With President Trump’s bombastic rhetoric and incessant twittering, the easy sentiment might be to look back at Ronald Reagan as a genial, principled conservative. But as Victor Davis Hanson reminds readers, “a review of the 1966 gubernatorial campaign reveals one of the nastiest races in California memory.”
Reagan gave back everything that Edmund Brown Sr. dished out to him, and won by rivaling a later Trump in his often cruel invective. Reagan castigated “welfare bums,” and promised to clean up the “mess” at Berkeley. And when governor, after failed popular demands that he be recalled, Reagan kept at it with rhetoric that again rivals Trump’s worst. Of the People’s Park demonstrations, he declared, “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.” And he joked that he hoped the free food for poor communities leveraged by the terrorist SLA might be infected by botulism. Quite simply, Reagan did not call for a thousand points of light or a kinder, gentler state.
Reagan was an effective governor, but the idea that he was a uniter is also simply not true, at least not until his second presidential term. He turned a blue state red by damning the Democrats’ expansion of welfare dependency and promised to crack down hard on criminals and cheats (e.g., putting “the welfare bums back to work”).
He won the governorship in part through his prior renegade stance at the boisterous 1964 San Francisco Republican convention, when he joined the right-wing populist Goldwater, who snatched the nomination from the old-guard low-energy Rockefeller Republicans. He further infuriated the Republican status quo by running a last-minute insurgent campaign for president against the establishmentarian Nixon in 1968, and in 1976 by challenging Republican incumbent President Jerry Ford — an acrimonious, insurrectionary, and divisive primary for which Reagan was later blamed for the Carter victory.
Indeed, the Republican establishment, despite its current nostalgia, never much liked Reagan until he won the presidency, blasting him as a yahoo who wanted to keep the Panama Canal or (as) a voodoo economist who thought that cutting taxes and spending more on defense would lead to balanced budgets.
Read more from VDH here.