Things used to be pretty dark for the GOP, standing up for principles helped save it:
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.