Of myths and men, Reagan and the 1980 debate

Beats there a Republican heart that doesn’t thrill to the saga of the 1980 presidential campaign?

And what a saga it is: Ronald Reagan, derided as a combination right-wing cowboy and washed-up movie actor, enters the one and only candidate debate a mere week before the election, facing all-but-certain doom against President Jimmy Carter.

He then proceeds to wipe the floor of the Cleveland Convention Center with the hapless incumbent. “There you go again,” he quipped, when Carter went after Reagan for alleged designs to slash Medicare. (Some things never change.) “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” the former California governor asked an economically battered country in his closing remarks.

The clincher! Game, set, election over!


Except it didn’t quite happen that way, says Stuart Spencer, who would know. He was Reagan’s chief political strategist in 1980 and, in characteristically salty language, dismissed the popular telling as so much, um, hooey.

For one thing, Spencer said, internal polls showed Reagan entering the Oct. 28 debate trailing Carter a bit, but with the campaign tide clearly turning his way. “Starting about two weeks out every night we were polling, more momentum, more momentum, more momentum,” Spencer said in a lengthy conversation from his home high above Palm Desert.

Yes, the debate helped, Spencer said, but more important was the candidate’s performance leading up to that night on the Cuyahoga River. Reagan, he said, was a rhythm candidate: “Knock him out of his rhythm and he wasn’t worth a damn three, four days in a row. But once he got into his rhythm, got it going, he was good.”

And Reagan fell into his groove at just the right time, in the final few weeks of the campaign when it mattered most. “He just kept going,” Spencer said. “He didn’t react to this little setback, or that small bump.”

Most important, Spencer said, Reagan unswervingly stuck to a simple message--cut taxes, fight communism, build up a muscular defense and make Americans feel good about themselves again: “He never deviated. What he said on Sept. 15, he said on Oct. 15. What he said on Oct. 15, he said on Nov. 1.”

Something, it should be pointed out, that Republican nominee Mitt Romney--caroming from theme to theme on practically a daily basis since the Republican convention--has not done.

But all of that, Spencer suggested, might have been for naught had the Iranian hostage crisis ended differently. Iran’s revolutionary government released the captives seized at the U.S. embassy on Jan. 20, 1981, the day of Reagan’s inauguration “If they’d let them out a week before the election, there might have been different results,” Spencer said.

His advice to Romney for the three debates starting next Wednesday: “Don’t break any new ground. State your positions. Do it well. Be a gentleman. Be statesmanlike, be presidential.”


In short, he suggested, don’t try for a decisive knockout like Reagan’s mythic tide-turning performance against Carter. Just keep the race close until Nov. 6, Spencer said, “and have a helluva turnout operation.”

Twitter: @markzbarabak