A ‘slap in the face’ — in 1981

A ‘SLAP IN THE FACE’ — IN 1981…. Charles Krauthammer had a surprisingly interesting column a couple of weeks ago, some of which I even found vaguely persuasive (an odd feeling given its author). But one paragraph in particular got me thinking.

The net effect of 18 months of Obamaism will be to undo much of Reaganism. Both presidencies were highly ideological, grandly ambitious and often underappreciated by their own side. In his early years, Reagan was bitterly attacked from his right. (Typical Washington Post headline: “For Reagan and the New Right, the Honeymoon Is Over” — and that was six months into his presidency!) Obama is attacked from his left for insufficient zeal on gay rights, immigration reform, closing Guantanamo — the list is long.

Just six months after Reagan’s inauguration, was the “honeymoon” really perceived as over between him and the “new right”? A friend of mine dug up the article Krauthammer referenced, and it’s almost amusing to read nearly three decades later.

It ran on July 21, 1981 (obviously, no link available), and it came in response to conservative outrage over the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court.

For some of the most vocal leaders of the New Right movement, the nomination was the latest in a series of slights and insults they have suffered from Reagan advisers which raise questions in their minds about whether the president is really their kind of conservative.

“The White House slapped us in the face,” says Richard A. Viguerie, the conservative direct-mail expert. “The White House is saying you don’t have a constituency we’re concerned about. We don’t care about you.”

The “New Right” was defined, at the time, as breaking with the Goldwater old-guard and expanding the GOP with outreach to the fledgling religious right and use of “sophisticated campaign techniques,” such as direct mail.

And six months in, the leaders of this faction weren’t happy. The O’Connor nomination made them livid, and conservatives grew all the more frustrated when, despite an aggressive campaign involving “letters and telegrams,” the right couldn’t even find Republican senators willing to come out publicly against the nominee. (O’Connor was confirmed 99 to 0.)

But the anger and frustration was more expansive than one high court nomination. “In terms of having any real influence with the Reagan administration, we just haven’t had any,” Howard Phillips, at the time the head of the Conservative Caucus, said. “All they’ve done is throw us a few bones to keep the dogs from biting their heels.”

The right was angry when George H.W. Bush, perceived as a moderate, was added to the 1980 ticket. Conservatives were angrier still when James Baker became Reagan’s chief of staff — a man activists on the right considered overly pragmatic and insufficiently conservative.

And by this time 29 years ago, conservatives could hardly contain their disappointment. Leaders on the right began complaining regularly that they “won the election, but lost the White House.” Paul Weyrich questioned whether the relationship between his conservative allies and the Reagan administration was “salvageable.”

And all of this came before Reagan raised taxes, extended “amnesty” to undocumented immigrants, expanded the size of the federal bureaucracy, tripled the deficit, negotiated with our most hated enemy without preconditions — and became the single most revered figure in Republican circles of the 20th century, up to and including the RNC describing him, in all seriousness, as Ronaldus Magnus.

I guess the moral of the story is that perceptions can change over time.