Skip to main content

Republicans, stick to your principles

By Craig Shirley and Newt Gingrich
updated 11:08 AM EDT, Thu August 8, 2013
Republicans couldn't stop the handover of the Panama Canal, but the fight reinvigorated their party, according to Craig Shirley and Newt Gingrich.
Republicans couldn't stop the handover of the Panama Canal, but the fight reinvigorated their party, according to Craig Shirley and Newt Gingrich.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Craig Shirley, Newt Gingrich: Republicans were devastated by Watergate scandal
  • They say the party lost most of its clout, had to rebuild from the ground up
  • Republicans rallied around effort to stop the handover of the Panama Canal
  • Authors: They lost the canal battle but built a party that competed -- and won

Editor's note: Craig Shirley is a Ronald Reagan biographer, the first Reagan scholar at the former president's alma mater, Eureka College and president of Shirley & Banister. Newt Gingrich is the new co-cost of CNN's "Crossfire," which starts September 16. A former speaker of the House, he was a candidate in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries. In 1977, as a private citizen, Newt Gingrich collected 50,000 signatures in Georgia supporting Reagan's fight to keep the Panama Canal.

(CNN) -- As Republicans wrestle with how to oppose President Barack Obama, what to do about Obamacare and how to compare the value of fights based on principle versus fights based on clever calculation, there may be some lessons from one of the darkest periods of Republican history.

Watergate was a slow-motion disaster for the Republican Party. Richard Nixon, who had just won one of the largest majorities in American history in 1972, was slowly being exposed and driven from power.

At the same time, it was discovered that Vice President Spiro Agnew was illegally taking bribes. He was forced to resign. That resignation led to the first vice presidential appointment, that of the House Republican leader, Rep. Gerald Ford.

Craig Shirley
Craig Shirley
Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich

Then Nixon resigned, leading to the second vice presidential appointment, former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York. That appealed to liberals but enraged conservatives. President Ford then pardoned Nixon, leading to a further firestorm of outrage. The Republicans were badly defeated in the 1974 congressional elections. The election of President Jimmy Carter finished the defeat of the Republican Party.

Republicans were shattered by their sudden collapse after the enormous 1972 victory. Republican leaders in Congress were shaken by the defeat of so many of their friends, many after two decades or more in office. In many ways, America was a one-party system by January 1977, and the Democrats seemed totally dominant.

Opinion: The Republican implosion

The Democratic Party housed liberals and conservatives, agrarians and urban intellectuals, men, women, young, old, blacks, whites, all creeds, dominated all regions and ruled all debate in America.

The Republican Party housed a small group of exhausted defeatists.

By January 1977, only 11% of citizens younger than 30 identified with the Republican Party. The party had been on fumes for years, ever since the Great Depression and only challenged the Democrats for national authority when they screwed up, as in 1946 and 1968, or when Republicans nominated an overwhelmingly popular figure, such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1952.

And with the election of Carter, a smart, moderate Democrat from the South, the prospect for Democratic rule for another generation seemed bright. The party of Andrew Jackson had smothering control of the House, a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and in the South, there were states such as Mississippi that had almost no elected Republican officeholders.

A special preview of CNN's 'Crossfire'
Gingrich: I don't trust big government
GOP leaders in war of words

The only state in the country that had GOP control of the legislature and the governor's mansion was Kansas. The other 49 states had partial or complete Democratic control.

The old ways of accommodating the establishment by the GOP of the 1930s, '40s, '50s and '60s would no longer work. Something else had to be tried. To conservatives such as Reagan, accommodation was tantamount to capitulation and they asked themselves, "If we surrender on everything, what is the purpose of having a Republican Party?"

For several years, the U.S. government had been making plans to yield control and ownership of the Panama Canal to Omar Torrijos, the dictator of the Panama. All of the establishment was going along with it, from Lyndon Johnson to Nixon to Ford, Henry Kissinger and by 1977, Carter. Nearly all the editorialists supported the "giveaway" of the canal at the height of the Cold War.

Control of the canal was vital to American military interests, especially with Soviet control of Cuba and designs on Central America.

Opinion: Hilary Clinton, RNC and freedom of the press

Into this void stepped former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who launched a national campaign to oppose the giveaway. He gave speeches, stumped across the country and testified before Congress. A "New Right" rose up and organized a "Panama Canal Truth Squad" led by Richard Viguerie, Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich, among others. Petitions were circulated at the grassroots and delivered to Capitol Hill.

In speech after speech, Reagan thundered, "We built it! We paid for it! It is ours! And we are going to keep it!" Polling had shown American support for the two Panama Canal treaties, but by 1978, the American people had switched and agreed with Reagan and the conservatives -- and not Carter.

In the end, the treaties to declare the canal a neutral zone and eventually surrender it to Panama passed by the barest of margins, only by one and two votes more than the two thirds required in the Senate.

The war had been lost but the battle was worth it. Principles had been established and arguments made. It led to Republican victories in the off year elections of 1978 and launched Reagan's third campaign for the White House.

Years later, Carter himself acknowledged the potency of the canal issue in the election of 1980, which not only saw the rise of Reagan, but the loss of scores more Democrats who had voted for the treaties.

Reagan used to joke that without his principles, without his conservatism, he would have been just another former actor. He knew standing one's ground when one was right was enlightening and empowering.

It is a lesson from history that applies today. Fighting for principles and losing is always better than surrendering and in so doing, abandoning one's reason for being.

Reagan had called in February 1975 for "bold colors, no pale pastels." Opposing the Panama Canal Treaties turned out to be bold colors indeed.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT