Archive for November, 2010

30th Anniversary of the 1980 Election Roundtable–An Introduction

Society for Historians of Foreign Relations, November 29th, 2010

SHAFR.org is delighted to present its last roundtable of the year.  Thirty years ago this month the United States witnessed one of the most important elections in recent history when Ronald Reagan captured the presidency and ushered in a new era of national politics.  In our roundtable, three prominent historians of this era discuss different but overlapping ways for understanding the wide-ranging significance of this election.  Professors Andrew Busch of Claremont McKenna College, Chester Pach of Ohio University, and Gil Troy of McGill University challenge us to re-examine different facets of Ronald Reagan, the election that brought him to power, and the impact that his presidency had on American foreign policy.

Professor Gregory Domber of the University of North Florida rounds out the discussion by offering an essay on the challenges of teaching Ronald Reagan’s foreign policies to today’s students.

Our members are encouraged to participate in this conversation by commenting on these essays.  Passport has agreed to publish these essays and the best comments on them in its next issue.

Reagan and American Mood

By Gil Troy, Society for Historians of Foreign Relations, November 29th, 2010

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.


Read Full Post »

Canada.com, 11-5-10

….Gil Troy, an American who teaches U.S. political history at McGill University in Montreal, cautions that however passionate Canada’s Tea Party wannabes might be, their ideals are unlikely to ignite the same fires in this country as in the U.S.

For one thing, Canada’s economy is in far better shape. Troy says the wreckage in the U.S. — high unemployment, shuttered factories, foreclosed homes — is the real reason behind the Tea Party’s success this year.

“Their victories are the result of economic distress, and the fear that there’s something seriously wrong with the country,” says Troy. “If we take out the recession, if we take out the sense that there’s serious dysfunction going on, would there be the same kind of phenomenon? I don’t think so.”…

Troy says not only is that divide less acute in Canada, but that political discourse here remains far more civil. Canadian debate has not yet been hijacked by what he calls the “toxic media culture and the toxic blogosphere” that feed the Tea Party’s populist anger.

Read Full Post »

By Gil Troy, HNN, 11-4-10

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. He is the author of “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents” (Basic Books, 2008). His latest book, co-edited with Vincent J. Cannato, is “Living in the Eighties” (Oxford University Press, 2009).

The American voters gave President Barack Obama a good, old-fashioned political whupping on Tuesday.  It was a stunning political reversal as Mr. Yes We Can became Mr. Why Can’t They Understand and Appreciate Me? President Barack Obama must learn his lesson from this political drubbing.  To redeem his presidency, he must do what he originally promised to do, lead from the center—humbly and substantively.

The rise of the Tea Party, the loss of many moderate Democrats in swing districts, and the reelections of many leading liberals, led some politicos to conclude that Americans do not want centrist leadership.  This conclusion reinforces the Fox News-MSNBC view of the world as divided between good people – those who agree with me— and bad partisans—everybody else.  Instead, the results reflect American structural anomalies, where moderates come from divided districts and extremists come from strongly partisan districts.  During electoral tidal waves, the crucial swing voters veer left or right, wiping out moderates as extremists survive.

Yet with the end of the 2010 midterms marking the start of the 2012 presidential campaign, Barack Obama should worry that independent voters abandoned him en masse.  It is now clear that Obama erred by fighting for health care reform before lowering the unemployment rate.  And it is now clear that having the health care reform pass by such a partisan, polarizing vote, undermined Obama’s entire presidential leadership project.  The twentieth century’s two greatest pieces of social legislation—the 1935 Social Security Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act—passed, after hard fights, with bipartisan support.  That the twenty-first-century’s first great piece of social legislation passed without Republican support reflects Obama’s broader leadership failure.

Obama 2.0. must resurrect one of the most powerful messages—and successful tactics—which propelled his meteoric rise to the presidency, his lyrical centrism.  Barack Obama did not just promise “hope and change,” he promised a new kind of politics.  In Audacity of Hope, Obama positioned himself as a post-partisan centrist who would resist Washington’s ways.  Central to his appeal was his lyrical, multicultural nationalism, exemplified by his eloquent denunciation of the red-state-blue-state paradigm in his extraordinary keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention.  Americans did not just hire Obama to be president, they hired him to be that kind of a president, one who would reach out across the aisle, who would sing a song of national unity and purpose that was substantive, pragmatic, results-oriented, not just lofty and lovely.

Unfortunately, as president, Obama has stilled his own voice, and failed to reconcile with Republicans.  True, Republicans share responsibility for being truculent and obstructionist.  But true centrism requires finding that golden path, that middle ground.  Instead of delegating the highly partisan congress to craft the health care reform, instead of negotiating so desperately to forge his Democratic coalition, Obama needed to deliver bipartisan support for such a monumental shift in America’s status quo.  The Social Security and Civil Rights bills quickly became part of the national consensus, thanks to the consensus-building presidential leadership which ensured bipartisan passage.  By contrast, abortion has festered as an issue for decades because the Supreme Court legalized women’s right to choose, circumventing any kind of populist, consensus-building, democratic process.

Having demonstrated great potential as a cultural leader in 2008, Obama should spearhead a fight against the gong-show-governance emanating from cable TV coverage of American politics.  Watching MSNBC on Election Night, watching Keith Olbermann and company shout away at Congressman Eric Cantor—who enjoyed giving back as good as he got—I was struck by the cable echo chamber’s violent distortions.  Politicians who spend their time appearing on these shows forget that only a small percentage of Americans are watching.  The pols begin to think that everyone wants to play politics as a blood sport.  Politicians should simply stop appearing on these shows until they foster civility.

What a shame that we needed the comedian Jon Stewart to confront the Crossfire crowd in 2004.  No politician had the guts to reject the format that fostered fighting, that rewarded unreason.  Franklin Roosevelt called the presidency pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.  Obama should take the lead with substantive moves to cut down the culture of confrontation.

Obama also has to avoid presidential preening.  Blaming his losses on miscommunication not substantive policy differences will lead him and his staff to focus on how things appear rather than what they should be.  The elder statesman Dean Acheson once dismissed Richard Nixon by comparing him to a shortstop so concerned about how he looks when fielding, he misses the ball.  Obama has always struggled with a grandiose and highly self-conscious side.  Fighting for his political future, he needs to focus on substance, cultivating the big-tent governance he promised the American people.

In the 1950s, Joseph Stalin dismissed Mao Zedong as a margarine communist.  It was a delicious phrase, capturing the gruff former farm boy’s disgust for a product that looked like butter, but wasn’t.  So far, Obama has been a margarine moderate, making superficial gestures toward dialogue and compromise, then sticking to one side of the aisle.

Obama still has the time and the national good will to recover.  Most Republican campaign commercials targeted Nancy Pelosi, or Harry Reid, or big government, not the president.  This nuance reflected Obama’s personal popularity, despite his 55 percent negative job approval rating.  Moreover, the economy could still revive, unemployment could fall, the Republicans could self-destruct by misreading this election as an invitation to showcase their extremists.

Political greatness, in fact personal greatness, does not come from winning all the time, but from knowing how to turn devastating defeats into incredible opportunities.  The true test of Barack Obama the man and the president has begun.

Read Full Post »