Ronald Reagan’s Run Against Ford

This week (Aug. 19) in 1976, at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Ronald Reagan became the Republican nominee for president of the United States—for the year 1980.

President Gerald Ford, running for re-election, actually bested Reagan to capture the 1976 Republican nomination that August in Kansas City, but it was a squeaker.  Of the 1,130 delegates needed to secure the nomination, Ford received 1,187 to Reagan’s 1,070.

So why did Reagan run in 1976—not only against the sitting president from his own party, but also in defiance of his own famous 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.”

Reagan ran because he was fed up with what had become the underlying principle of American foreign policy, a principle long upheld by Republicans as well as Democrats, and a principle that President Ford had come to personify.   That principle was détente—the belief that “co-existing” with the Soviet Union, even to the point of aiding that country with credits, loans, investment and favorable trade agreements, was preferable to confrontation.

Reagan considered détente foolish at best and immoral at worst, and overturning détente was his main motivation for seeking the presidency in 1976.   Indeed, while on the campaign trail he hammered at the evils of détente at every opportunity.  Détente helped prop up an ailing Soviet economy, Reagan insisted, thereby prolonging the life of a financially—and morally—bankrupt dictatorship whose goal was world domination.   Détente also prolonged the captivity of the nations of Eastern Europe, Reagan added, nations the Soviet Union had controlled since 1945 when it dropped on them an “Iron Curtain” of Soviet military power.

To the astonishment of the mainstream media, Reagan’s message began to resonate, so much so that at one point in the campaign he won five straight primaries—North Carolina, Texas, Indiana, Georgia and Alabama—which so spooked the Ford campaign that President Ford suddenly began imitating Reagan, claiming that “peace through strength”—a longtime Reagan slogan—was now his foreign policy mantra.

And in the end, Ford limped to the finish line in Kansas City just ahead of Reagan, but knowing that he badly needed to unite his party, Ford, after giving his acceptance speech, invited Reagan up to the podium to address the convention.  Reagan accepted, reluctantly, but then gave an impromptu speech that was so inspired it brought down the house and, as one observer put it, convinced many delegates that “they had nominated the wrong guy.”

They may have been right, for Ford lost the presidency to Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter that November.  So four years later they corrected that mistake by nominating Reagan, who subsequently defeated President Carter in a landslide.