In the 20th century, only five presidential incumbents would lose election to second terms. Two of those losses took place consecutively, in 1976 and 1980. (Many presidents have the good sense to leave before they are forced to leave.) In both of those years, incumbent presidents faced the unusual spectacle of credible challengers within their own parties. Gerald Ford faced Ronald Reagan in 1976; Jimmy Carter faced Ted Kennedy in 1980.
It was a politically tumultuous time that attracted a larger-than-usual group of contenders for the presidency. One candidate, who had already twice lost campaigns in 1968 and in 1976, suggested that it was time for the country to begin "looking at things in a new way." The candidate was, of course, Ronald Reagan, using different words to describe "change you could believe in."
How did that view manifest itself over his evolving campaigns? The answer is a worthwhile contemplation for any person or group desiring to win political office.
In the 2012 field of Republican presidential candidates, recently on display for the debate hosted by Fox News in South Carolina, the most seasoned candidates seemed to be the most incapable of looking at things in a "new way." If the past is any indicator, that will be a problem for them. Intransigent or oblivious candidates have a hard time building large constituencies.
An irony this has produced in our current political climate is that one presidential candidate who lacks many practical advantages, such as youthfulness or the credibility of ever having held a statewide office, is doing better in polls today than his competitors. In a CNN poll conducted from April 29 to May 1, Rep. Ron Paul trailed Barack Obama by seven points, 52 to 45 percent.
His performance was superior to every other Republican candidate. Mitt Romney, who holds every traditional practical advantage from resources to a willingness to compromise, trailed President Obama by eleven points.
While current polling victories often fail to reflect future results, it is again the question of what produces that enthusiasm for a candidate that deserves an answer. The most successful representation of the answer is, once again, Ronald Reagan. Yes, he had resources and practical advantages, but he also had a vision.
One of Reagan's defeated opponents in the 1980 Republican primary, George H.W. Bush, deridingly referred to it as the "vision thing" years later. While most of today's Republican candidates are quick to heap superficial praise on Ronald Reagan, they are also quick to deride the ideas he represented. Where Ronald Reagan enjoyed talking to voters, H.W. Bush found them loathsome for the fact that they were more interested in policies than electoral results. Similarly and ironically, many of today's political candidates praise Ronald Reagan while emulating George H.W. Bush in thought and in deed.
More than just talking about change while sticking with the political machinery in the back room, Ronald Reagan's staff found that political machinery to be frustrating in its obstruction of their goals. Sen. Paul Laxalt, chairman of Reagan's campaigns in both 1976 and 1980, once said in irritation, "My feeling [is] that if we are going to be effective as conservatives, it will have to be outside the Republican National Committee." Unsurprisingly, Sen. Laxalt had to survive continued attempts from his party's machinery to eliminate him from the campaign.
Revolutionary without being flamboyant, Reagan's campaign gave people a sense that it was sincere and dealt with serious issues. That is not to say it was never viewed as making mistakes; Reagan's acceptance of Bush as his vice-president was taken by many of his advisors to be a mistake. Sen. Jesse Helms reported in his own autobiography that he had to wait to calm down before he could accept Reagan's repeated phone calls. Sen. Laxalt simply walked out of the national convention early.
The contradiction in values between Reagan and Bush represented an odd match, yet Reagan's own values were enough to retain his supporters' faith in him. It took years to build his constituents' faith in those convictions, and it was a foundation that the GOP's modern candidates are sorely lacking.
Presently, Americans hold a view of their government that is comparable to the outlook they held in 1980. Greater optimism could be cultivated, and a presidential candidate may be rewarded, if a candidate can be found who can articulately describe a vision and sincerely-held values. That still seems to be missing from our political climate.