Ronald Wilson Reagan drove Democrats crazy. He had been one of them, which only made it worse. First they dismissed him. Then they demonized him. And in the middle of his second term, they gold-watched him and tried to cut their losses by acknowledging his successes and gently pushing him aside.
In 1980 the Democrats thought Reagan was their dream candidate, an aging, pro-military ex-actor who only flaky Californians would elect. Actually, the national Democrats were so preoccupied with their own internecine battle between President Carter and Ted Kennedy that they had a hard time thinking about Reagan at all. But once the wounded Carter got into the general election he calculated that Reagan's image as a hair-trigger proponent of American military intervention would be enough to make cautious Americans unwilling to take a chance. He figured wrong
The benign Reagan shrewdly overcame that notion. In the debate in Cleveland just a week before the election "Reagan used all the skills acquired in 40 years before the cameras -- shrugs and smiles and easily inflected small jokes -- to tell the viewers that the portrait of him Carter was drawing, that of a weapons-prone right-winger, equally heedless of the threat of nuclear war and the aspirations of women and minorities, was a political caricature" reported David Broder in The Washington Post on October 28, 1980. And once the voters decided that he didn't fit that portrait, enough of them turned away from the ineffectual Carter to give Reagan a 50-41 victory.
As he began his Presidency, many Democrats blamed the defeat on Carter and once again underestimated Reagan. His disapproval rating went to the mid-thirties after he stepped on the Social Security third rail and he never overcame that negative image among most blacks, many women and hard-core liberals
Tip O'Neill was no fan of Reagan's but he understood viscerally Reagan's ability to charm and was more than a little jealous of his ability to use TV. O'Neill used to joke with cronies that Reagan's ancestral home in Ireland -- Ballyporeen -- meant "valley of small potatoes." But he was impressed by Reagan's political skills and his willingness to cut a deal.
By 1983 the Reagan presidency looked vulnerable. His job rating was at 41 positive, 47 negative, the economy slumped and the Marine barracks was bombed in Lebanon. At various points in 1984 both Walter Mondale and Gary Hart were leading in the polls and Democrats started to dream once again. They even thought Reagan might decide not to run for a second term
In 1984 they started to bank on the gender gap. Mondale put a woman on his ticket and thought that would do the trick. But Reagan took women seriously -- not just Nancy, Sandra Day O'Connor and Margaret Thatcher -- but women voters. His pollster did a study identifying 64 categories of women voters. The campaign targeted those women who were still undecided with very specific messages and by election day, Reagan beat Mondale in 49 states and got a majority of the votes of women.
But the most persistent Reagan political legacy that continues to haunt Democrats to this day was his success at courting ethnic and blue-collar white voters in the North and South -- the Reagan Democrats. Democrats in both the North and South who were culturally conservative and who felt that Democrats had moved away from them found an ally in Ronald Reagan and a home in the Republican party. In their book "The Rise of Southern Republicans" Merle and Earl Black call the Reagan presidency the "turning point in the evolution of a competitive two party electorate in the South."
By the late 1980s even with Iran Contra and its fallout, the Dems decided to stop trying to battle Reagan and focus on the next election. The economy was roaring, communism was ending and Reagan was still in the saddle.
During the past 10 sad years, the Reagan loyalists shifted attention to his legacy. Conservative Grover Norquist started a program to name at least one major monument in every state -- and ultimately in every county in the U.S. after the former President, not just as a personal tribute, but as a way to institutionalize the Reagan policies of small government, low taxes and strong defense.
Democrats have some problem with that and there was a heated debate over the re-naming of Washington National Airport in 1998. By the mid 1990s that intractable 30 percent of the electorate still told pollsters they disapproved of Reagan's presidency. But one suspects that this week even those hard core Democrats will admit a soft spot for the Gipper and a not-so-grudging respect for his political genius.
By Dotty Lynch