A couple of weeks ago, I finished Jon Meacham’s most recent book, “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George H.W. Bush.” It is an unusually well-researched and well-written biography. The chapters dealing with Bush’s 1980 presidential campaign bring back many memories of when I was an an ardent young College Republican, my eyes perpetually glued to TV screens and political magazines following what was arguably one of most significant presidential campaigns of the 20th century.
I’m sure I drove my staunchly Democratic girlfriend to near distraction in the summer of 1980 worrying and fussing over the Reagan/Bush rivalry.
I was a true believer — in today’s parlance, a deep-dyed red, conservative Republican. And for that reason, I was something of a glaring anomaly at the time.
Way back then, local county Republican parties in Alabama and the rest of the Deep South still functioned as post-office parties – in other words, parties that closely hewed to the national party line in hopes that some of its members would receive political patronage in the form of local federal appointments. The spirit of the moderate Republicanism of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon was still strong in the early 1980’s, even among Republicans in the Deep South. Indeed, most of the leadership of my GOP county organization were neither Reagan nor Goldwater conservatives but rather confirmed moderates – purple Republicans, employing 2016 political terminology.
In one of those fascinating historical ironies associated with Southern Republicanism at the time, moderate George H.W. Bush enjoyed the support of the GOP leadership in my native Franklin County and many other Alabama counties, though Reagan ended up winning the statewide primary.
Tribal loyalties still played a part, too. Many northern Alabama Republican families, including mine, traced their ancestry back to Southern Unionist forebears who had rigidly opposed Southern secession in the 1860’s, withheld their support from the Southern Confederacy, and stubbornly clung to their Republican party sympathies even through Reconstruction and the Great Depression.
But Republicanism in the South was undergoing rapid change. Goldwater Republicanism had made a few political inroads in Alabama in the mid-1960’s, and Richard Nixon had used law-and-order rhetoric and the ill-fated nominations of two Southerners to the U.S. Supreme Court to build on these gains.
Watergate, followed by Georgian Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976, dealt a temporary setback to Southern Republicanism. But these fortunes rebounded in 1980, reflected in the remarkably enthusiastic GOP primary turnout throughout Alabama, even in yellow-dog Democratic northwest Alabama. The turnout not only rivaled the Democratic turnout but also pointed toward the narrow statewide victory that Reagan ultimately would eke out the following November.
The GOP primary also marked the rise of the Religious Right in Alabama, reflected in Admiral Jeremiah Denton’s surprising upset of Ambassador Armistead Selden, the anointed GOP establishment candidate for the U.S. Senate.
I can remember my father and me getting into a rather heated argument over my support of Denton over Selden.
“Why are you voting for that guy – all those religious right people are kooks!” he said, adding that they ultimately would work to the detriment of GOP fortunes. The argument closely reminded me of the one we got into during the Ford-Reagan rivalry four years earlier in 1976. Dad simply could not understand how I could ignore the more moderate and presumably most electable incumbent over some Hollywood conservative upstart.
One thing is certain: The Election of 1980 marked a watershed year for the GOP, when movement conservatives acquired a permanent ascendancy, and moderate Republicans, such as Bush, were reduced to supplicants. Indeed, prominent GOP moderates such as Bush really could be likened to the engineers and other technicians who were held over after the Bolshevik Revolution solely for their expertise – to make things run, in other words.
After a protracted struggle that arguably had ensued for more than 40 years, the moderate wing of the GOP was effectively killed off in 1980. And I think that of one Bush’s major weaknesses after his own election to the presidency eight years later was struggle to operate off a movement conservative script while he remained a moderate at heart.
Today, reflecting back almost 40 years to that watershed election, I’ve concluded that that the conservative rout of moderate, purple Republicanism marked an unfortunate turn of events of events for the GOP. My father was proven right, after all. Indeed, the upcoming election of 2016 may ultimately demonstrate the high price the GOP has paid for becoming an ideological party rather than one that remained congenial to moderate and even a few liberal Republicans.