No Left Turn



When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, he was widely derided as too conservative to be elected. Even after he had defeated the other Republican contenders in the primaries, the consensus was that he could never win against a centrist Democrat like President Jimmy Carter. Yet, as we know, Reagan went on to beat Carter and profoundly change the political and social climate of the nation. ''Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,'' the old adage goes. A glance into the not-too-distant past would have shown that when Reagan ran for governor of California in 1966, he was derided as too conservative to be elected. And even after he emerged victorious in the primary, few observers gave him a chance against Gov. Pat Brown, the popular two-term liberal Democrat.

Reagan's victory over Brown is the subject of Matthew Dallek's engaging first book. Dallek, a speechwriter for the House Democratic leader, Richard A. Gephardt, contends that the Reagan revolution began not in 1980 but in 1966. And though Dallek's writing is not always as sophisticated as his research or as subtle as his analysis, he succeeds admirably in tracing the roots of the Reagan phenomenon to the turmoil of the mid-1960's.

''The Right Moment'' pits Reagan ''the anti-Communist'' against Brown the liberal reformer and champion of civil rights and activist government. Brown and Reagan shared the distinction of starting political life on the other side, Brown as a Republican and Reagan as a pro-New Deal, pro-Truman Democrat. Brown eventually switched sides because he supported the New Deal; Reagan, because he didn't think that the Democrats were sufficiently intent on fighting Communism at home and abroad.

Brown, who first won the governor's mansion in 1958, blasted conservatives as ''racists'' and ''extremists'' and hailed liberals and Democrats as ''the champions of all that is progressive and dynamic in . . . political life.'' That left millions of conservatives out in the cold and determined to find a political voice to represent them. The defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964 seemed to be total for the conservatives. But a funny thing happened on the way to liberal domination: race riots, campus protests and Vietnam. The riots that engulfed the Watts ghetto in Los Angeles in August 1965 transformed the tone of politics in California and, according to Dallek, fatally weakened Brown, vacationing in Greece at the time. The Free Speech Movement on the Berkeley campus and the vacillating response of the Brown administration also provided fodder for his opponents. Even before Reagan, Brown faced a stiff primary challenge from the increasingly conservative mayor of Los Angeles, Sam Yorty.

Dallek traces Reagan's campaign strategy, detailing how Reagan's link to the ultraconservative John Birch Society almost sank him as a candidate. He credits Reagan's strategists Stu Spencer and Bill Roberts with an acute sense of how to accentuate his strengths (public speaking and general affability) while playing down his weaknesses (lack of knowledge and politically toxic allies). Dallek also shows how Brown's vitriolic attacks on his opponents made the once popular governor seem desperate and vindictive.

On Election Day, Reagan took Brown in 55 of the state's 58 counties. Yes, Reagan was ''a smart politician and a great communicator,'' but, Dallek says, his victory was primarily the result of ''larger political and social events'' -- a failure of liberalism rather than a triumph of conservatism. That may be, but it may also be that liberalism, 1960's style, ground to a halt because its enemies were better organized and more representative of the voting public. That's a bitter pill to swallow for those who believe that a Great Society could be pursued once again.