"MIGHTY familiar", that is, provided you too had spent every night for the last thirty-two years fantasizing about The Ol' Gipper.
Anything said about the ostensible point here--"C'mon gang! It's an election year! Anything can happen! The experts have counted us out before!"--is probably too much. The point could be made about all but three Presidential elections since WWII, and the reader is reminded that the exceptions gave us the full term of Lyndon Johnson, and the second terms of Richard Nixon and "Dutch" Reagan.
And we'll grant a free pass for the use of James "Scotty" Reston, though by 1980 he was more generally regarded not as the Dean of Conventional Wisdom but as Henry Kissinger's butt-boy. Leave us stipulate that what Reston said--particularly about a Reagan victory in New Hampshire being a instance of Good Luck for Jimmy Carter--was pretty much the conventional wisdom of a certain sort of Republican observer at the time. Perhaps McGurn will stipulate in return that Reston was writing insider malarky designed to get people to read newspapers, not a first draft of history. Had he been pressed I bet that Scotty himself would have acknowledged that the future is a better judge of the past than the present is predictor of the future. Though not by as wide a margin as you might imagine.
Instead let's ask ourselves why the conventional wisdom held Reagan to be a liability, and how he overcame that. And the answers are a) because he was a loony wingnut and intellectual lightweight who'd spent eight years as Governor of California through a combination of name recognition and Sixties backlash; and b) because Carter coupled the Iranian hostage crisis occurring on his watch with the worst possible campaign imaginable.
Okay, sure, if you wanna crab about it, there's the stolen debate briefing book, and Ted Kennedy, plus whatever Bill Casey and the Ayatollah were cooking up. But Carter lost the 1980 election, by not convincing people to give him another chance.
A Harris Poll released just about this time in 1980 bolstered the case for Mr. Ford by reporting that, in a head-to-head matchup, Ford (the noncandidate) would trounce President Carter 55% to 44%. The same poll showed Reagan (the front-runner) trailing Carter 58% to 40%.
A good argument for nominating Newt Gingrich.
Look, every adult with a nominally functioning cerebral cortex knows that poll numbers at this point are something like meaningless. Probably so do many Republican voters as well. The movement of those numbers is slightly more revealing, and they haven't been moving your way of late, McGurn. Things can and will change; the inexplicable convention bump will occur; the inexplicable "independent" voter will take until the last minute to make a choice as simple as Coffee or Tea? and will be celebrated for his keen analysis of the issues. Or "issues".
On the other hand, the numbers which are tougher to move are the negative opinion numbers, and there the Republican field looks a combination of Crabgrass and Colonoscopy. I don't know what Reagan's were in January of 1980, but I doubt half the Republican party thought he was some sort of turncoat. I do remember watching in amazement as he overcame questions about his qualifications for office by purchasing a microphone, refusing to dye his hair, and by being the sort of guy Americans would like to see play someone their idealized counterpart would have a beer with in a movie. That's not happening with Gingrich or Santorum. Mitt might be wealthy enough to afford the necessary personality transplant before the general election, but considering what they're starting with poor Ann might have to make do with three full-time body servants after dark.
Nor was candidate Reagan without baggage. As governor, Reagan had pushed through the largest tax hike in California's history, had signed one of the nation's most liberal abortion laws, and—as George H.W. Bush pointed out—presided over the doubling of the state budget over his eight-year tenure, to $10.2 billion when he left office from $4.6 billion when he entered.
We'll stipulate that Reagan might have a hard time getting nominated by the Reagan party these days. Who considered this baggage--besides George Herbert Walker Impericus Bush, whose "voodoo economics" line got his usual zero traction--I don't recall. Reagan was never anything but a vapor candidate and a genial dispenser of bumper-sticker idiocies. He's the beginning of the modern taste for rewriting unpleasant realities. With a PR department, or Xanax.
Yes, the parallels to 1980 take you only so far, and Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan. Still, at this same point in his campaign for the GOP nomination, neither was Reagan. The President Reagan we rightly admire for bringing down the Berlin Wall, reviving the U.S. economy, and attracting into the GOP millions of disaffected Democrats was still to come.
Yeah, that Reagan was just a dream at that point.
And he got there by transcending the conventional wisdom rather than allowing himself or his message to be limited by it.
Um, aren't we about five years late in urging that on Mitt Romney?