Head2Head: The Reagan-Bush Years

Los Alamos Daily Post


Okay, I fibbed about finishing up with history this time. I’m writing extra columns this month to get past that log-jam. A lot happened in the 1980s, once I started thinking about it.

The Nixon’s fall in the wake of Watergate led to disillusionment with politics and Washington on all sides.

A mild-mannered former Democratic governor of Georgia seemed like the antidote. His inexperience with national politics and his ongoing fight with the left wing of his party hindered him but double-digit inflation, double-digit unemployment and gas lines brought him down.

Following the Carter presidency came the Reagan years. Reagan won 51 percent of the vote and carried all but five states and the District of Columbia.

Reaganomics, also known as trickle down economic policies brought tax relief but arguably also brought on a major recession in 1982 and a stock market crisis in 1987.

Reagan’s policies created record budget deficits: In his eight years in office, the federal government accumulated more debt than it had in its entire history, thereby setting aside the idea that Republicans oppose deficits.

A military buildup also was very costly, though many would argue necessary. 

Reagan’s popularity was a phenomenon. A large number of Americans felt they had at last found someone who spoke for them.

Reagan began the tradition of seeing government as a problem rather than a solution and pressed for deregulation. He was notoriously unconcerned about the problems of the poor and urban dwellers.

Two examples: a fictitious “welfare queen” entered Regan’s rhetoric, convincing his supporters that the poor were milking the system. Also, Reagan torpedoed a major mental health initiative then said that the homeless were homeless by choice.

Reagan also continued to build on Nixon’s silent majority of “real Americans” rhetoric. Both George H.W. and George W. Bush would advance this idea some more.

The intermingling of racism and “anti-crime” pitches, such as the famous Willie Horton ad that H.W. used to topple the Democratic presidential candidate is one of the most famous examples.

Although H.W. Bush had some notable domestic achievements, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, he focused much of his attention on foreign affairs. Bush was never a favorite of the right wing of his party. His patrician background and willingness to compromise with Democrats were derided on the right. He further alienated the right wing of the Republican Party in a variety of ways, including breaking his promise not to raise taxes and cutting military spending.

Bush represented the elite of the country, a president who did not need to sell out for money, with an Ivy League background and patrician ancestors who embraced the idea of service.

One wing of the Republican Party was pleased with an agenda set by privileged WASPs, but in the background, talk-radio figures like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh were creating a different, populist-based movement from the right. Limbaugh also was the first great promulgator of the Mainstream Media’s Liberal Bias idea.

There was truth in this idea, but it also was a mechanism by which any criticism or refutation of conservative ideas could be dismissed as biased. Ideas appealing to a white, largely working-class audience spread within the party.

Newt Gingrich is the pivotal figure in the rise of a new right. As early as 1978, Gingrich had a plan. Republicans would never be able to take back the House as long as they kept compromising with the Democrats out of some high-minded civic desire to keep congressional business humming along.

His strategy was to blow up the bipartisan coalitions that were essential to legislating, and then seize on the resulting dysfunction to wage a populist crusade against the institution of Congress itself. Sound familiar?

As his profile grew, Gingrich took aim at the moderates in his own party—calling Bob Dole the “tax collector for the welfare state”—and baited Democratic leaders. One memo included a list of recommended words to use in describing Democrats: sick, pathetic, lie, anti-flag, traitors, radical, corrupt.

Whether or not you feel this was necessary or even true, it’s undeniable that it was effective and would come to be embraced by the Republican Party as a whole as an organizing strategy.

Republicans won every presidential election from 1968 through 1988, the sole exception being Jimmy Carter’s victory, propelled by the overhang of the Watergate scandal.

To beat H.W. Bush in 1992, Bill Clinton needed to build a party that could continue to represent African-Americans, while also winning enough white voters to assemble a majority.

That was the message sent by Clinton’s embrace of welfare reform and a crime law. He also was able to deliver to African-Americans in a way that made him remain popular with that constituency.

Bush was weakened by attacks from the right and the dissatisfaction of all political stripes with the status quo.

Next week, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush take the stage, along with Barrack Obama. I’m focusing on presidents in order to give some shape to a big narrative. If you think I was too hard on the Republicans, take heart. Next time I beat up on the Democrats as they take power.