I’ve started reading a great book written in 2004 called Reagan’s Path to Victory: The Shaping of Ronald Reagan’s Vision: Selected Writings. The book examines the strategy Reagan used to win the presidency in 1980. While reading the introduction, it struck me that former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has seemingly chosen to duplicate Reagan’s plan himself. And it just might be working. This past week he was the clear leader among Republican 2012 presidential hopefuls at the Values Voter Summit. Here’s Chris Matthews talking about it:
Huckabee won the straw poll (28.5%) by more than doubling the totals for Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, and Mike Pence (who each garnered about 12% of the votes). Huckabee, who finished second in the race for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, just may may be the next Reagan that conservatives have been looking for. He’s at least trying to follow Reagan’s strategy.
Reagan, like Huckabee, was the governor of a large state who ran for president shortly after finishing up his term of office (Sarah Palin obviously decided to not follow this path). Reagan ran in 1976 as a true conservative against an incumbent Gerald Ford, who was neither a conservative nor a formidable candidate; Ford emerged as the Republican nominee for President but ultimately was defeated by Jimmy Carter, who would go on to distinguish himself as one of the biggest disasters ever to set foot in the Oval Office.
Here’s the parallel: In 2008 Huckabee competed against John McCain, who, like Gerald Ford three decades earlier, was neither a conservative nor an effective candidate. And as we know, McCain emerged as the nominee, only to be defeated by Barack Obama in the general election.
Let’s examine the strategy Reagan pursued after his 1976 defeat, setting the stage for his successful presidential bid four years later. Then we can determine if Huckabee is duplicating the plan.
After 1976, Reagan knew he needed a platform that would permit him to stay in the public eye and make his views known to the American people leading up to the 1980 election. In 1974 Walter Cronkite had offered him an opportunity to do a bi-weekly commentary segment on CBS, with the stipulation that Reagan’s views would be counterbalanced by someone on the left. But Reagan was afraid that he would not have enough control over which topics he could discuss. He didn’t just want to be another talking head; he wanted to offer his own commentary to America, and to have total control over the content.
According to Reagan’s Path to Victory, two strategy documents that were dated November 4, 1974 “provided an outline and guide for Reagan’s post-governorship activities, now two months away.” One of those documents advised Reagan to use a nationally syndicated radio program (along with speaking engagements and a newspaper column) to “maintain influence in the Republican Party; strengthen and consolidate leadership as the national conservative spokesman; and enhance [his] foreign affairs credibility.”
As we all know, Mike Huckabee, after losing his 2008 presidential bid, looked like he might just become another talking head on other people’s shows (like the Hannity and O’Reilly programs). But then Huckabee, like Reagan, chose another path — one that would give him a forum where he could air his own commentary in any way he saw fit: He created a weekly Fox News television show that was different from the typical shock-jock or “info-tainment” political-battle format. He decided to have a program that was described as a weekly “town hall meeting.” If you’ve seen the show (which is rated #1 in its time slot), then you know Huckabee gives short commentary about his views on things in a very friendly sort of way. Then he dialogues with guests of all political persuasions, treating them with unwavering respect and humility. He also makes speeches and writes columns from time to time, but his television show is his bread and butter. One paragraph in the Reagan book seems to foreshadow exactly what Huckabee is doing:
“The personal campaign machine that Reagan built and ran from 1975 to 1979 was his pathway to the presidency. His speeches and columns were important and necessary, but his radio commentaries were the driving force. The radio program gave Reagan a national platform that no other politician had at the time.”
Does this sound a bit like Huckabee’s Fox News program? I think so.
Reagan had a large audience for his radio show, and, according to Reagan’s Path to Victory, he “cast a wide net in looking for sources and subjects of his radio commentaries.” Moreover, “Reagan sometimes used his airtime to advocate causes he thought exemplified American values.” The same can be said of Huckabee.
Reagan wrote in 1980, “I have had a five-day-a-week radio commentary on more than 300 stations nationwide. I took up virtually every subject mentionable and stated my view on those subjects.” And the editors of the Reagan book conclude, “It is doubtful whether he could have become president without them.”
It was said of Reagan that he “had reached America long before he accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency on July 17, 1980, and before his November landslide.” Huckabee, too, is reaching America with his television show. Will his 2012 evoke memories of Reagan’s 1980? Only time will tell.