Reagan's Not-So-Coded Appeal

In August 1980, Ronald Reagan did something colossally distasteful and politically reckless. Now it is being recast by some liberals as proof that the foundation of the Reagan presidency was laid with race-baiting.

Actually, the recent wave of outrage proves a much different point: Two decades after he left office, too many Democrats still refuse to face up to the very simple—but powerful—reasons why their clocks were so thoroughly cleaned by Reagan.

The current uproar surrounds a campaign stop Reagan made at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, his first event after being crowned as the G.O.P.’s nominee 27 years ago. Neshoba is sacred ground for the civil rights movement, a county where three “freedom summer” activists were killed in 1964 as they investigated the burning of a black church. Reagan, in his stump speech, assured the locals that he was a believer in “States’ rights.”

To Paul Krugman, the liberal Princeton economist whose new book offers a conspiratorial history of the modern conservative movement, Reagan’s gambit illustrates perfectly how his own rise—and the rise of the right—was keyed by dastardly appeals to southern bigotry.

“Republican politicians … understand quite well that the G.O.P.’s national success since the 1970s owes everything to the partisan switch of Southern whites,” he wrote in an September New York Times op-ed piece that has since incited a heated back-and-forth between accusers and defenders of the 40th President.

The Republican Party certainly is guilty of positioning itself to inherit those who were on the losing side of the Civil Rights fight, work that slowly paid off over decades, until Southern whites—who once voted the Democratic line without blinking—eventually found themselves instinctively favoring G.O.P. candidates in Senate, House and even gubernatorial and state legislative races. This evolution was ongoing as Reagan ran, and he obviously did nothing to make ex-Southern Democrats uncomfortable on his bandwagon—as his offensive Mississippi rhetoric shows.

But to believe that this made an appreciable difference in the outcome of the 1980 presidential race is foolish. Mr. Krugman and others fixate on the odious Neshoba speech, but ignore the larger context of the campaign, which played out against the backdrop of soaring unemployment, staggering inflation, a stalled economy, and a hostage crisis that bit by bit was nibbling away at American pride. The speech that actually defined Mr. Reagan’s appeal—whether in Philadelphia, Mississippi or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—was given hundreds of miles from Dixie.

It was on Labor Day, the unofficial start of the fall campaign, when a confident, vigorous Reagan, his collar unbuttoned, stood with the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor framed perfectly over his shoulder and summed up his candidacy in one of the most visually and verbally powerful sound bites ever offered: “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose your job. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”*

Reagan won a sweeping November victory that crossed regional and ideological lines. He won Mississippi, yes, but he also won Massachusetts and Connecticut and New York and just about all of the most liberal states in the union. Besides his native Georgia and his Vice-President’s Minnesota, Mr. Carter carried just four states, tallying a mere 49 electoral votes to Reagan’s 44 states and 489 electoral votes.

The Reagan mandate owed itself to the broad conclusions that voters made about the candidates’ personalities: that Jimmy Carter was weak, overwhelmed, ineffective, and naive; that Reagan was strong, decisive, confident, and —as he showed in the final debate that turned the campaign into a landslide—unexpectedly warm and quick-witted. The depressed level of national confidence only made Reagan more alluring, and his candidacy more urgent. These assessments motivated voters in almost every pocket of the country—New England, the Deep South, the Pacific Coast and all points between.

The exact impact of the Neshoba speech is impossible to measure, but if it did play a role, it was incidental. Reagan carried Mississippi in a relative squeaker, so it could be theoretically argued that his “states’ rights” pitch made the difference there. Of course, it could also be argued that the voters who would have been swayed by such rhetoric were already in the bag for him. And this works both ways. Reagan lost Maryland by fewer than three points and Minnesota by fewer than four. Given the media’s outcry — and Carter’s vehement excoriations—after Reagan gave the Neshoba speech, it can also be argued that he cost himself several liberal northern states.

And anyway, all of this elevates the Neshoba speech to a level of significance it simply didn’t enjoy in the narrative of the 1980 race. Reagan made his visit in August, the media and Mr. Carter protested mightily, and the story went away. Had Reagan been a weak candidate with no ability to inspire the public’s imagination—in other words, the opposite of what he was—then maybe the contest would have been closer and we could argue over whether one part of one speech in August suddenly mobilized some previously non-committal bigoted Southerners into a difference-making bloc, without mobilizing an equally potent backlash among those appalled by his speech.

But the real reason Reagan won in 1980 was simple: He was Ronald Reagan, and he was running against Jimmy Carter. In the end, the children of both the confederacy and the abolition movement agreed on one point, powerfully expressed by Reagan on national television, that had nothing to do with race: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”

It’s fair to accuse the Republican Party of profiting mightily from race-baiting. But if liberals really believe that’s why Reagan succeeded, they’re ignoring a valuable lesson on how to win elections.

*This quote was corrected from an earlier version. Reagan's Not-So-Coded Appeal