The annual Conservative Political Action Conference is taking place against the backdrop of a divided Republican Party. How to unify that party and attract new adherents to become a majority is the topic on just about every participant’s mind. Speakers and attendees should follow the advice Ronald Reagan gave at the 1977 CPAC: Build a coalition, not a church.
Reagan took the stage at a time when the party was far more divided than today’s GOP. Republicans then held only 144 House and 38 Senate seats. Half of Americans said they were Democrats, while only 21 percent called themselves Republicans. Reagan himself lost his bid for his party’s nomination to be president in 1976, narrowly failing to dislodge incumbent Gerald Ford from his perch in an epic primary battle. The common wisdom held that conservatism was a spent force, with the GOP hanging on by a thread.
One would never have known this from listening to Reagan’s speech. Ever the optimist, Reagan painted a picture in which conservatism was not only alive, but the wave of the future. He cited poll data that demonstrated a plurality, and in some instances a majority, of Americans placing themselves to the right on the political spectrum. The challenge, according to Reagan, was bringing these people together into a new Republican Party.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.