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