January 20, 2008
I was first elected to the Georgia House of Representatives 34 years ago. I have watched this party change for a long time. Some changes have been better than others.
Two years after that first election, I went to work on the Reagan campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. I was one of the leaders of that campaign in Georgia, and my friend, Paul Coverdell, led the establishment's efforts to nominate President Ford.
It was the typical establishment-versus-interloper campaign. Most of the friends I had made in the party were in the establishment. Most of them thought the nomination of Ronald Reagan was not only impractical, but would destroy our party.
Reagan had just served two terms as the governor of California. His record was not all that conservative. He signed the biggest tax increase in the history of the state. He got the best he could get with a Democrat-dominated general assembly. He signed a bill legalizing abortion. But governors have different challenges than presidents.
Frankly, most of the establishment couldn't have cared less about abortion. They thought the discussion of it was, well, tacky. But we were, at the time, the party that Barry built, and the new foot soldiers cared about abortion.
Their concern with Reagan was that he just wasn't up to it. What did he know about foreign policy? How could he stand up to the Soviets? Did he understand detente?
During that campaign, as in all campaigns, the establishment sat at the head table, and the rest of us milled around the small round tables below.
Coverdell approached me, after Ford had won the first several primaries, and urged me to switch sides. Paul was convinced that Ford had the best chance of winning. Paul recited all of the reservations mentioned above and then said, "John, Reagan cannot win. No one will take him seriously." That was also the consensus of the Republican writers and commentators.
I said, "Paul, I think politics is all about what you believe. I know what Reagan believes. I have no idea what Ford believes. But you need to watch Reagan connect with the people. He is the best communicator I have ever seen. He is bringing new people into the party. And these are folks you won't be meeting at the club for lunch. They carry a lunch bucket to work. Or a brown paper bag."
Four years later, I worked again for Reagan and Paul worked for George H. W. Bush. Again, the Wall Street crowd sat at the head table, and the Main Street crowd sat at the small round tables on the floor.
The same arguments came from the establishment. His tax cut idea was a "riverboat gamble." In fact, his tax cuts doubled the size of the economy and doubled revenues to the treasury. Unfortunately, they spent that and more.
Reagan didn't understand that the world is a dangerous place and dealing with the Soviets required a more "understanding" policy. It also required a willingness to sign more treaties. They didn't know that Reagan had no interest in understanding the Soviets. He wanted communism consigned to "the ash heap of history."
It was a neverending series of put-downs until New Hampshire. Then it was over.
Reagan won that election with the support of Larry Lunch-bucket and Betty Brownbag. They were called the Reagan Democrats. When we celebrated that victory, I asked some of them why they chose to join us. They said, "When he talked, we felt that he was talking to us." The Reagan Democrats believe they have been ignored since 1988.
The establishment doesn't like change. They have always felt that their seats at the head table were threatened by those new to the club. The establishment that so ardently opposed Reagan's nomination in 1980 crawled all over each other to chair his 1984 race.
Today they now see themselves as those who put Reagan in power. His presidency was their presidency. They believe they are the keepers of the flame.
Today's establishment includes elected officials, consultants, lobbyists and even conservative writers and commentators. Unless you allow them to write the rules and approve of your positions you are unwelcome. Anyone who does not genuflect before their altar is "not conservative."
When you look at the many fine candidates seeking the Republican nomination for president, who do you believe can best speak to those Reagan Democrats?
I believe that candidate is Mike Huckabee.
When Reagan became president, one of his first moves was to reduce income taxes from 70 percent to 50 percent and ultimately down to 28 percent. As pointed out above, both the size of the economy and the federal revenues doubled in eight years.
Huckabee doesn't want to lower income taxes. He wants to abolish them - along with the IRS, the most intrusive, coercive and corrosive federal agency ever. Mike would replace those taxes on income with a sales tax - the FairTax. Every American will become a voluntary taxpayer paying taxes when you choose, as much as you choose, by how you choose to spend. How conservative can one get?
Rep. John Linder, R-Duluth, has served in the House of Representatives since 1992.