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 faults have been exaggerated. Their main offense was their conception of nonpartisanship—dividing blame equally between culprit and victim (the candidates, the commercials, the campaigns—all plural).
3) The “mainstream.” Actually both candidates swam in it, the difference being the advantage Bush and handlers derived from attaching themselves to the flotsam that always floats on the surface of the mainstream—chauvinism, nativism, racism, and assorted phobias.
4) Gullibility of the electorate. History does not provide evidence that the present American electorate is any more (or less) gullible than previous electorates, or for that matter electorates of other Western countries.
Back of all that and more fundamental are the skill and expertise, the cynicism and unscrupulous methods, by which the electorate was successfully gulled and deceived. All the tested methods of McCarthyite character assassination and phobia spreading were employed, but the main reliance was upon race. Not only familiar code words—crime, rape, public housing, urban conditions—but blatantly outright racism such as the use made of Willie Horton. The people who did all this were not rednecks or Western toughs from the boondocks. George Herbert Walker Bush, Yale 1948, and James Addison Baker III, Princeton 1952, come from a higher level of social, economic, and educational elite than any other frontrunning leaders since Franklin Roosevelt. They knew exactly what they were doing.
There is no reason to believe that the new president will be a different man from the candidate—a man who has proved he will stop at nothing to advance his political career. He has appointed James Baker, architect of his strategy, to head his cabinet and serve, according to insiders, as a “deputy president” with unprecedented roles and powers. In the wings, as far out of sight as possible, sits in readiness a vice-president with the bloom of his John Birch Society upbringing still upon him. Government must go on, of course, and the new president must gain sufficient support to govern. It remains to be seen whether he has left in the hearts of intelligent people a sufficient modicum of respect and enough compassion to overcome the distrust, resentment, and contempt he has so abundantly earned. They can derive such assurance as they may from his statement that “the presidency provides an incomparable opportunity for moral leadership.”
A Spooky President
Bush is recommended to us as lightweight but teachable. If not imposing himself, he will bring qualified people into office with him—Jim Baker, Nick Brady, Dick Thornburgh. But he has proved, in the past, as much bullyable as teachable. Richard Nixon, who had him report on the loyalty (to Nixon) of the UN staff, told Haldeman, “he’d do anything for the cause.” In China, he was humiliated by Henry Kissinger. When Bush wanted to keep running against Ronald Reagan, in the 1980 Republican primaries, Jim Baker removed him from the contest without consulting him. Bush went along. There was a symbolic moment in this year’s primaries when Bush’s media consultant, Roger Ailes, hovering around Bush before he went on camera for an interview, swooped over and plucked a stray hair from his client’s eyebrow. “That hurt,” Bush said with satisfaction.
Being bullied is part of his heritage. He lists as his favorite Andover teacher Arthur “Doc” Darling, described in the Andover history as “the despair of slow students, who never understood what he was talking about a good part of the time.” Bush was one of these slow students, who lived in fear of flunking out of Andover by failing Darling’s class. Darling boasted that twenty-three of seventy boys were dismissed from the school in one year because they could not meet his standards. He ridiculed the slow-witted, naming one bunch of them the Nine Old Men after the despised Supreme Court of the time. One student claimed that Darling most prepared him for life since “he had run into many unreasonable things in life, but none that could touch Darling.”
Coincidentally, Ronald Reagan had another such teacher—a large frog in a small pond, who also insisted on begin called “Doc” in a faculty where few had Ph.D.s. By the time Reagan went to Eureka College, Dean Samuel Harrod wanted to be President Harrod, and manipulated the students into a “strike” to make him win that office. Reagan is said to have learned to take direction as a movie actor, but he was docile to Harrod’s instruction even in college.
So can we expect another White House run by the staff, with a figurehead president disengaged from all but a few points he feels deeply about? Perhaps not. Bush’s choice of Quayle shows the bullied person’s attempt to have someone he can bully. It goes with a preference for shady company. Dwight Chapin, the convicted Watergate criminal, was brought into the Bush campaign, and news reports claim that Bush wants Fred Malek (Nixon’s famed purger of Jews from the Bureau of Labor Statistics) welcomed back to his administration. Bush invited Oliver North to his Christmas party after the Iran scandal broke. (Rob Owen, North’s confederate and laureate in the contra resupply effort, worked for Senator Quayle’s office in 1982–1983.) Strange customers like Felix Rodriguez were in and out of Bush’s office. He was not only a spook himself. He actually likes his fellow spooks.
Bush is the first CIA director to become president, a more dangerous precedent than having a military general in that post. We were understandably concerned when Yuri Andropov, of the KGB, became general secretary of the USSR. But the odd dynamics of a totalitarian regime made Andropov’s short reign lead to Gorbachev’s. The KGB’s mandate is to spy on its own citizenry (something the CIA does only by breaking its own charter), and Andropov knew more about his own country’s weaknesses, especially the economic ones, than most Soviets were allowed to. No such benign training seems to have come Bush’s way, who reacted to the Vincennes disaster by saying, “I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are.” It is a disconcerting statement from a man whose job, as CIA director, was precisely to learn what the facts are.
How long he can maintain a willed ignorance on the state of the economy (which he called flourishing during the campaign) is the great domestic question. Congress is one teacher he is likely to resist. Baker and Brady will presumably humor him and form their own program, as David Stockman did with Reagan, but the new team must try to reverse Stockman’s dismaying success in imposing Reaganomics on the national economy.
The one bright prospect is that the arms control process, which Reagan blundered into by a combination of his advisers’ chicanery and his own naiveté, will be continued as the one discernible foreign policy triumph of the Reagan years. Republicans have more room than Democrats to maneuver on matters like détente, disarmament, and good relations with China. Bush will presumably have to satisfy his right wing on Supreme Court appointments—though it is unlikely that any Supreme Court he appoints will actually send the question of abortion back to the states, whose Republican legislators dread having to vote against the majority that favors leaving choice to the woman. But “tough” court appointments may leave Bush free to act reasonably abroad, if he can overcome his predilection for shady characters—and if those characters have no leverage on him from actions committed while he was the director.
The Inept Campaign
The recent election suggests four conclusions: First, Michael Dukakis threw away what could have been a Democratic victory on the presidential level as well as at the grass roots. Second, populist cultural conservatism—“furloughs and flags”—still packs a big wallop. Third, Democratic presidential prospects for 1992 are better than party leaders think they are. Fourth, by that time the Republicans may be wishing that Michael Dukakis had inherited the domestic and international legacy of Reaganomics.
To begin with, Dukakis probably should have won. The Democrats’ virtually unprecedented gains in the US Senate, US House, governorships, and state legislatures confirm that 1988 was a year in which a slight Democratic tide was running. The GOP presidential coalition was soft and vulnerable; the June and July polls that showed Dukakis ahead of George Bush by 17 to 18 points were not flukes. They confirmed the general success of the Democrats between January and July in hounding the Reagan administration in general, and Bush in particular, with everything from Iran-contra and support of Noriega to Michael Deaver, astrology, and the Pentagon scandals.
During these months as well, much attention was given on television, and in the press, to America’s emergence as the world’s leading debtor, the consequent “buying of America” by Japanese and others, and the implications for the US of Paul Kennedy’s best-selling book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. By July, when Dukakis’s lead in the polls was at its highest, other survey data showed parallel public apprehension about the economy, doubt that America was “on the right track,” and desire for a change of direction in Washington.
Dukakis managed to dissipate all of this in what can only be described as a summer “nerd-out”—a substitution of managerial self-satisfaction for serious politicking and for keeping up the momentum of the party’s indictment of Bush and Reagan. Back in 1948, New York GOP Governor Thomas E. Dewey turned a 15-point lead into a 3-point loss, but Dukakis displaced him from the record books with his 1988 conversion of an 18-point lead into an 8-point defeat. The irony is that during the last ten days of the campaign, Dukakis’s campaign finally came alive when he resorted to the populist economics and tough indictments of Bush that might have won the election if somebody had given him a political pep pill back in late July.
Having said all of this, I would add that the GOP inevitably would have chopped 10 to 12 points off Dukakis’s inflated July lead by counterattacking with charges of the type that were later summed up by the phrase “flags and furloughs.” However, because of Dukakis’s ineptness, these tactics scored better than they should have. What they did, really, was to resurrect the old cultural, racial, and patriotic issues that helped create the GOP presidential majority back in the days of George Wallace and Richard Nixon, between 1968 and 1972. Such tactics recalled those of the Republicans in the late nineteenth century, when they kept the old Civil War coalition together by “waving the bloody shirt” of Civil War loyalties. My guess is that by 1992 even liberals will make a show of saluting and locking jail doors so that these themes can’t be so readily invoked.
In the meantime, if the Democrats can manage to be more perceptive about political strategy, their prospects for putting together a winning presidential coalition are not all that bad. The GOP coalition that I outlined back in 1969 in The Emerging Republican Majority has now been around so long that it’s fraying at the ideological edges. The Pacific and Upper Midwest states are particularly soft in their support for the Republicans. This year, even Dukakis managed to carry states like Iowa, Wisconsin, Washington, and Oregon, all of which voted Republican during the Nixon-Ford years. And even Dukakis barely lost states with large electoral votes like California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Missouri. My sense is that the GOP presidential coalition is now so overconcentrated in the South that a Democrat could win the electoral college with narrow margins in the big states, even while the Republican nominee was winning 51 percent of the popular vote.
The last factor, obviously, is that the Republicans now have responsibility for the US economy—for all the policy chickens that may be coming home to roost—right through 1992. That could provide just the new set of issues and indictments that the Democrats need. Four more years of economic luck seem unlikely. You don’t have to be Ravi Batra or Paul Erdman to be nervous.
In an Economic Fix
Benjamin M. Friedman
The rhetoric of the recent campaign not-withstanding, America has a critical economic problem. The federal government’s fiscal imbalance is sapping our ability to be productive at home and to compete abroad. This corrosion is already stunting the growth of our standard of living. It is also already compromising our influence in world economic affairs. If left unchecked, it will continue to do both.
The heart of the problem is that, on average during the Reagan-Bush years, the government’s borrowing to cover its budget deficit has soaked up three fourths of the net saving of all American families and of all American businesses combined. With so little of our private saving left over for private use, we have devoted barely two cents out of every dollar of our national income to net investment in business plant and equipment—considerably less than in the 1950s or the 1960s or the 1970s. As a result, gains in productivity have been disappointing (apart from the usual all-too-brief cyclical surge just after the 1981–1982 recession ended). And without growth in productivity, business cannot pay higher real wages. The economic expansion that began in 1983, and continues today, is the first in fifty years in which the average working American’s wage has gone not up but down compared to inflation.
The economic situation is worse still in that so much of what we have borrowed since 1980—about $10,000 of it for every family of four—has come from abroad. Because America is no longer the world’s leading lending nation, as it was when the Reagan-Bush administration took office, but the world’s largest debtor, we are beholden to the foreigners who buy our Treasury securities and support the dollar. Our international indebtedness continues to accelerate, even as foreign lenders are increasingly cashing in their dollar IOUs for direct ownership of our businesses and real estate and other productive assets.
Some have argued that we will “grow out” of the problem and point to the narrowing of the deficit from $221 billion in fiscal 1985 to $155 billion in fiscal 1988, which ended this September 30. But this supposed decline is largely illusory, and dangerously so. In fact the $155 billion overall deficit consisted of a $39 billion surplus in the social security account and a $194 billion deficit for all the rest of the federal government’s activities. To use the social security surplus to offset the budget deficit is to solve one problem at the cost of intensifying another. The social security surplus exists only because payroll tax rates were increased in 1983 to enable the social security system to deal with the retirement of the baby boom generation early in the next century, when the number of workers making contributions will decline compared to the number of retirees receiving benefits. If the social security system does not accumulate a sizable surplus now, either workers then will have to pay intolerably high payroll taxes, or retired people will have to accept sharply diminished benefits. The new administration will therefore be acting irresponsibly if it merely offsets the current budget deficit with social security surpluses.
Fixing the problem of the deficit—not by canceling our accumulated debts, which is impossible, but at least stopping the hemorrhage and freeing America’s private saving to make it available once again to finance private investment—means narrowing the gap between federal spending and federal revenues by at least $100 billion, preferably over a two-year period. That, in turn, will take three steps.
First, the administration and the Congress will need to make substantial cuts in government spending. Accounting gimmicks will not do. Neither will sales of government-owned assets, which absorb private saving just as sales of Treasury bills do. Making genuine progress in narrowing the deficit means making genuine cuts in federal programs. The notion that there are no possible ways to do so is simply wrong. The Congressional Budget Office’s Reducing the Deficit: Spending and Revenue Options, issued just last March, lists over a hundred possibilities, ranging from the tiny to the huge. For example, we could save $800 million per year by eliminating federal support for sewage treatment plants, $2.4 billion per year by increasing Medicare’s annual deductible from $75 to $200, and $800 million per year by cutting the number of military personnel on active duty back to 1982 levels.
What may be difficult, however, is finding enough spending cuts that were not ruled out, presumably as a matter of political expediency, during the election campaign. Three fourths of all federal spending now goes for defense, social security, Medicare and Medicaid, and interest on the national debt. Nothing in Mr. Bush’s statements so far, including his vague notion of a “flexible freeze,” suggests he will reduce any of these expenditures. Nor has he expressed interest in cutting the budget for such items as law enforcement, the courts, the immigration authority, drug enforcement, our embassies abroad, and many others that account for the rest of what the government spends.
Second, we will also need to increase taxes. From a purely economic perspective, it makes little difference whether we solve the budget problem by cutting spending or by raising taxes. But the experience of the Reagan-Bush administration suggests that we are unlikely to solve the problem at all if we limit our attention to spending cuts only. The reason is that no public consensus for sufficiently reduced government spending exists; nor—in light of the campaign—did the election create one. Moreover, there was never any major disagreement between the Reagan-Bush administration and the Congress over the total amount (as opposed to the composition) of federal spending. If Congress had simply adopted without amendment every budget President Reagan submitted, total spending would have been $15 billion per year less—a saving, to be sure, but a small one compared to a deficit that has averaged more than $180 billion per year.
Raising taxes would, of course, violate another Bush campaign promise. But then so would cutting federal spending by enough to solve the problem without a tax hike. If we make enough spending cuts, we may be able to do the rest of what we need with such “revenue enhancements” as higher taxes on gasoline, tobacco, and alcohol, and higher user fees for services that the government provides. Otherwise, cutting the deficit will require either an increase in income tax rates or the introduction of some new kind of tax. A consumption tax would be preferable, for reasons of economic efficiency and for the incentive to save it provides. So would a European-style value added tax, which is like a national sales tax. But if nobody has the will to reopen the debate about what form of tax structure America should have, it is worth remembering that merely raising the lower and higher rates in our current income tax from 15 percent and 28 percent today to 18 percent and 31 percent, respectively, would generate $75 billion per year of additional revenue, on average, between 1989 and 1996.
Finally, we will need an easier monetary policy—but only if we cut spending enough and raise taxes enough to make real progress in narrowing the deficit. Nobody wants a recession, and it is possible (though far from certain) that tightening fiscal policy would have just that effect if the Federal Reserve did not offset the reduced stimulus to total spending by lowering interest rates. There is nothing wrong with the general level of American economic activity. The problem is that there is too much consumption and too little investment—not just in business plant and equipment, but also in our basic infrastructure and in the education of our work force—and there are too many imports and too few exports. The best way to correct those imbalances without risking a recession is to combine a tighter fiscal policy with an easier monetary policy.
The world that George Bush inherits is radically different from that which Ronald Reagan believed he had to save eight years ago, and from anything this country has known since the end of the Second World War. Eight years ago, Reagan could still apply to the world the simple pattern of the cold war. To increase US military strength and to demonstrate American will to resist the march of Communism were the alpha and omega of his foreign policy. During the next few years, the most striking feature of international politics is likely to be the declining influence of both superpowers. In the Soviet Union, the program of political and economic reform launched by Gorbachev and his allies requires a less expensive military policy and a less expansive foreign policy. In a huge country in which long repressed economic and ethnic tensions can no longer be denied, the Soviet leaders have only begun, against entrenched opposition, to bring about the changes in the bureaucracy and the productive system that are needed to save the Soviet economy from disaster.
The US will still be an intimidating military power, an economic and monetary giant, but it too will have to spend more energy and resources on domestic investment if it is to compete successfully with its principal economic rivals—Japan and the increasingly united Europe. Reducing the budget deficit will mean curtailing the costs of defense; and America’s new dependence on foreign creditors will limit its autonomy, both in domestic affairs and in foreign policy. Above all, in recent years, the willingness of other nations to let their fates be decided by Washington, Moscow, or both, has declined, and the ability of the superpowers to enforce their writ has diminished.
In this new setting, American foreign policy faces three essential tasks. The first is the liquidation of the cold war. Soviet and American interests and ideals will continue to differ and, here and there, to clash. But both the scope and the intensity of their contest have receded. What the US needs to do now is to move on to negotiated reductions in both nuclear and conventional armaments. A deal with the USSR on cutting strategic nuclear weapons seems feasible but it depends, in large part, on the US giving up the delusion of perfect defenses that it still pursues in the SDI program. A deal limiting conventional armies will be more difficult to conclude, but it is in our interest to be the first to come to the bargaining table with coherent proposals. These might include reductions of those weapons in which one side has an advantage over the other, measures of mutual inspection, and the withdrawal of a part of the forces of the two alliances from the border areas.
The US must also finally face up to the question whether it wants to assist the Soviet Union’s program of economic modernization, even if its eventual success might increase Soviet power in the world, or whether we would prefer Gorbachev to fail. Such a failure could lead to a far more repressive and hostile Soviet Union; whereas the success of Gorbachev and his allies might lead to at least some of the changes in internal institutions and practices that American leaders have called for, and to a less militarized and confrontation-minded Soviet policy abroad. Our European allies have already made their preferences clear, by extending considerable credits to the USSR.
The second major task is to resolve major regional conflicts. The costs and frustrations of Soviet policy in the third world have already fostered the beginnings of Soviet-American cooperation in southern Africa and in Afghanistan. In two regions, Central America and the Middle East, progress now depends on Washington’s willingness to change course drastically. Our Central American policy is a fiasco. The US needs to define much more rigorously and realistically its goals there—anti-Communist slogans are no substitute for a policy—and to rely much more on the efforts of the governments of the region, efforts that we have either discouraged or ignored. In the Arab-Israeli conflict, US support for Israel has allowed our ally to pursue a policy of occupation and brutal repression for which we pay the bill. Yet this policy violates our as well as Israel’s proclaimed ideals; and it conflicts as well with the long-term interests of both Israel and the US. One of the most urgent, and telling, questions facing Bush is whether he can muster the courage to apply pressure on Israel to respond seriously to the recent Palestinian moves toward recognition.
The third challenge is to deal with a world in which the biggest threat to order is likely to be not the confrontation of the superpowers, but chaos. One kind of chaos is created by the proliferation of nuclear and advanced conventional weapons. Another kind could result from economic mismanagement, whether by the US, if an economic slowdown and the fall of the dollar should lead to a major recession, or by Japan, which accumulates huge trade surpluses but still prevents other countries, including its debtors, from exporting goods to Japan in sufficient quantities. In a world without an acknowledged dominating power, chaos can only be avoided through the coordination of the policies of the major nations, and the extensive use of international organizations with broad powers of enforcement.
It was never clear that a Dukakis administration would have had the competence and boldness necessary to deal adequately with such issues. George Bush said little about them during his dismal campaign. But there are many reasons to worry. He is the heir of a long line of Republican leaders whose universe was determined by the cold war; and while Reagan initiated a new détente, his administration has proceeded fitfully, without any clear strategy, relying on the simplistic notion that agreement was made possible above all by our renewed strength and will. In his recent position as secretary of the treasury, Bush’s designated secretary of state showed that he was a pragmatic, short-term fixer, adept and smooth but certainly not an imaginative reformer of the debt-ridden international economy.
In the Middle East and Central America, Bush has been a willing prisoner of antiquated and ineffectual formulas. His apparent enthusiasm for CIA covert activities and his acquiescence in the Iran-contra divagations are not promising omens. During his brief period as head of the CIA, he sponsored the famous evaluation of Soviet military power by a group of outside experts called Team B. The result was to promote the idea that a “window of vulnerability” threatened the US; it took several years and billions of dollars in unnecessary expenditures before the Scowcroft Commission showed that no such window had been opened. When confronted with determined advocates of hard-line policies, Bush’s attitude has seemed one of genial pliability.
The Republican right wing, in exchange for its support during the campaign, will not hesitate to present Bush with a bill, and that bill includes the development of SDI. Sharing power with a Democratic Congress will not easily allow for bold moves abroad. Four years of fumbling or timidity—even if economic disaster is avoided at home—would diminish America’s authority and influence abroad even more. Above all, they would mean missing opportunities that may not arise again. The US, although weakened, still has the capacity to steer the rest of the world toward a less violent, more diverse, and more cooperative order. Whether it can do so will depend on whether it faces frankly the domestic problems neglected or created by the Reagan politics of illusion—particularly the problems of an economy floating on a pool of foreign debt—and whether Bush and those around him can break away from the bipolar cold war assumptions that have shaped their views so far.
Lessons for Liberals
Taken one at a time, elections always send ambiguous messages. Some have attributed Dukakis’s defeat to his inept campaign staff or his reluctance to take the initiative last summer, or to his failure to run an ideological campaign that portrayed George Bush as a champion of the rich. Many believe that the Democrats needed a more charismatic leader, or that the Republicans were unbeatable so long as the economy was growing and the nation was at peace.
As one looks back only on the election, all these explanations seem plausible. But as one looks back over the last quarter century the idiosyncracies of specific campaigns recede and a pattern emerges. The civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the breakdown of public consensus over such matters as premarital sex, abortion, illegitimacy, divorce, drugs, racial inequality, and prayer transformed American politics in the 1960s. Yet despite these upheavals the Democrats have retained uninterrupted control of the House of Representatives and have controlled the Senate for all but six of the past twenty-five years. In the absence of other evidence we would surely have to conclude that they have remained the “natural majority party.”
Yet despite their legislative ascendancy, the Democrats have managed to win only two of the seven presidential elections since 1960. The two successful Democrats, Johnson and Carter, were both southerners. No northern liberal has won the presidency since John Kennedy. How are we to reconcile these apparently contradictory trends? Some northern liberals remain convinced that their inability to win presidential elections reflects a series of historical accidents. Humphrey lost, they say, because the Democrats were divided over Vietnam. McGovern lost because he was too liberal. Mondale lost because he wasn’t as likable as Reagan, and made the mistake of saying he would raise taxes. Such explanations sound reasonable from one year to the next. But when you add them all together, they no longer sound convincing.
The problem goes deeper. The New Deal coalition that elected Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy was held together by economic interests. Both rural southerners and the northern working class favored government intervention in the marketplace to protect them from the ravages of laissez-faire capitalism. Neither group had “liberal” views on issues like race, patriotism, capital punishment, or abortion. Once these issues became politically salient, as they did in the 1960s, Democratic presidential candidates faced, and still face, an almost insoluble problem. If they took liberal positions on such issues, they estranged the white South and part of the white working class. If they took conservative positions, they risked estranging the educated liberals who ran their campaigns and raised their money.
Democratic candidates for Congress can often sidestep this problem, because most congressional districts are relatively homogenous. Districts with many ACLU sympathizers include few born-again Baptists, and districts with many bluecollar whites include few blacks. Democrats who run for Congress can therefore tailor their positions on divisive “social” issues to local prejudices and can get elected by promising to clean up the environment, take better care of the elderly, make workplaces safer, extend unemployment benefits, and so on. This strategy does not work as well in statewide elections, especially if the state is socially diverse, which is one reason the Democrats have had more trouble controlling the Senate than the House. It doesn’t seem to work at all in national elections.
The importance of social issues in presidential elections is a depressing commentary on the electoral process—and hence, ultimately, on the American electorate. George Bush may be able to reduce the number of abortions (and thereby increase the number of teen-age mothers) by appointing right-wing Supreme Court justices. But, apart from indignant, threatening rhetoric, neither he nor any other president can do much about promiscuity, divorce, crime, drugs, or the other signs of incipient chaos that worry so many Americans.
American presidents have two main jobs: keeping the peace and managing the economy. At least in the twentieth century, the Republicans have done better at keeping the peace, while the Democrats have done better both at managing the economy and protecting the interests of those who remain vulnerable even when the economy prospers.
If the economic bubble the Reagan administration has created on borrowed yen bursts suddenly instead of deflating gradually, or if the Republicans get us into a protracted war, we may again see presidential elections that concentrate on issues over which presidents really exercise control. In the absence of such a catastrophe or extraordinary Republican wrongdoing, however, the cultural and racial conflicts that emerged in the 1960s are likely to remain at the center of our televised political stage. So long as they do, no northern liberal Democrat is likely to win national office.
In August of 1986 George Bush, traveling in his role as vice-president of the United States and accompanied by his staff, the Secret Service, the traveling press, and a personal camera crew wearing baseball caps reading “Shooters, Inc.,” and working on a $10,000 retainer paid by a Bush PAC called the Fund for America’s Future, spent several days in Israel and Jordan. The schedule in Israel included, according to reports in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, shoots at the Western Wall, at the Holocaust memorial, at David Ben-Gurion’s tomb, and at thirty-two other locations chosen to produce campaign footage illustrating that George Bush was, as Marlin Fitzwater, at that time the Bush press secretary, put it, “familiar with the issues.”
The Shooters, Inc., crew did not go on to Jordan (there was, an official explained to the Los Angeles Times, “nothing to be gained from showing him schmoozing with Arabs”), but the Bush advance team had nonetheless directed, in Amman, considerable attention toward improved visuals for the traveling press. The advance team had requested, for example, that the Jordanian army marching band change its uniforms from white to red; that the Jordanians, who did not have enough helicopters to transport the press, borrow some from the Israeli air force; that, in order to provide the color of live military action behind the Vice-President, the Jordanians stage maneuvers at a sensitive location overlooking Israel and the Golan Heights; that the Jordanians raise the American flag over its base there; that Bush be photographed looking through binoculars studying “enemy territory,” a shot ultimately vetoed by the State Department since the “enemy territory” at hand was Israel; and, possibly the most arresting detail, that camels be present at every stop on the itinerary.
Some months later I happened to be in Amman, and mentioned reading about this Bush trip to several American embassy officials. They could have, it was agreed, “cordially killed” the reporters in question, particularly Charles P. Wallace from the Los Angeles Times, but the reports themselves had been accurate. “You didn’t hear this, but they didn’t write half of it,” one said.
This is in fact the kind of story we expect to hear about our elected officials. We not only expect them to use other nations as changeable scrims in the theater of domestic politics but encourage them to do so. After the April failure of the Bay of Pigs in 1961 John Kennedy’s job-approval rating was four points higher than it had been in March. After the 1965 intervention in the Dominican Republic Lyndon Johnson’s job-approval rating rose. After the 1983 invasion of Grenada Ronald Reagan’s job-approval rating rose, and what was that year referred to in Washington as “Lebanon”—the sending of American Marines into Beirut, the killing of the 241 and the subsequent pullout—was, in the afterglow of this certified success, largely forgotten. “Gemayel could fall tonight and it would be a twoday story,” I recall David Gergen saying a month later. In May, 1984, Francis X. Clines of The New York Times described the view taken by James Baker, who was routinely described during his years in the White House as “the ultimate pragmatist,” a manager of almost supernatural executive ability: “In attempting action in Lebanon, Baker argues, President Reagan avoided another ‘impotent’ episode, such as the taking of American hostages in Iran, and in withdrawing the Marines, the president avoided another ‘Vietnam.’… ‘Pulling the Marines out put the lie to the argument that the President’s trigger-happy,’ he said.” The “issue,” in other words, was one of preserving faith in the President at home, a task which, after the ultimate pragmatist left the White House, fell into the hands of the less adroit.
History is a matter of context. At a moment when the nation has seen control of its economy pass to its creditors and when the administration-elect has for political reasons severely limited its ability to regain that control, this extreme reliance on the efficacy of faith over works means something different from what it might have meant in 1984 or 1980. On the night in New Orleans when George Bush accepted the Republican nomination and spoke of his intention to “speak for freedom, stand for freedom, and be a patient friend to anyone, east or west, who will fight for freedom,” the word “patient” was construed by some in the Superdome as an abandonment of the Reagan Doctrine, a suggestion that a Bush administration would play a passive rather than an active role in any dreams of rollback. This overlooks the real nature of the Reagan Doctrine, the usefulness of which to the Reagan administration was exclusively political.
Administrations with little room to maneuver at home have historically looked for sideshows abroad, for the creation of what the pollsters call “a dramatic event,” an external crisis, preferably one so remote that it remains an abstraction, but only rarely in our history have we had quite this little room at home. In this light it did not seem encouraging that George Bush, on the Thursday he left for his post-election Florida vacation, found time to meet not with those investors around the world who were sending him a message that week (the dollar was again dropping against the yen, against the mark, and against the pound; the Dow was dropping 78.47 points), not with the Germans, not with the Japanese, not even with anyone from the American financial community, but with representatives of the Afghan resistance. “Once in a while I think about those things, but not much,” the President-elect told a CBS News crew which asked him, a few days later in Florida, about the falling market.
Conor Cruise O’Brien
We are being told that George Bush is a pragmatist when it comes to foreign policy. That doesn’t tell us very much about what he may be up to in a foreign crisis. A president who is a pragmatist may do most unpragmatic things if what he is being pragmatic about is not a given foreign policy option, in itself, but the bearing of that option on his own chances of being reelected.
Thus John Kennedy knew that the pragmatic thing, in relation to Vietnam, would be to get out of the place. But he believed that the pragmatic thing to do, in relation to his own reelection in 1964, was to see to it that Vietnam was not “lost on my watch.” So he reinforced the US contingent there that he knew he should be withdrawing. Similarly, George Bush might know that, in foreign policy, the pragmatic choice, should the regime in, say, El Salvador collapse, would be not to intervene. But the fear of the domestic political repercussions of “losing El Salvador on my watch” might cause him to send in American troops.
In similar circumstances, it is not inconceivable that Michael Dukakis might have done the same thing. Democratic presidents have sometimes danced to Republican tunes, as both Kennedy and Johnson did in Vietnam. But it seems probable that, for Dukakis, the sending in of American troops would have been a greater evil, even politically speaking, than the “loss” of El Salvador. With President Bush, the probabilities will probably be the other way around. And this makes Bush, however great a pragmatist he may be, a risky president to have around whenever a right-wing regime anywhere in the world, especially in the Western Hemisphere, may be overthrown by a left-wing opposition.
No doubt Bush will wish to continue the rapprochement with the ci-devant Evil Empire which proved so popular under his predecessor. And he will probably allow Star Wars to fade away. He will have to cut something, if he is to redeem his campaign promises about not increasing taxes, and still get the federal deficit down.
Whatever we may think of President Bush, we must all fervently wish him the best of health over the next four years. There is no more terrifying thought than President Quayle with his finger on that button. And I fear that the vision of President Quayle in that position may be providing Vice-President Quayle what satisfaction he now has.
Race in Politics
Thomas Byrne Edsall
The chief reasons for George Bush’s 1988 victory are apparent. Under the Reagan administration unemployment, inflation, and interest rates all improved, and so did relations with the Soviet Union. But the election also served to reveal the continuing, and increasingly complex, significance of race in American politics. Most Americans cast their vote for economic reasons or because of concerns about national weakness or because they trust or distrust the candidate. But racial considerations can affect enough voters to determine the outcome of elections at every level.
Not only in the South but in most major cities in the North—Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York—the first concern of strategists in both parties is almost always the racial makeup of the electorate. In the South and increasingly in major northern cities where blacks compete for power there is a strong correlation between the percentage of the electorate that is black, and therefore votes Democratic, and the movement to the GOP among whites.
More important, feelings about race affect the ways in which large parts of the electorate view a great many domestic issues, including welfare, crime, taxation, federal aid to cities, the emergence of a seemingly entrenched underclass, mass transit, and education. Nowhere have these problems become more severe than in cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia where blacks now make up a majority of the voters in Democratic primaries—sharply increasing the likelihood of blacks winning Democratic nominations for city offices—but where blacks also make up less than half of the overall voting population, assuring a white Republican candidate a good chance in the general election.
In Chicago, blacks have gained political control of the city once dominated by Mayor Richard Daley. Black leaders complain that Daley’s power was based in white, ethnic neighborhoods where high rates of both parochial school attendance and home ownership discouraged the investment of tax dollars in public education and other services vital to black families, and that they must now make up for longstanding neglect. In contrast, white voters, most of them traditionally Democratic, see themselves as a currently disenfranchised minority, forced to pay increasingly high taxes for a deteriorating urban school system and for largely black public housing projects in Chicago and elsewhere that are overrun by gangs and falling into disrepair.
Similar struggles over power, patronage, and the distribution of tax burdens and expenditures are arising in other cities. Such conflicts no longer lend themselves to the clear moral distinctions of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s and 1970s; but they are politically explosive, placing the Democratic party on the defensive and providing the Republican party with a great many prospective converts to the GOP.
Against this background, Dukakis’s nomination provides a case study of the failure of the Democratic party to put forward a candidate with the capacity to maintain and strengthen an already troubled coalition of whites and blacks within the party. Dukakis’s political career has been rooted in the generally white politics of suburban reform. Once he was nominated, his principal strategy was to win back the white Democrats who had defected to Reagan. He appeared ill at ease not only in his dealings with Jesse Jackson but in his contacts with black voters and activists throughout the campaign. For a Democratic politician, to show uneasiness of this kind over dealing with blacks is like leaving a trail of blood in shark-infested waters. Dukakis’s vulnerability to Republican campaign propaganda with racial overtones, such as ads about the Massachusetts prison furlough program and the death penalty, was compounded by a double-edged Republican attack centering on Jesse Jackson. On the one hand, the Republicans used Dukakis’s ties to Jackson to weaken his white support; on the other, they quietly but effectively emphasized to blacks that Dukakis had failed to accord Jackson the full measure of respect due a black candidate who came in second in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The carefully managed GOP drive to turn Willie Horton into a symbol of Dukakis’s vulnerability on crime (and covertly on race), and to make issues of the American Civil Liberties Union, capital punishment for cop-killers, gun control, and the Pledge of Allegiance, was effective in painting Dukakis into an unacceptably “liberal” corner. When Dukakis showed himself unable to reply immediately and forcefully, the tide of the presidential contest shifted to Bush. The Republicans were able to use some of these issues to exploit racial attitudes among southern whites and key blocks of swing voters, such as ethnic and other lower-middle-class whites in industrial states. Other issues, such as gun control, are more neutral so far as race is concerned; but they, too, served the Republicans as “wedge” issues to split normally Democratic voters away from their party and to appeal to overlapping groups of white voters.
The strategic use by GOP campaign professionals of racially suggestive symbols to create “wedge” issues took the Democratic strategists by surprise. Before the beginning of last summer’s national campaign, there was some evidence that such images were losing their spontaneous appeal in American politics. Notwithstanding the success of Bush’s “negative” advertising, his campaign did not seem to broaden support for the conservative-Republican movement in American politics. In fact, many of the most racially divisive pressures in American society have to some degree become quieter over the past two decades. Two major sources of racial tension in the Sixties and Seventies—the rapidly expanding black ghettos and the use of the court-ordered busing plans—have become less significant. Black birth rates have declined from 153.5 per 1,000 women in 1960 to 81.4 per 1,000 women in 1984, and the courts have issued hardly any new orders for busing.
Moreover, whether in banks, chain stores, or on network television, increasingly larger numbers of blacks have found middle-class jobs in the white business world and there are now many black celebrities. At the same time those American whites who see crime largely as a matter of race, and want more punitive measures, have been getting their way and have had fewer reasons to make militant demands. The death penalty is back, and the Supreme Court has been moving generally, if modestly, to the right on issues of evidence and procedure in criminal cases. And while white conservatives used to see the women’s movement posing a threat similar to that of the civil rights movement, this too has changed. The entry of married women into the work force is seen by many families as necessary simply to maintain a middle-class standard of living.
The diminishing volatility of some of these issues helps to explain the failure of the Bush campaign to expand the numbers of Republican voters. When Bush’s coalition is compared to Reagan’s, we see that Bush matched Reagan’s vote in the South and did even better than Reagan among white evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. In the Midwest, and even more so in the Pacific West, however, there was a substantial decline in Republican support, just as there was a decline in votes among middle-class voters generally. The success of the Democrats in Senate and US House elections can be accounted for in part simply by the advantages that an incumbent congressman acquires over a potential challenger. But devastating evidence of Bush’s weakness as his party’s national leader emerges when we examine the results at the bottom part of the ticket. In the races for state legislative seats, the Democrats actually picked up 29 seats, in sharp contrast to the GOP gains of 220 seats in 1980 and of 377 seats in 1984.
These results suggest two conclusions: although Dukakis was particularly vulnerable to attacks that often had a covert racial message and that defined him as at odds with, or alien to, working- and middle-class values, the Democratic party as a whole no longer provides the easy target that it did from the late 1970s through the mid 1980s. In states as diverse as Alabama, Michigan, Louisiana, and Ohio, the Democratic party has shown—in the US Senate elections of 1986 and 1988—that it has the capacity to put together workable biracial coalitions. In the Mississippi Delta’s Second Congressional District, Representative Michael Espy, a black who barely won his seat in 1986, ran ahead of Dukakis among white voters to gain a second term with 64 percent of the total vote.
Still, the national Democratic party has no choice except to put together a biracial coalition, and it faces many difficulties in doing so. Surveys suggest that whites feel increasingly willing to accept as equals those blacks whom they perceive as having assimilated themselves to mainstream middle-class culture; segregationist views are no longer politically or socially acceptable in any state. At the same time, tolerance for those blacks whose behavior is perceived as violating broadly agreed-upon middle-class norms—those who are most dependent on federal programs—may well be declining.
Whites and blacks now have widely diverging views toward federal programs and policies intended to prevent racial discrimination. According to National Election Studies data, the programs that are most closely associated with the Democratic party—federal guarantees of equal opportunity, preferential hiring practices, the use of quotas and affirmative action in universities—are strongly supported by blacks and sharply opposed by whites. Finally, the continued presence of Jesse Jackson as a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination means white candidates are not likely to campaign heavily for black votes, but will concede such votes to Jackson. The Democratic primary winner in 1992 therefore will be likely to enter the general election, as Dukakis did, without the experience of trying to build a biracial constituency in the primaries. While not the dominant factor in national elections, race thus remains for the Democratic party a source of deep internal dissension. That race is not a divisive issue among Republicans remains a strong advantage for the GOP in holding national power.
CONTRIBUTORS TO THE SYMPOSIUM
JOAN DIDION is the author of Play It As It Lays, The White Album, Salvador, Democracy, and Miami.
THOMAS EDSALL is a political reporter for The Washington Post and the author of the recently published Power and Money.
BENJAMIN M. FRIEDMAN is Professor of Economics at Harvard University. His latest book is Day of Reckoning: The Consequences of American Economic Policy Under Reagan and After.
STANLEY HOFFMANN is the Douglas Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France and Chairman of the Center for European Studies at Harvard University. His books include Duties Beyond Borders, Janus and Minerva, and, with George Ross and Sylvia Malzacher The Mitterrand Experiment.
CHRISTOPHER JENCKS is Professor of Sociology and Urban Affairs at North-western University. His books include Who Gets Ahead? and Inequality.
CONOR CRUISE O’BRIEN is Visiting Professor in History at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Writers and Politics, To Katanga and Back, and The Siege.
KEVIN PHILLIPS is a political commentator whose books include The Emerging Republican Majority.
GARRY WILLS is Adjunct Professor of History at Northwestern University and the author of Reagan’s America.
C. VANN WOODWARD is Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University. He is the author of Origins of the New South, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, and Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History.
December 22, 1988
C. Vann Woodward, ed., Responses of the Presidents to Charges of Misconduct (Delacorte Press, 1974). Prepared for the House Committee on the Judiciary during its deliberations on the impeachment of Richard Nixon and written at the request of Special Counsel John Doar, this study did not include misconduct in the presidency then under investigation. ↩