Thursday Throwback: Reagan and Electability


At one of the 2012 Republican primary debates, Newt Gingrich responded to the suggestion that he may be unelectable by noting that the same thing was said about Ronald Reagan 32 years ago. Al Checchi made a similar point writing for the Huffington Post.

There are a few problems with the comparison. Ronald Reagan was elected Governor in a competitive big state, defeating an incumbent. Anyone who accomplishes that is a credible Presidential candidate. If the head of the ACLU becomes the Governor of Florida, it would be ridiculous for Republicans to underestimate him.

Reagan’s such a powerful example that people forget the other potential comparisons: all the politicians who ran for office and lost the primary.

Presidential elections are a small set of data points, but there have been plenty of gubernatorial and senate elections in that time, where the conservative Republican lost.

I can’t say that Gingrich would have had no shot, but I wouldn’t say that Reagan sets a good precedent.

Conservative activist Wendy Long, a candidate for the Republican nomination for Senate, suggested that Reagan proves she can be strong in New York.

Ms. Long is largely unknown to the public, but has generated considerable excitement among party regulars. She is articulate and charismatic, and seen as someone who could foil Ms. Gillibrand.

She is also a strong social conservative who has spoken out against same-sex marriage, saying it could open the door for humans to marry animals. Ms. Long has been linked to a student newspaper at Dartmouth, her alma mater, that mocked gays, blacks and Jews. Her supporters cheered the loudest during the voting process, but some Republicans worried about her electability.

“I’m a 1980s Ronald Reagan conservative, and Ronald Reagan won this state two times,” Ms. Long said. “I don’t think that those conservative values are out of step with New York at all.”

Ms. Long described Ms. Gillibrand as “someone who just rubber-stamps the Obama agenda or checks with Chuck Schumer and says, ‘Me too.’ ”

She ended up losing by 46 points. She later got the nomination against Schumer, and lost by 43 points.

A dumb argument many conservatives make is that electability shouldn’ty be a concern because someone once said that Ronald Reagan was unelectable. Here’s an example.

The most insulting thing to conservatives about this argument is that it says that conservatism and electability are mutually exclusive. History says otherwise. Ronald Reagan, the standard bearer of modern conservatism, was unelectable. He was too conservative, a reactionary, and a deluded old fool who would bring about a nuclear war.

Of course he won two back-to-back landslides (44 and 49 states, respectively), and he did it, not by being a moderate, or seizing the center. No, on the contrary, Reagan did what Mark Steyn best describes. As Steyn points out, Reagan did not win by moving to the center. Rather, he moved the center towards him. That, Steyn says, is why Reagan was great. He knew how to speak to independents and centrists without losing his principles in the mix. He was a conservative who could move the center.

It’s a straw man argument. Because people in the past were wrong against Reagan, it doesn’t mean experts are wrong now.

This is an interesting thing to consider in the age of Trump, although his political positions aren’t exactly conservative, and a stronger Republican would have likely won the popular vote.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at
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