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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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.
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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….