The 5 Best Republican Candidates for President Ever
Which Republicans waged the most impressive presidential campaigns in GOP history?
Goldwater, seldom inclined to trim for purposes of luring voters under false promises, articulated that sentiment with a kind of rough-hewn bluntness. In doing so he became the champion for what was clearly a minority outlook. And he paid the price. Johnson gained a plurality of nearly 16 million votes on his way to getting 61 percent of the popular vote. Goldwater carried just six states.
But within sixteen years the Goldwater philosophy captured the nation under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, whose political career was launched with his famous speech in Goldwater’s behalf during the 1964 campaign. In standing firm through the hurricane-force winds of that campaign, Goldwater paved the way for a new Republican Party far better positioned to compete for votes as the country sought a new direction.
Reagan’s 1980 campaign reflected two traits that turned out to be politically powerful—first, his flexibility of mind; and, second, his willingness to press issues and viewpoints totally outside of national conventional thinking. The flexibility of mind could be seen in his call for “supply-side” tax cuts. During his 1976 bid for the GOP nomination, he had embraced the more conventional Republican view that balancing the budget should always take precedence over cutting taxes. But four years later he listened to the new thinking being put forth by Wall Street Journal editorialists and others, and he changed his view. It turned out to give him considerable political leverage in his argument that the problems of the nation in 1980 were largely government-bred and that part of the solution was a curtailment of government. That was an argument that beguiled votes that year, given the state of the country at the time.
Also, in embracing the supply-side mantra, Reagan moved away from his 1976 emphasis on “welfare queens” and “the collectivist, centralizing approach” of “Big Brother Government.” Thus he supplanted a tendency toward harshly negative rhetoric with a much more hopeful and positive message.
Reagan’s embrace of a seemingly nascent economic outlook reflected also the second trait—his willingness to shun conventional wisdom. An even more stark example of this trait was his solid belief, which he articulated unabashedly, that the Soviet Union, while menacing and dangerous, could be defeated, that it actually could end up in the “ash heap of history.” Almost nobody believed that, and few who did were willing to shout it from the rooftops of political discourse. It just seemed too outlandish to too many people. But not to Reagan. This air of optimism and possibility undergirded his campaign rhetoric, boosting his campaign.
In addition, Reagan captured the referendum nature of presidential politics—and hence manifested his faith in the electorate—during the single debate between himself and the Democratic incumbent, Jimmy Carter. It was distilled in his question to the American people: “Ask yourself, are you better off today than you were four years ago?” In posing that question, he invited voters to treat the election as a referendum on Carter. They did, and Reagan won.
These offerings represent just one view of what constitutes impressive performance in Republican presidential campaigns. Ultimately, candidates will be assessed in their own day based on their political impact. And ultimately they will be assessed based on their historical impact. As Lincoln so aptly put it, “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history….The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”
Robert W. Merry is a contributing editor at The National Interest and an author of books on American history and foreign policy.