Reagan and Bush


Ronald Reagan and George Bush put together a new political coalition, a coalition which enabled them to reverse some of the damage done to America by 20 years of liberal social and economic policies.  However, despite the many successes of Reagan and Bush, the two men left their "conservative revolution" far from complete.

Reagan background to 1980

Ronald Wilson Reagan was, in some ways, a rather unlikely presidential candidate.  He had been popular as a movie actor, but that’s certainly not your typical stepping stone to the presidency.  His first major involvement in national politics was during the 1964 Goldwater campaign.  He made some pretty effective commercials for Goldwater, and, even then, some Republicans were asking why Reagan rather than the inarticulate Goldwater wasn’t their candidate.

Even so, for many people at the time, the thought of a Reagan presidency would have been a joke.  Tom Lehrer got great laughs with his introduction to his comic take on Senator George Murphy.  “Hollywood’s often tried to mix show business with politics. From Helen Gahagan to Ronald Reagan??????”

[Lehrer is very funny.  Here's his George Murphy song, and one you can probably relate to better, New Math]

But the normally perceptive Lehrer had missed something.  Reagan really did have something that attracted a lot of potential voters.  In 1966, Reagan beat Pat Brown in the race for California governor, and, in 1970, he won re-election.  Thus by 1976, Reagan had experience governing the most populous state in the nation and had to be considered a serious candidate should he want higher office.  In 1976, Reagan challenged Jerry Ford for the Republican nomination, and, while he didn’t win, he did attract substantial support.  By 1980, he was the easy front runner for the Republican nomination.

Reagan’s basic program and his new coalition

Reagan attracted to his coalition many of those who wanted an aggressive foreign policy and victory in the Cold War.  He also attracted fiscal conservatives, appealing to people who wanted tax cuts and less government regulation.  Government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem, said Reagan.  “Government is like a baby: all appetite at one end, no responsibility at the other.”

Reagan offered also a strong argument for supply-side economics, what came to be called by Reagan’s opponents, “trickle-down economics.” Cutting taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals would free up money for investment.  As more was invested the economy, the economy would grow, more jobs would be created, and everyone would be better off.  The government too would actually end up with *more* revenue—a smaller percentage of a much larger pie.

In addition, Reagan added to his coalition an appeal to social conservatives, the many Americans who were unhappy with the country’s moral decline.  Liberals had worked to eliminate capital punishment and the whole notion that the criminal justice system should be directed toward punishment.  Rehabilitation, not “punishment to fit the crime” was the purpose of the justice system, and so relatively light sentences for even the most serious crimes were deemed appropriate if the criminal had been “rehabilitated.” Liberals had made drug use acceptable and worked to decriminalize marijuana.  Liberals had fought tooth and nail against any attempt to limit pornography. Liberals had worked to ban prayer and Bible reading in the schools.  They were working to eliminate the stigma of homosexuality and to make homosexual relationships the equivalent of marriage.  Liberals had worked to destigmatize divorce as well, and to make “no fault” divorce standard procedure.

Enough is enough.  Many democrats were unhappy with the liberal direction their party had taken on social issues.  Catholics, southerners, Born-again Christians—all of whom had supported the Democrats in general and Carter in particular, were willing to cross party lines to vote for a candidate who at least gave lip-service to their values.

This created an odd coalition—a coalition that doesn’t seem odd to you because you are used to it.  But, before this point, socially conservative Christians (whether Catholic or evangelical) had tended to be at odds with the laissez-faire economic conservatives. Too much Darwinism in the laissez-faire approach!

Reagan managed to bridge the gap, and his no coalition gave him a pretty solid 51% to 41% general election victory (two minor party candidates split the remainder).  In addition, Reagan had coattails: enough Republicans and conservative Democrats won office to give him a solid chance for putting his plans in place for a conservative revolution.

Reagan's first term

Reagan came through for the pro-defense conservatives, spending billions on projects like the B-1 bomber and on SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative (dubbed “Star Wars” by its opponents and the “High Frontier” by its supporters), a plan to put an anti-missile defense system in space.  Reagan made in clear there would be no surrender anywhere to the Communists.  When a Communist coup hit Grenada, Reagan sent in the troops to reverse it.

Reagan also came through for economic conservatives, pushing through Congress a $750 billion tax cut and moving toward deregulation of transportation, communications, the banks, and savings and loan institutions.

He cut some federal social-program spending and eliminated the federal funding of abortion.

Of course, liberals screamed, and, at first, Reagan’s strategy didn’t seem effective.  The Carter recession continued, and unemployment went from 8 %to 10%.  But then the promised recovery began.  Interest rates dropped from 21.5% (1981) to 14% (1982) to 10.5%. (1983).   Inflation eased dropping from 14% (1980) to 4% (1984).  And, finally, jobs began coming back.  Unemployment dropped to 7.1% by 1984.  Now that last number doesn't sound very impressive: after four years in office, unemployment was back down to where it had been when Reagan took office.  But the unemployment rate by itself doesn't tell the full story.  The official rate only counts people actively looking for work, and when people get discouraged and give up they aren't counted...even though they are unemployed.  It's important, then, to look at labor-participation numbers.  What happened during Reagan's first term is that something like 5.7 million new jobs were created.  People who hadn't been looking for work started having some hope, and began looking for jobs again.  The labor-participation rate went way up--even thought he official unemployment rate didn't change all that dramatically.

Trickle-down economics seemed to be working.  Certainly the American people thought so.  When he ran for re-election in 1984, Regan creamed his Democratic opponent (Walter Mondale) by 52,609,797 to 36,450,613.  In the electoral college, the mandate was even clearer.  Mondale carried only Massachusetts, and Reagan won 525-13!

“Morning in America,” Reagan’s campaign ads told us…and it looked like just that to conservatives.  The first months of Reagan’s 2nd made it look as if the conservative tide was unstoppable. Liberals just had to do something, or the Reagan Revolution would soon be complete.  But what could they use to stop Reagan.

Efforts to stop the Reagan revolution

One possible issue: the Federal deficit.  Under Carter, the deficit had been $73 billion.  By 1985, the annual deficit was $236 billion.  Worrisome, but not enough to stop the Reagan Revolution: the Democrats and their social spending were at least partly to blame, and it was hard to make an issue of the deficit. Instead, Reagan’s opponents began to focus on what came to be called the Iran-Contra scandal.

Officials in the Reagan administration had decided that it would be a good idea to try to build friends within Iran.  The Ayatollah Khomeini was old, and, when he died, maybe we could have a better relationship with our old ally.  To build that friendship, the Reagan administration secretly sold arms to Iran—arms badly needed by Iran to carry on their ongoing war with neighboring Iraq.  The deal was quite profitable too.  What to do with the profits?  Well, in Nicaragua, we had been supporting an anti-Communist group, the Contras.  But our support wavered as Congress voted to fund/defund/fund/defund the Contras.  Again, Reagan officials decided that supporting the Contras was a great way to use the profits from the Iranian arms sales.  There were also some hostage negations involved as well—something really tricky: one can *never* officially negotiate for hostages, or hostages will be taken all the time.  But there are times when one may want to negotiate for hostages covertly, and this, some Reagan officials thought, was an appropriate time.

Now these policies made a certain amount of sense, but the fact that the Reagan administration was going behind Congress’ back on such things could be turned into a scandal.  Congress began having a series of hearings, using the same technique they had mastered during the Nixon Watergate hearings to tarnish the Reagan administration.

One official, Ollie North, did what Reagan himself probably should have done.  He defended the Reagan policies and turned the tables on his interrogators, lashing out at congressman as traitorous, unreliable and undependable in keeping our commitments to our allies.  Ollie got overwhelming popular support and became an instant hero.  Reagan, though, was weakened by the scandal.  His claims to be uninvolved made him look weak: and, in a way, he wasn’t the strong figure he had been.  The oldest man ever to be president, and the survivor of an assassination attempt by John Hinkley (“I hope all you doctors are Republicans,” quipped Reagan as he was rolled into surgery) Reagan wasn’t quite the forceful figure he had been as California governor and on the campaign trail.

Reagan failures

Reagan also didn’t quite come through on his economic promises.  While the economy boomed and incomes for high income people went up substantially, the trickle-down effect didn’t get as far as it might have.  Why?  Partly, it’s because while Reagan cut income tax rates, he allowed payroll taxes to go up.

But the real failures of the Reagan administration were in the social arena.  Reagan hadn’t really done much to advance the social conservative agenda, and with good reason.  The liberal social agenda had been enacted, not through the legislative process, but through the courts.  Supreme Court decisions had led to the elimination of most restrictions on pornography, abortion on demand, an end to capital punishment, the end of prayer and Bible reading in the schools.  And that meant that, before changes could be made, the courts would have to change as well: a slow process.

In 1987, Reagan had a chance to help speed up the process a bit.  One of the liberal justices, Lewis Powell, retired—and Reagan picked a liberal nightmare to replace him: Robert Bork.

Bork was a nightmare not because he was an extreme conservative, but because he believed that the Constitution meant something and that judges should interpret rather than make law. No legislating from the bench!  This was the common sense position that most Americans held, and to see that principle reestablished in the courts would mean an end to the most effective tool the liberals had in their attempts to socially reengineer America.

But what could they do?  Bork was one of the finest legal minds in America, a Yale law professor with plenty of experience on the bench.  He had never had a single ruling overturned by a higher court—ever.  The ABA gave him its highest rating: exceptionally well qualified.

The attempts to challenge the Bork nomination seemed laughable.  Ted Kennedy—that model of every virtue himself—began the attack:

“Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizen’s doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the Federal Courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.”

Kennedy was joined in his attacks by the other fine citizens on the judiciary committee: Joe Biden, Howard Metzenbaum, Alan Cranston [that’s a funny line if you know much about these men and their political shenanigans].

And then every leftist group in the country got on board, launching a completely unprecedented national campaign against the Bork nomination.  Typical, this message from one feminist group: “Senate confirmation of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court might cost you the right to make your most personal and private decisions.  His rulings might leave you no choice in relationships, childbearing, or career.  He must be stopped.  Tell your senators.  Our lives depend on it.”

The attack on Bork eventually focused on four key points.  One, he was a threat to free speech.  Two, he was a threat to women and the right to privacy.  Three, he was a threat to democracy and the principal of one man, one vote.  Four, he was out of the mainstream.

Now what did this actually mean?  Here’s the translation.

Free speech: Bork had believed the court had erred in overturning attempts to regulate pornography.  The right to free speech was intended to guarantee political speck, not to protect porn.

Threat to privacy: Bork believed that Roe vs. Wade was wrongly decided.  While one might indeed see an implied right to privacy in the 14th Amendment and elsewhere, it was going way to far to use the Constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure in justifying the overturning all state laws on abortion.

Threat to the one man/one vote principle: For over a hundred and fifty years, most state constitutions included a bicameral legislature with representation to one house based on geography and representation to the other house based on geography.  Where had they gotten this idea?  Well, that’s the system the Constitution sets up for the Federal government.  The Supreme Court, though, had ruled that, somehow, it was unconstitutional for the states to use the very same set up for representation that the Constitution establishes for the Federal government.  Bork said this was absurd: as (of course) it is.

Out of the mainstream: Unlike other justices, Bork wouldn’t try to legislate from the bench. He would stick to the law and to the Constitution: not twisting things to bend the law to his personal preference.

Liberal anti-Bork testimony was extraordinarily revealing.  Barbara Jordan, a liberal hero, said—to great applause, by the way—that snot only didn’t want Bork’s views enacted, she didn’t even want them articulated!  So much for liberals and free speech.  Pornography, yes.  Political opinions other than their own, no.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as freedom of speech in any forum liberals control, and, at the time, one forum they controlled was the press.  During the Bork hearings, the news shows featured 86 speakers critical of Bork and only 16 who were favorable.  After the hearings and before the full-senate vote, we got 16 more anti-Bork speakers, and not one is his favor.

The campaign out and out lies against Bork was incredible.  Incredible also was what Reagan did to defend his nominee: nothing.  Reagan, the great communicator, at one time would have knocked this one out the park, but, by this time, he wasn’t up to the task, and his failure to defend Bork not only cost him a fine justice, but a considerable amount of prestige.  Once again, Reagan looked weak.

And then there was the AIDS crisis.  America first became aware of AIDS around 1981 when it was clear that this terrible disease was hitting the gay community in a major way and beginning to extend its reach into the heterosexual community as well, especially among drug users.

The spread of AIDS suggested that the “gay lifestyle” wasn’t quite the harmless thing its advocates had pretended.  There was a sizable subset of that community that was extraordinarily promiscuous, some men having as many as 300 sex partners in a single year.  That promiscuity (and promiscuity among heterosexuals common in the 1970’s), was having fatal consequences.  And there were other victims.  HIV contaminated blood was everywhere, and those who received blood products (10,000 hemophiliacs, for example, contracted the disease before a 60 Minutes show alerted the nation to the problems with contaminated blood).

Reagan took (and still takes) a lot of heat from the liberal side that lambastes him for neglecting the growing AIDS epidemic and for not spending enough money to find a cure. And Reagan is to blame in a way.  

What Reagan could (and should) have done is to have insisted that AIDS be treated as any other venereal disease was treated at the time.  When a physician discovered someone has (say) syphilis, that was reported to the health department officials. They, in turn, would contact that person’s sexual partners and tell them they might have been exposed to an STD and that they should be tested so as not to spread the disease any further.  This *wasn’t* done with AIDS—and, strangely, the gay community, which was by far the hardest hit by AIDS in general fought hard against AIDS test and the contacting of past sexual partners.

Reagan, then, carried the conservative revolution quite a long way, but left it far from complete.  The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step…and Reagan had taken quite a few steps in the right direction—if not the right direction [there’s another joke, but it doesn’t work online].

George  H. W. Bush:  an unlikely conservative champion

The task of continuing the conservative revolution fell to a man who was hardly ideal for the job, Reagan’s Vice President, George Herbert Walker Bush.  Bush had called Reagan’s supply-side program “voodoo economics” when running against Reagan in 1980 for the Republican nomination.  He was a very late-comer to the social conservative side, with a pro-abortion record and a father and grandfather who had been strong supporters of Planned Parenthood, the most vocal pro-abortion group in the nation.  He did have strong credentials in foreign policy, having served as CIA director, but he had a reputation as an exceptionally poor speaker (born with a silver foot in his mouth, as some said).  

But in accepting the 1988 Republican nomination, Bush made it clear he was going to keep the Reagan coalition together.  For the economic conservatives, a promise: “Read my lips. No new taxes.”  For social conservatives, clear support of the pro-life position and strong support of capital punishment.  And for those who worried about Bush’s ability to articulate the conservative position—well, it was a solid and memorable speech—a hint of other solid speeches to come.

The Democrats made it easy for Bush.  They nominated Michael Dukakis.  In the debates, Bush won by sticking Dukakis was the “L” word label.  Dukakis was a liberal.  There was no denying it, and  to be a liberal—well, the kiss of death as far as most American were concerned.  Bush won by 55% to 45% in the popular vote, 426 to 111 in the electoral college.  Not quite as big as Reagan’s 1984 reelection victory, but big enough to claim a mandate for the conservative agenda he supported.

Bush I success--Cold War victory!

During the Bush years, the economy continued to grow, and America achieved the highest GNP in history.  The inflation and double-digit interest rates of the Carter years were long gone, while there was still the nagging concern about the deficit, most Americans were positive about the economy.

Even more spectacular, Bush’s successes in foreign policy. Reagan’s military build-up paid off big time.  The Soviets simply couldn’t keep up, and the Soviet Union which had for years looked like it truly did have a chance of burying the United States simply fell apart…and the United States emerged victor in the Cold War, the world’s only super-power.

What that meant was clearly shown by what came to be called the Gulf War.  Iraq had invaded our ally, little Kuwait.  In the Carter years, the U.S. could have done little but issue a feeble protest for fear that direction action on our part would have led to direct action by the Soviets on the other side.  But now under Bush, American troops smashed the Iraqis, pushing them out of Kuwait effortlessly—and, it was clear, that, had we wanted to, we could have done much more, occupying Baghdad and removing Saddam Hussein whenever we felt like it.  In addition, we had the whole world behind us.  Bush had an easier time getting UN approval for the Gulf War than getting the U.S. Congress to support it!

 The Gulf War victory pushed Bush to the highest approval levels of any American president since polling began—80% of Americans voicing their support.

What could possibly stop the conservative revolution?  Could the Democrats put up any candidate to stop Bush from winning reelection by an overwhelming margin? Would Bush have four more years to complete what Reagan had begun?  Stay tuned….