- 1980 and Reagan’s Victory
What was the meaning of the 1980 election? Did it herald a conservative electoral realignment, or was it mainly a rejection of Jimmy Carter's leadership? These are questions that, if they have not yet exactly vexed historians (1980 was, after all, not that long ago and it is difficult to separate this election from partisanship), still are at the forefront of study. Andrew Busch attempted to write a fairly definitive, objective examination of this important election. He largely succeeds.
Americans paid little attention to the coming election until late 1979 (which now seems absurdly tardy, judging by the early-starting campaigns of the post–2000 era). But as Busch argues, in any case many long-term trends already in place would benefit the Republicans. By then, the New Deal Democratic voting coalition was coming apart. Rural, working-class, and especially Southern Democrats were leaving, alienated by what they saw as the excesses of the Great Society. Signs of this were evident in 1976, when Jimmy Carter narrowly squeaked out a victory over Gerald Ford that, given the environment (Watergate, a stagnating economy) should have been a Democratic landslide. Nor had the Carter Administration and the leadership, or lack of same, shown by its chief executive helped matters. It appeared to lack an overriding theme, its most important legislative goals bogged down in endless disputes with its Democratic allies in Congress, the president himself too mired in details and buffeted by events to untangle things. Others feared a social crisis existed in the country as well, with rates of crime, drug usage, and illegitimacy rising. In 1979 the economy tanked, with inflation, interest rates, and unemployment roaring out of control. Jimmy Carter and the Democrats were ripe for defeat.
Meanwhile, the conservative movement within the Republican Party was poised to take advantage of Carter's misfortunes. Conservatism in America had by 1980 been growing for over three decades, spurred on by libertarians such as Friedrich von Hayek, anti-communists like James Burnham, traditionalists such as Russell Kirk, and a growing conservative evangelical religious [End Page 440] movement. Fusing this together were entities such as William F. Buckley Jr. and National Review magazine. After the debacle of Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat in 1964, the movement found a more genial, and importantly a more effective, political leader in Ronald Reagan. There were many signs of the rise of the right, from the 1978 triumph in California of the tax-slashing Proposition 13, to the fact that polls showed that 65 percent of Americans believed that government regulation had gone too far.
So it was no surprise that when the 1980 presidential campaign began, it quickly grew in intensity. Among the Democrats, it became clear that President Carter would face a challenger. Busch argues that this occurred partly because Carter alienated many of the party's liberal constituencies by his failure to push major new liberal initiatives through Congress, and because of his fiscal conservatism. Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts meanwhile had long nursed an ambition to run for the presidency, he possessed the Kennedy name and mystique, and there were many liberal Democrats urging him to run. By the fall of 1979, Kennedy announced formally that he would do so. Meanwhile, the Republican Party already had a raft of men who had announced they would seek their party's nomination. Republican candidates included, among others, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, John Connally, Howard Baker, Bob Dole, Philip Crane, and John Anderson. Most observers saw Reagan as the early front-runner, but his age and staunch conservatism led many to doubt that his front-runner status would last.
In the Democratic primary race, President Carter surprisingly took an early lead. But as Busch notes, this was not mainly Carter's doing; rather, he benefited from events. On November 4, 1979, Iranian "students" took fifty Americans hostage in Tehran. One can of course debate why this...