RONNIE'S ROMP

THE RESTORATION OF AMERICA ?

Michael Posner November 17 1980

RONNIE'S ROMP

THE RESTORATION OF AMERICA ?

Michael Posner November 17 1980

RONNIE'S ROMP

THE RESTORATION OF AMERICA ?

Michael Posner

Very early, at 6:38 p.m. EST,two blue-collar precincts in Indianapolis re ported their verdict:

lopsided tallies in Ronald Reagan’s favor. At seven o’clock, CBS News awarded Reagan Indiana’s 13 electoral votes. At 7:02, NBC gave him Florida; one minute later, it added Mississippi. The trend was sharp, its meaning unmistakable; traditional Democrats were deserting in droves and Jimmy Carter’s southern base was disintegrating. At 8:15, even before polls had

even polls closed in most of the nation, NBC declared Reagan the winner. By a margin that disgraced pollsters and stunned political professionals, Ronald Wilson Reagan had become the republic’s 40th presidential nominee and “the trustee” —in Henry Kissinger’s memorable phrase—“of all our hopes.”

The election that pundits had tagged as too close to call turned into a cakewalk, a Republican landslide of epic proportions. Winning 51 per cent of the popular vote, Reagan captured a whopping 489 electoral votes; only six states and the District of Columbia went for Jimmy Carter, a resounding repudiation both of the man and his administration. With the exception of Minnesota (Vice-President Walter Mondale’s home state), Reagan took every electoral vote west of Georgia. In the industrial northeast, which most observers had predicted would determine the outcome, the Republican challenger evis-

cerated the president. Reagan won almost as many votes from union members as Carter did, tore irreparable holes in the president’s support among Jews, Catholics, blue-collar workers, white evangelicals and, surprisingly, women. Despite his opposition to the Piquai Rights Amendment and his hawkish reputation, more women voted for Reagan than for Carter.

The president was bruised, too, by John Anderson’s independent candidacy. In 15 states (152 electoral votes), the Anderson vote represented the margin of difference between Reagan and Carter. An ABC exit poll suggested that less than half of these voters would have gone with Carter if Andersen had not been in the race; but given the accuracy of polling in this campaign, this news could scarcely have offered much solace to the president. (Anderson himself won a disappointing seven per cent of the popular vote, enough only to claim

§ federal funds that will 3 ease the burden of his I campaign debt.)

Indeed, millions of > Americans must have 5 wondered just how the

polltakers and political analysts conspired to read this election so utterly wrong. Reagan’s final electoral advantage was 10 percentage points; the standard margin of polling error is three. Yet among professional pollsters, only Lou Harris dared to call a Reagan victory, and then only by five per cent. Pat Caddell, the president’s private pulsetaker, said his surveys showed Carter even with

Reagan, perhaps slightly ahead, as late as Saturday—three days before the vote. The Republican ground swell began Sunday, he said—the day Iran’s parliament laid down terms for release of the American hostages. The Carter camp thus cited the hostage issue as the catalyst of the swift erosion in their fortune in the final hours, but the explanation was unconvincing. As The Washington Post editorialized: “It is just silly to claim that this or that circumstance of the last 48 hours ‘tipped’ the result...

Nothing of that size and force and sweep could have been created over a weekend ... by the assorted mullahs and miseries of our time.”

★ ★

James Earl Carter is the first elected incumbent since Herbert Hoover to be heaved from the Oval Office, and one does not need to search far to find the reasons. Carter himself, in a morningafter analysis with reporters, suggested

a confluence of factors, the hostage issue among them. Certainly the 11thhour events in Iran—the tantalizing promise of the hostages’ returnworked against the president, tapping a deep well of anger and frustration. As much as the 52 Americans in Tehran, it was Jimmy Carter who had been held hostage by the ayatollah, and his failure to bring them home came to symbolize the larger decline of U.S. power abroad, a phenomenon millions of Americans found troubling.

Carter said the debate hurt him, too, and he was right. Although he addressed all the key constituencies and tried desperately to depict his opponent as a threat to peace, the voters were not

persuaded. Ronald Reagan did not snort fire from his nostrils. He was an avuncular old shoe who took all that abuse with precisely what the president seemed to lack—warmth and humor. It is entirely possible that Reagan won the presidency right then, convincing the uncommitted that he was not anxious to squeeze the nuclear trigger after all.

Throughout the campaign, Reagan also played brilliantly to Carter’s most vulnerable issue—the economy. Although the recession shows signs of nearing an end, unemployment figures remain high and inflation is running at

12.7 per cent, almost eight points higher than when Carter assumed office. Repeatedly, Reagan told his audiences to ask themselves if they were better off now than they were four years ago; repeatedly, they answered no.

Yet any assessment of Jimmy Carter’s failures must finally grapple with the enigma of the man himself. His was the ambiguous presidency—a southern Democrat who behaved like a northern Republican; a decent, religious man with a deep skein of petty vindictiveness; a master of detail and complexity unable to frame the larger picture. He pushed himself ruthlessly, but could not inspire others. He was the eternal outsider in what may be the most insular city in the world. Beyond his commitments to energy conservation and the Camp David accords, he seemed to offer no policy, no vision: he reacted to events, but seldom shaped them. One could speak of a Kennedy Democrat and know instantly the platform represented. But a Carter Democrat? There was no such animal.

Some 43 million Americans cast ballots for Ronald Reagan, however, and not all of them were voting against Jimmy Carter. In Reagan they found something the president neglected to provide: a vision of the future. It was a vision so firmly rooted in the verities of the past that it may be impossible to deliver, but at least Reagan offered a sense of direction. As conservative columnist George Will noted: “Reagan rejects, viscerally, the notion that the trajectory of American history has passed its apogee.” Some weeks before the election, the president’s press secretary, Jody Powell, was asked to describe what a Carter second term would look like. Powell said he thought it would look pretty much like the first one. Americans decided that was not good enough.

Perhaps the sprawling coalitions that fuelled Ronald Reagan’s political as-

cent—that loose amalgam of gun lobbyists, right-to-lifers, big business, exmilitary officers and the new puritans of the moral majority—will prove as fractious in government as the now crumbling Democratic alliances often did. Vying for power, these elements will test Reagan’s leadership early and often. But in the realm of ideas, Republicans are now perceived as the agents of social change, the party of intellectual ferment. “The Democratic party has within it an important social movement,” Harvard professor of government James C. Wilson wrote recently. “The Republican party is such a movement.”

Of course, the American electorate is a peculiarly volatile species. It swept Lyndon Johnson into office on a Democratic tidal wave in 1964, and four years later summarily dumped his erstwhile successor, Hubert Humphrey. In 1972, it gave Republican Richard Nixon the largest electoral majority in history; four years later, Jimmy Carter claimed the Oval Office. “We’ve been shifting around pretty good,” says Curtis Gans, director of the committee for the study of the American electorate. “The underlying thing this says to me is that there

is no present national consensus that works politically.” But is it even possible to forge that consensus, given the strength and diversity of the specialinterest groups? Says Gans: “If it ain’t possible, then the American experiment is in deep trouble.” Gans and other observers believe a dose of narcotic conservatism may be exactly the tonic America needs. They expect Reagan to administer a low-key, corporate presidency in which he will play chairman of the board, delegating much of the work load Jimmy Carter coveted through a clearly defined chain of command. In fact, a Reagan administration will probably be structured to resemble the Canadian cabinet, its members offering a range of opinion and advice for the president to choose from. Says Glenn Davis, vice-president of Public Affairs Analysts: “Reagan’s a broad brush art-

ist, not a mechanic.” The Reagan White House will differ markedly in style, too. He will travel less than Carter but entertain more at home. Where Carter jogged, Reagan will nap. It will be goodbye to grits and Willie Nelson: hello to fruit salads and Tony Orlando.

There will be few novel names among Reagan’s cabinet selections. George Schultz, 59, steward of three portfolios under Richard Nixon, is expected to get the nod as secretary of state. Another Nixonite, Caspar Weinberger, is being touted for the OMB (office of management and budget), William French Smith, Reagan’s longtime friend and lawyer, is considering the post of attorney-general. Former NATO commander Alexander Haig is among the front-

runners for secretary of defence. Anne Armstrong, the former ambassador to England, may go to the United Nations, or possibly to the commerce secretariat. Controversy continues to surround the possible role of Henry Kissinger; the former secretary of state was drawn increasingly toward the Reagan orbit during the campaign, touching off speculation that he might be offered the same post again. Such a move is unlikely. Kissinger is still distrusted by the Republican right, and the new president is not about to alienate their support. A better guess is that Kissinger will be named a roving ambassador, perhaps with responsibilities for the Middle East.

Outside the cabinet, there is also a strong suggestion that CIA Director Stansfield Turner will step down before the new administration is sworn in, to

be replaced by Theodore Shackley, 52, former head of Far Eastern intelligence. In fact, Reagan plans to implement the major realignment of the nation’s intelligence services begun by Gerald Ford, with New York lawyer and Reagan confidante William J. Casey in control.

By inauguration day (Jan. 20), the entire team will be in place, armed with a score of legislative and executive initiatives. Reagan has already declared his intention to freeze federal hiring, allowing normal attrition to help trim government costs. Efforts to dispel the miasma of government regulations, especially those impinging on business, are also expected in the first 60 days. Longer term, the administration will be hard pressed to deliver a balanced budget, lower taxes and bring inflation under control. In all, this is the political

equivalent of the three-minute mile. The economy has an impetus of its own, largely inflationary; a 10-per-cent income tax cut is not likely to brake it. The defence budget is a record $154 billion in this fiscal year and will soar higher as the nation strives to gain military superiority over the Soviet Union. New wage settlements in major industries and the unrelenting spiral of OPEC oil prices will do nothing to make Reagan’s task easier. The hard truth, as Jimmy Carter learned too well, is that a president’s leverage is not what it used to be. It is not only the president’s authority which has been diminished; it is America’s. The global militarism of the Soviet Union, the rise of the Third World, the growing nature of Europe and Japan in economic spheres—power balances have shifted radically since the Second World War and it may not be possible to arrest the decline of the republic.

It seems likely, however, that the U.S. is embarking upon a more nationalistic sea, and its course may have significant consequences for Canada. While no major policy changes are expected, officials believe the agenda of various bilateral issues will receive more careful scrutiny. On trade talks specifically, the U.S. will adopt a tougher posture, and a Reagan administration will press its case vigorously in favor of easing U.S. investment across the border. The much-heralded North American accord is simply being discarded quietly as an idea whose time has not yet come.

For now, Washington is reeling from the staggering dimensions of Reagan’s victory. Plainly, he has fooled them all again. Just as he did in 1966, when he grabbed the California governorship from Edmund Brown by a million votes; just as he did through the interminable primaries. Ronald Reagan has always been vastly underestimated.

The Democrats were positively jubilant when Reagan won the GOP nomination. Because Jimmy Carter could never afford to run on his record, the Georgians determined to make Reagan the issue. They would exploit his age, his inexperience, his penchant for making statements that were warlike or silly or just wrong. For all Ronald Reagan knew, Giscard d’Estaing was a French mustard. He seemed so vulnerable.

The weakness was illusory. On the night of his triumph, with the end of his long, arduous odyssey for the presidency in sight, Ronald Reagan—at 69, the oldest president-elect in American history—sat in a Los Angeles hotel room, talking by phone to the folks in his home town of Dixon, 111. His eyes were laughing, and he looked for all the world like a man who could not quite believe his dumb luck. It was, of course, nothing of the kind.