Reagan’s Revolution is a fantastic look into a narrow slice of history behind the 1976 Republican Primary. The lack of leadership within the GOP in the wake of President Nixon’s resignation in 1974 left many wondering what would happen to the Republican Party, where some political pundits in the media were foretelling a demise of this major political party similar to the Whig Party of the 1840’s. The political landscape in the 1970’s had been dire for conservatives in general. When Gerald Ford became President of the United States after the shameful departure of Richard Nixon, the Ford administration sought policies that ran contrary to the ideas of conservatives across America. The Democratic Party, despite the infighting that occurred during two previous conventions, held both houses of Congress with great majorities and pursued its own liberal policies that bordered on socialism. The Republican Party had its own malaise, where some members of the GOP in Congress were content with being the minority, and some Republican congressmen and senators were as equally liberal as their Democratic peers. Discontent was brewing with conservatives in both political parties, and many sought a leader who would champion conservative ideas and policies and bring that person to the forefront of the political battle and change the direction of America. Ronald Reagan happened to be that person, and a group of conservatives tapped the sextagenarian and recently former Governor of California to pursue the Republican Party nomination for President. President Gerald Ford met his match, and Reagan put up a great fight against the unelected incumbent. The stage was set for the GOP and its future in the Republican Convention of 1976.
Craig Shirley’s book is on a subject that is often overlooked by historians who write about Reagan’s life. Considering President Reagan’s presidency in the 1980’s, this piece of history is often ignored since it was considered a failure of conservatives to capture the Republican Party in 1976, and it was Reagan’s only loss in his political career. Shirley exposes the infighting of liberals and moderates versus conservatives in the GOP, and the shenanigans of the establishment that supported the moderate Gerald Ford in his fight to keep the nomination for President in 1976. The contempt of some moderate Republicans against the conservative Reagan was palpable and sometimes personal, although both the Reagan and Ford campaigns remained generally amicable toward each other. The fight for delegates who were undecided became a media circus, and the wooing of both candidates for uncommited delegates became onerous. Going into the Republican Convention in Kansas City, both candidates were edging closer to gaining the upper hand in the delegate count and capture the nomination. Reagan’s campaign had many problems, mainly that he didn’t win the first few states that held their respective primary elections. It is interesting to note that the first state in which Reagan’s campaign ran on issues was the first state which Reagan won, and the North Carolina primary became the avalanche that reinvigorated the conservatives to give President Ford fits and give concern to the Republican establishment that their candidate might not win. Of all the state primary elections in American history, it is Shirley’s opinion that this was the most important in the GOP. It put Reagan’s conservatism on center stage, and Americans were taking notice of the former two-term Governor of California. Eventually, another state would be the downfall to Reagan’s campaign, and would become to be known as “Bloody Mississippi”, where delegates had been pledged to Reagan, but a political coup took place by an opportunistic state party boss who wanted to keep power to himself, thus causing havoc in the momentum for the Reagan campaign nationwide. Uncommitted delegates in other states saw the shift and at the last moment leaned toward President Ford. The Republican Convention in Kansas City saw a deeply divided party, and President Ford and his moderates won the nomination, but lost the election to a populist Democrat, Jimmy Carter.
The 1976 Republican Convention put conservatives to the test, and their candidate, Ronald Reagan, as the front-runner of the conservative cause. In some states where the primary elections were open to crossing over party lines, Reagan attracted many Democrats who were like-minded to his conservative appeal. Many Americans saw Reagan the same way they saw themselves: common sense and generally conservative. Reagan’s failed 1976 bid for the presidency propelled him to fine-tune his conservative ideologies and approach the future where, as Reagan believed, America was a shining city on a hill. It was in 1976 where the conservative cause found its home in a leader who took the United States to unparalleled heights througout the 1980’s and challenged the world to confront the evils of communism and the Soviet Union. Domestically, Reagan challenged Americans that we were not the problem– government was the problem. The conservative juggernaut that came out of the ashes of the 1976 Republican Convention became the conservative movement where in a few short years, conservatives were effective in defeating the policies of the Carter administration, and catapulted Reagan (and conservatism) to victory in the 1980 elections. Moderates were no longer controlling the GOP, and the eight years of Reagan’s presidency saw the rise of conservative thought that took control of the Republican Party. Essentially, it was the beginning of the Reagan Revolution, which Shirley writes about in detail from the often-overlooked events of 1976.
Craig Shirley’s book was very enlightening to read, and captures the mood of the Reagan campaign throughout its history, from its beginnings in 1974 until the aftermath of the 1976 Republican Convention. The reviewer is astounded by the documentation provided by Mr. Shirley, and appreciates his addition to the events surrounding the formation of conservative ideology and its ‘man’, Ronald Reagan. It would have been good for Shirley to give transcripts of some speeches Reagan gave, especially the “90 Billion” speech, which is absent in the book. This would be the only valid criticism of the book, as both the author and the reviewer share the same love of Reagan and his revolution. One good thing that Craig Shirley did in writing his book is that if he quoted profane comments by anyone, he did edit the offending phrase leaving it to the “mind of the reader” to discover what was actually said. There was very little to criticise about Reagan’s Revolution, and the author is to be commended for writing in detail on such a short period of history.