The Republican Party’s secret centrist weapon is to act like Ronald Reagan

05/26/2014 4:41 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Some local Republicans think Ronald Reagan is Kansas City’s secret weapon in the battle to host the party’s 2016 convention.

It was in Kansas City, in 1976, that Reagan fought incumbent President Gerald Ford for that year’s presidential nomination. Reagan lost — barely — then delivered a rousing, convention-closing speech that set the stage for his eventual 1980 triumph over Jimmy Carter.

All Republican conventions celebrate Reagan, of course, but a return to Kansas City 40 years after that speech would make the connection explicit: We have it in our power, Republicans will say, to begin the world again. Reagan said that a lot.

Of course, some of us would be duty-bound to tell the whole Reagan story, assuming the GOP makes that argument.

When he came to Kansas City in 1976, Reagan had fewer delegates than Ford. He had to do something to shake up the race, to get the delegates to reconsider their commitments.

What to do? Propose a massive tax cut? A major military build-up? Prayer in schools?

Instead, Reagan preemptively announced his vice presidential choice — Richard Schweiker — then dared Ford to reveal his veep choice before the nominating ballots were cast. The theory: Ford’s pick would anger enough delegates to sway the convention to Reagan.

The move backfired. Reagan lost a test vote, then lost the nomination.

But here’s the thing to remember: Schweiker was a moderate-to-liberal Republican. He was so liberal that conservatives such as Sen. Jesse Helms were furious.

When ideology clashed with political reality, Reagan ditched his right wing and went with a middle-of-the-road guy. To win.

An aberration? Four years later, in Detroit, Reagan considered putting Ford on the ticket. Instead, he went with George H.W. Bush, who had called Reagan’s tax-cut proposals “voodoo economics.”

Liberals like to demonize Reagan, and conservatives venerate him. His record, though, shows Reagan repeatedly moved to the pragmatic center when given the chance. He raised capital gains taxes and cut Social Security benefits. He signed a bill granting amnesty to millions of immigrants. He was a big fan of the earned income tax credit and its payments to workers who have no federal tax liability.

He was, in short, a tea party nightmare. “He would have trouble getting his own nomination,” today, son Michael Reagan said a few years ago.

Reagan won’t be on the ballot wherever the GOP goes in 2016, but he will be there in spirit. So will his record.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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