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Asked on Sunday whether he thinks the woman he tried to install a heartbeat from the presidency is “divisive,” John McCain responded by comparing Sarah Palin to Ronald Reagan.
“I think anybody that has the visibility that Sarah has is obviously going to have some divisiveness,” McCain told CNN’s Candy Crowley. “I remember that a guy named Ronald Reagan used to be viewed by some as divisive.”
It’s not really surprising that McCain would say something like this. His selection of Palin as his running mate in 2008 will be central to his political legacy, so of course he’ll paint her in as flattering a light as possible, whether he really means it or not. You’d get a similar response if you asked George H.W. Bush about Dan Quayle.
But McCain isn’t the only Republican peddling Palin-Reagan comparisons. It is, in fact, the example of Reagan that fuels the hopes of many of Palin’s staunchest supporters, who see encouraging parallels between her political standing heading into the 2012 election cycle and Reagan’s in the run-up to 1980. After all, because of his perceived extremism and divisiveness, Reagan was the Republican candidate the Carter White House most wanted to face in ’80, roughly the role Palin now plays. But Reagan made this conventional wisdom look foolish; why can’t Palin do the same?
Superficially, the comparison is sound. Reagan, like Palin now, sucked up a disproportionate share of the media oxygen in the early stages of the ’80 GOP race. He set the terms of the debate within a party whose right-wing base was in revolt against its own establishment. When Senate GOP leader Howard Baker, a pillar of the party’s late-’70s establishment with presidential aspirations of his own, surprised Capitol Hill by opposing Jimmy Carter’s SALT II treaty in 1979, it was a dramatic illustration of the clout of Reagan’s ideological soul mates — the same way that Mitt Romney’s jarringly overheated opposition to Barack Obama’s START treaty is testament to the grip of Palin-style conservatism on today’s GOP.
Early polling also provided hints that Reagan might be a risky general election for Republicans — a sentiment that members of the party establishment and rival campaigns quietly tried to spread. In 1978 and 1979, trial heats for the ’80 general election were all over the map. At times, Carter led his potential GOP foes by double-digit margins. At other times, his advantage was in the single digits. And at other times, he trailed — sometimes by double digits. Consistently, though, polls showed Reagan faring several points worse against the president — and against Ted Kennedy, who ultimately challenged Carter in the Democratic primaries — than Gerald Ford, who was seen as the establishment wing’s best (and perhaps only) hope of stopping Reagan. A January ’79 poll, for instance, found Carter ahead of Reagan by 22 points and Ford by 14. A similar dynamic is evident today. Just consider last week’s Quinnipiac poll, which found Romney and Mike Huckabee both running slightly ahead of Obama — and Palin running 8 points behind.
But there are some significant reasons to doubt whether Palin is positioned to replicate the success Reagan enjoyed 30 years ago.
The most obvious is that Reagan had already run a full-fledged national campaign of his own, one that had cemented his status as the leader of his party’s conservative wing — a role he’d been building toward for more than a decade, since his celebrated (and nationally televised) address on behalf of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Reagan’s near-miss loss to Ford for the 1976 GOP nomination was no ordinary second-place finish, with Reagan’s campaign serving as the vehicle for “New Right” conservatives whose clout within the party was only growing. Conservative leaders had had their eyes on Reagan for years (they came closer than many realize to securing the 1968 GOP nomination for him), and his strong showing against Ford only made their commitment to him stronger.
Thus, as 1980 approached, the right wing was nearly unanimous in its support for Reagan. Some opportunistic conservatives, encouraged by Reagan’s ’76 success and the success of New Right insurgents in Republican primaries for the 1978 midterms, tried to grab the New Right mantle for themselves with veiled references to Reagan’s age (he was 69 during the ’80 primaries), but they gained no traction. The main resistance to Reagan within the GOP came from the then-substantial moderate and liberal wings. But besides Ford, who wanted to stop Reagan but didn’t want to risk his legacy by waging a losing campaign, there was no obvious candidate for non-New Right Republicans to rally around. Consequently, Reagan stood as the overwhelming and undisputed front-runner for all ’78 and ’79. Even with Ford included in polls, Reagan led the pack. And when it became clear that Ford wouldn’t run, polls generally showed Reagan 20 to 30 points ahead of his nearest foe.
This allowed Reagan to postpone the formal announcement of his candidacy until November 1979, just a few months before the lead-off Iowa caucuses. (By contrast, Rep. Phil Crane, a 46-year-old New Right Illinois congressman who tried to supplant Reagan as the right’s favorite, was in the race by Election Day 1978.) While everyone knew Reagan would run, this freed him to collect lucrative fees for various public speaking and media gigs; he took in nearly $1 million on the lecture circuit in ’78 and ’79.
Palin, who is clearly in no hurry to declare her ’12 plans, is doing roughly the same thing with her Fox News contract and various book tours. But she’s not the clear front-runner that Reagan was. Yes, she earned a devoted following as McCain’s running mate in ’08, but her name never appeared on a single primary ballot; whether all — or most — of her admirers are willing to vote for her for president remains to be seen. The right wing had enormous confidence in Reagan’s skills as a national candidate after ’76, which thwarted the efforts of potential usurpers like Crane. Palin, to judge from today’s polling, doesn’t benefit from that same confidence. Surveys consistently show her bunched near the top of the GOP pack with Romney, Huckabee and even Newt Gingrich.
When Reagan announced his candidacy in late ’79, one of his aides told the press that “We start out from the standpoint that he’s the front-runner and he’s going to win unless fate intervenes.” A Palin supporter could not credibly make that claim today. There is plainly room for a non-Palin candidate — even if it’s a candidate who’s not currently registering in the polls — to claim the party base’s loyalty for ’12. And the electability issue may be more effective against Palin than it was against Reagan. After all, even Reagan’s intraparty foes admitted that he was an impressive public performer. The concern with him, as a member of the “Stop Reagan” movement put it back in ’79, was more that he attracted so many “arch-conservative kooks” and that this association would hurt him in a fall campaign.
That same concern exists now with Palin, but unlike Reagan, she just doesn’t have the kind of reassuring manner that helps voters look the other way if they’re so inclined. Remember that polls deep into October in 1980 showed Reagan in a dogfight with Carter, even though Carter’s approval rating was barely above 30 percent. The race should have been a rout, but the image of Reagan as a trigger-happy extremist was dragging down his support. Ultimately, though, he conveyed enough competence and authority to allow voters to do what they badly wanted to do and vote Carter out. At least from this vantage point, it’s doubtful that Palin could capitalize on similar circumstances.
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornackiMore Steve Kornacki.