984, when Reagan’s approval rating was 68 percent, only 35 percent favored cuts in social programs to reduce the deficit, which of course was their president’s strenuously stated preference on the matter. Sixty-five percent believed such cuts were imminent—and, of course, that November, well over 60 percent of them voted for Reagan instead of the Democrat Walter Mondale.