The Election and the Future: A Symposium

George Bush and Dan Quayle
George Bush and Dan Quayle; drawing by David Levine

Referendum on Reagan

C. Vann Woodward

It was President Reagan himself who suggested that the recent presidential election might be regarded as a referendum on his own presidency. There is much to support his view. “I feel a little like I’m on the ballot myself,” he said, and he campaigned that way. The Vice-President, as nominal head of the ticket, deferred to him with the same dog-like loyalty he had habitually shown. Reagan’s support was clearly George Bush’s most precious asset, and his only hint of a program for the new administration was a virtual continuation of Reagan’s policies. Michael Dukakis tacitly acknowledged the threat of the referendum concept and the President’s popularity by the cautious way he criticized Reagan.

Considered as a referendum, the election can be regarded as a personal triumph for the President. His “approval poll” grew with the campaign and by election time was several percentage points ahead of Bush’s percentage of the popular vote cast. It was both a personal vindication and incomparable theater. The ex-president will be “riding off into the sunset,” as he liked to put it, wrapped in more glory than any Hollywood sunset can provide, but though he may not realize it, he has also done something no comparable regime in American history has been able to bring off.

The classic instances of presidential and administrative malfeasance provided by Presidents Grant, Harding, and Nixon offer no precedent for Reagan’s vindication. Grant tried and failed miserably, Harding died in office before the worst was revealed, and Nixon resigned rather than have to face impeachment and trial. Moreover, the misconduct in none of their administrations—whether reckoned by the number investigated, the number indicted, or the number convicted, the sums of money involved, or the rank of the culprits—can compare with the malfeasance in Reagan’s administration. Nor were Nixon’s offenses any more impeachable than Reagan’s.*

Furthermore, none of Reagan’s thirty-nine predecessors in the office, nor all of them taken together, left the country such staggering burdens of national debt, interest payments, budget deficits, and trade imbalances, or left American industry, its banking system, and education in such a crippled and uncompetitive plight. And it is very doubtful that any of Reagan’s predecessors bequeathed with his blessing and ardent support such a shallow-minded and unprincipled successor as George Bush—and such a vice-president as the latter deliberately chose.

Debate over how and why this happened will likely continue a long time. Putting aside illusory prosperity and temporary peace as explanations, and sticking to the presidential election, I turn to four other popular theories:

1) Dukakis and his shortcomings. While he clearly had shortcomings and might have done better, he actually did much better in popular and electoral votes than any of the three defeated Democratic presidential candidates who preceded him.

2) The “media.” They were manipulated much like the public and their…

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