Ronald Reagan’s conversion from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican has been cited to dismiss concerns about candidates’ commitment to conservative principles or loyalty to the Republican Party. It has again been cited during the current campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. However, it is critical to understand Reagan’s journey toward the right had long preceded even his first presidential campaign, twelve years before his election as President of the
As President of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1950s, Reagan became a government informant on Communist infiltrators. He campaigned for conservative Barry Goldwater for President in 1964, giving a televised speech based upon conservative principles called “A Time for Choosing” that was broadcast across the
Union shortly before the
election. Reagan was elected Governor of
California as a conservative Republican in 1966 and reelected four years
later. He sought the Republican
presidential nomination in 1968 and 1976, campaigning as a conservative. After losing, he supported the Republican
nominees, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, respectively, against liberal
Democrats. In the meantime, Reagan wrote
and spoke on behalf of conservative causes.
In 1978, he led the argument against President Jimmy Carter’s efforts to
give away the Panama Canal to a “tin-pot
dictator,” as Reagan put it.
As he had campaigned in primaries previously against moderate Republicans throughout his political career, Reagan campaigned for the Republican nomination for President in 1980 as a conservative. By this point, no one could possibly doubt his conservative credentials, as he was regarded as the leader of the conservative movement. After winning the nomination, he campaigned as a conservative against the liberal Democratic Carter. Reagan’s subsequent governance as a conservative was thus not surprising.
Reagan’s conversion to conservatism began while he was in his forties, and was based upon both his faith and intellect. His conservatism was consistent, as it included defense and foreign policy, fiscal and economic policy, and public morals. Reagan’s opposition to Communism was coupled with his contrasting belief in limited government, the free market and in
America and its
people. It is important to consider that
he converted to conservatism during, not after, the Cold War. Reagan proved his conservatism through is
governance and by becoming the leader the conservative movement.
The fact that Reagan was a conservative convert does not mean that someone who has converted or claims to have converted, especially if only recently (and especially if the conversion were after Reagan’s presidency), does not necessarily make the recent convert’s claims more credible. Reagan’s example proves the possibility, but does not necessarily prove the veracity of someone’s conversion. As he liked to say, it is necessary to “trust, but verify.” Therefore, it would be necessary for the person who claims conversion to conservatism first to demonstrate his credentials through both his words and deeds, such as by supporting only conservative causes or candidates or through conservative governance at some lower office.