Ronald Reagan’s role as a leader of the modern-day conservative movement began with his Oct. 27, 1964, speech on behalf of Sen. Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. Although Goldwater eventually would lose in a landslide to Lyndon Baines Johnson, Mr. Reagan won plaudits for his critique of Social Security’s flaws and his eloquent defense of Goldwater.
In January 1966, after California conservatives implored him to run for governor, Mr. Reagan announced his candidacy. The incumbent governor, Pat Brown, ran a harshly negative campaign against Mr. Reagan, including a commercial likening the Republican to John Wilkes Booth. But in the end, Mr. Reagan defeated Mr. Brown by nearly 1 million votes (58 percent to 42 percent).
As governor of California (1967-75) and facing a General Assembly dominated by liberal Democrats, Mr. Reagan was forced to engage in hard bargaining on issues like taxes and welfare reform. Still, he managed to win passage of a bill to overhaul welfare — a highlight of his eight years in Sacramento.
On welfare, Mr. Reagan’s conviction that the system was creating unhealthy long-term dependency put him in direct conflict with the Nixon administration. President Nixon proposed the Family Assistance Plan (FAP), a scheme to have the federal government take over the welfare programs of all 50 states and establish a guaranteed annual income. Mr. Reagan fought a difficult — and at times lonely — battle, which culminated in the FAP’s defeat in 1972. As Reagan biographer Steven Hayward has pointed out, had the governor not stood firm against the Nixon plan, the state-based reforms of the 1990s would never have taken place.
Mr. Reagan was indefatigable in his determination to get the conservative message out. On May 15, 1967, he debated then-Sen. Robert Kennedy on the Vietnam War and other issues of the day before a national television audience — a debate Mr. Reagan won decisively. In 1968, Mr. Reagan, accepting an August draft by conservative activists, made the first of his four runs for president.
Although 1968 proved to be Richard Nixon’s year, Mr. Reagan ran again in 1976, when he challenged incumbent Gerald Ford for the presidency — focusing much of his fire against Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s detente policy. After a series of losses in the early primaries, prominent Republicans pressured Mr. Reagan, who was virtually out of funds, to drop out. But Mr. Reagan refused, and his upset of Mr. Ford in North Carolina was the first in a series of Reagan victories that revived his candidacy. After Mr. Ford’s defeat in the general election, Mr. Reagan became a front-runner for the 1980 Republican nomination. As Pat Brown’s advisers had been in 1966, President Carter’s aides were convinced that Mr. Reagan would be easy to dismiss and caricature as an extremist. Once again, Mr. Reagan proved the doubters wrong, winning a 44-state landslide to become America’s 40th president.