Former NYT reporter claims fight over Panama Canal remade American politics

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THIRTY years ago tomorrow, the conservative movement lost a major battle on the way to winning a larger war. On March 16, 1978, the Senate approved — 68 to 32, with just a single vote to spare — the first of two treaties that transferred the Panama Canal to Panama. Conservatives lamented the result, saying it threatened national security and might put the canal in Communist hands.

But losing the canal led to important victories for conservatives. The transfer of the canal to Panama provided the margins for defeat of five Democratic senators in 1978 and 1980, enough to give Ronald Reagan a Republican majority when he took office in 1981. That majority was essential to Mr. Reagan’s legislative successes.

It was not the first time the transfer of the canal had provided a lifeline for Mr. Reagan. Late in March 1976, his campaign for the presidential nomination was on the rocks. He had lost five straight primaries. The campaign was broke. Nancy Reagan was urging her husband to drop out, and his campaign manager, John Sears, was negotiating with President Gerald Ford’s camp about Mr. Reagan’s withdrawal.

With his back to the wall, Mr. Reagan campaigned intensely on the canal issue in the Republican primary in North Carolina. “We bought it. We built it. We paid for it,” he would say, and Panama should be told that “we intend to keep it.”

Mr. Reagan emphasized that message on the stump and on television. Fifteen of the state’s 17 television stations carried a half-hour speech that stressed the importance of the canal. And he startled the Ford campaign, friends like William F. Buckley and himself by winning North Carolina.

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