Amid the claims and counterclaims regarding Ronald Reagan’s 1980 electoral victory, one clarifying contradiction emerges. Yes, Reagan exaggerated, alleging a mandate for his Reagan Revolution which never existed. Yet, when Reagan implemented a more muscular, more flamboyantly patriotic, up-with-America, down-with-the-Communists foreign policy, he was doing what the American people hired him to do.
Ronald Reagan began his presidency with a magic trick, conjuring a mandate he lacked. The election was tougher than he acknowledged; his victory margin thinner than it appeared. He won only 50.75 percent of the popular vote. The victory was also something of a fluke. After extended squabbling, Reagan and President Jimmy Carter finally debated on October 28. With Reagan’s silky-smooth, “There you go again,” performance, with America’s President reduced to quoting his 13-year-old daughter Amy on the importance of ending the nuclear threat, polls showed that Carter’s popularity dropped ten points within 48 hours after the debate. It was the most significant last-minute slide Gallup pollsters ever recorded.
On November 4, the Electoral College magnified the win as Reagan triumphed in 44 states, earning 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49. Reagan pointed to the overwhelmingly red electoral map as proof of a landslide, affirming this broad mandate to rule. Yet it was essentially an ABC – Anybody But Carter – mandate. So many Americans soured on Carter’s tentative, apologetic debate performance after a year of disasters, especially the continuing Iranian hostage crisis.
Yet, despite this political sleight of hand overall, Reagan was on firmer ground in feeling that voters validated his particular foreign policy vision. When accepting the nomination at the Republican National Convention, Reagan blasted Carter’s defeatist foreign policy, condemning the “weakness, indecision, mediocrity, and incompetence” that suggested “that our nation has passed its zenith.” Reagan said he would regard his election ”as proof that we have renewed our resolve to preserve world peace and freedom — that this nation will once again be strong enough to do that.”
Anti-Communism provided the bedrock for Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy views. With his election, he would join an exclusive club of three world leaders who saw Soviet Communism as evil – and vulnerable. When Pope John Paul II, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Reagan spoke candidly about their disgust for Communism, and their expectations that the Soviet Union would soon collapse, most people politely looked away, embarrassed by these deviations from common sense. Back in 1975, on one of his radio broadcasts, Reagan called Communism a form of “insanity,” an aberration, and wondered “how much more misery it will cause before it disappears.” In 1983, when he would call the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire,” one leading historian would call it the worst presidential speech ever.
Yet, Reagan’s anti-Communism resonated with Americans, within limits. To the extent that it was rooted in a push for more vigorous leadership, more national self-respect, less collective breast-beating, Americans cheered. Most Americans were tired of apologizing for Vietnam. Back in 1976, millions had yelled with Peter Finch, the fictional newsman in the Oscar-winning movie “Network,” “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.” Reagan himself would note signs of an ascendant patriotism independent of his calls, from the euphoria that greeted the “miracle on ice,” when the U.S. team beat the Soviet hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics to the swell of pride when the space shuttle launched successfully.
Carter’s reign, marked by stagflation, gas lines, and, the ultimate indignity, this endless Iranian hostage crisis, fed a yearning for national salvation, which Reagan offered. The drawn out struggle with the Iranian radicals – and the way Jimmy Carter turned into the “53rd hostage,” with so much of his last year shaped by the crisis, culminating with the humiliating failure of the rescue attempt, sobered the American people. Reagan’s call for more pride, more military funding, and more aggressive leadership resonated widely.
And yet, Americans had also welcomed Richard Nixon’s détente with the Soviet Union and China. Many delighted in Reagan’s swagger while fearing it. Little did most Americans – including his most zealous supporters – realize just how in touch with the American consensus Reagan was. It would take years to see, what only his closest advisers knew. Reagan’s take-no-prisoners rhetoric against Soviet Communism was tempered by a deep pacifism that recoiled at the “MAD doctrine” of Mutual Assured Destruction. Reagan wanted to eliminate nuclear weaponry as ardently as he wanted to build up America’s army. History would be kind to Reagan, allowing him, in his second term, to surprise the skeptics with his openness to the new Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev and to arms control, having already demonstrated his vigor.
The legacy of the 1980 campaign would help Reagan. His calls for national greatness and a defense build-up solidified his reputation as a tough American leader. It insulated him politically from a backlash against some fiascoes, especially Hezbollah’s lethal truck bombing in 1983 of the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon. Reporters noted that had 241 American servicemen and civilians been killed under Jimmy Carter’s watch like that, Carter would have been run out of town.
At the same time, Reagan’s tough stance during the 1980 campaign against Iran, and his harsh critique of Carter’s leadership on the issue, made Reagan the “54th hostage,” if you will. The man who spoke so strongly against negotiating with terrorists could not negotiate with terrorists. When it turned out –during the Iran-Contra affair – that he had negotiated and failed – his drop in popularity and loss of credibility were all the more precipitous.
Campaigns are both sales pitches and rehearsals. Reagan made a foreign policy pitch in the 1980 campaign while rehearsing some major themes. But campaigns are not previews. Politics is the art of seeming to have expected the unexpected. In 1980, Reagan showed he was ready to inspire his fellow Americans, to spearhead a battle against Communism, but he would soon discover that, among other things, a subtle Middle East policy, and an effective counter-terrorism approach, could not necessarily take root in his anti-Communist bedrock.