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 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT