hirty-five years after Ronald Reagan was elected president, I’m most struck by the fact that what turned out to be his decisive victory over President Jimmy Carter looked, until just before Election Day, like a cliffhanger. The “inflection point,” as everyone says today but no one did then, was the single presidential debate between them, held seven days prior to the voting. Had Reagan not won that forensic contest, the Cold War and stagflation might still be our chief afflictions.
With two weeks to go in the campaign, Reagan held a narrow lead over Carter in the public opinion polls. He and his top advisers were concerned, however, about an issue over which they had no control—the 53 American hostages in Iran. How would American voters react if the hostages were freed at the eleventh hour? Would they be caught up in the euphoria of the moment and reelect the incumbent, or dismiss the release as a calculated political move and elect the challenger who promised to get the economy going again? Unwilling to sit on a slim lead, Reagan agreed to the one-on-one nationally televised debate Carter had been demanding. (Reagan, that is, dropped his previous insistence that third-party candidate John Anderson, an Illinois congressman, be onstage with the two major party nominees, as Ross Perot would be in 1992 and 1996.) Some advisors were nervous—suppose he lost?—but Reagan was confident he could best the president.
The candidates met in Cleveland before an enormous television audience, estimated at 105 million. (The number of ballots cast the following week was under 86 million.) Carter immediately went on the attack, constantly describing Reagan and his ideas as “dangerous,” “disturbing,” and “radical.” Like a professor gently pointing out the errors of an overzealous student, Reagan coolly and patiently explained where Carter had misquoted or misrepresented him. The climax came when Carter charged that Reagan wanted to make Social Security voluntary and opposed Medicare. A crooked grin appeared on Reagan’s face and with a rueful shake of his head, he looked at Carter and said, “There you go again.” The Carter campaign’s central argument—Ronald Reagan was too old, too extreme, too dangerous to be president—collapsed in an instant.
Reagan won by a landslide, carrying 44 states. His coattails helped the GOP pick up eight Senate seats, giving it majority control for the first time in a quarter century since 1955. In the aftermath, the Washington Post observed, “Nothing of that size and force and sweep could have been created over a weekend or even a week or two by the assorted mullahs and miseries of our times.”
The question was what would the president-elect do with his landslide? How would he handle a Congress divided into a Republican Senate and a Democratic House led by the veteran liberal Speaker Tip O’Neill? During the campaign, Reagan had declared that government had grown too big and ought to be reduced, while America’s military had grown too weak and ought to be strengthened. He promised the American people peace and prosperity. Could he deliver?
By way of answering, consider a counterfactual. Suppose Jimmy Carter had won the debate, that his last-minute efforts to secure the release of the American hostages had been successful, and that the economy showed encouraging signs of life. Carter could have narrowly won reelection. If so, containment rather than liberation would have guided U.S. foreign policy. There would have been tax increases rather than tax cuts. The American people would have continued to be depressed rather than hopeful about the future, mired in malaise. And there would have been no Republican Senate to challenge and block Carter’s policies at home and abroad.
That’s how important the one presidential debate, how consequential four little words—“There you go again”—proved to be. Reagan’s victory marked a new conservative turn in the management of our government, setting in motion forces that would, before the decade was out, end the 20th century’s longest war—the Cold War.
First on the Reagan agenda was economic reform. It took fireside chats with the people, deals with moderate “boll-weevil” Democrats in the House, pep talks with exhausted White House aides, and recovery from an attempted assassination, but on August 17, 1981, President Reagan signed the Economic Recovery Tax Act (ERTA) into law. The measure cut all personal income tax rates by 25 percent over three years. It reduced the top rate from 70 percent to 50 percent, indexed tax rates to offset the impact of inflation, and increased the tax exemption on estates and gifts. Starting in late 1982, U.S. economic growth over the next 92 months (through 1990) was, up to that time, the longest uninterrupted economic expansion in peacetime. Some 17 million new jobs were created between 1981 and 1989. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was 135% higher on Reagan’s last day in office than on his first.
If one examines the economic report cards of postwar presidents from Truman through Reagan, Reagan finishes first. Using the change each year in inflation, unemployment, interest rates, and GDP growth, Harvard economist Robert Barro ranked Reagan number one. Economist Richard B. McKenzie concluded that the 1980s were, up to then, “the most prosperous decade in American history” in peacetime. Even liberal historian Robert Dallek, critical of Reagan in other areas, accords his economic policies “significant credit” for the “buoyant American economy of the 1980s and 1990s.”
Next came the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Since the mid-1940s, the United States and its allies had sought to contain communism around the world with a series of diplomatic, military, and economic initiatives, which cost tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. For the new president, containment was not working fast or certainly enough. In 1977 Reagan told his future national security adviser, Richard B. Allen, that he had a simple strategy about the Cold War: “We win and they lose.” Winning meant going on the offensive everywhere. In his first press conference, President Reagan denounced the Soviet leadership as still dedicated to “world revolution and a one-world Socialist-Communist state.”
He directed his national security team to develop a plan to win the Cold War, resulting in a series of National Security Decision Directives that approved (1) the “neutralization” of Soviet control over Eastern Europe, (2) the disruption of the Soviet economy by attacking a triad of critical resources—financial credits, high technology, and natural gas; and (3) a policy of fundamentally changing the Soviet system through “the use of external pressure.” One such pressure, and perhaps the most important, was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which, according to a leading Soviet scientist, put the Soviet military “in a state of fear and shock.” The head of the Soviet department of strategic analysis later revealed that he had told the Politburo: “Not only could we not defeat SDI, SDI defeated all our possible countermeasures.”
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed, and although he tried repeatedly at each of their summits, he could not induce Reagan to abandon SDI. In the end, he conceded that the Soviet Union could not win an arms race with the United States and agreed to end the Cold War at the bargaining table and not on the battlefield. Along with U.S. military rearmament, SDI, and resistance to Soviet expansion in the Third World, “Reagan did more than anyone else to delegitimate and demoralize the Soviet Union,” argues Russian analyst Leon Aron, such as saying confidently to the British parliament in 1982 that Marxism-Leninism was headed “for the ash heap of history.” Barely six years after becoming general secretary, Gorbachev had no other choice other than acceding to the dissolution of the USSR and the burial of Soviet communism.
As to the American people’s confidence in the future, it doubled during the Reagan years, rising from 26 percent in January 1981 to 49 percent in January 1989. The man in the White House during this resurgence in public satisfaction was Ronald Reagan, who according to Gallup left office with a public approval rating of 63 percent, the highest of any retiring president to that point. The New York Times/CBS poll gave Reagan a score of 68 percent—71 percent supported his handling of foreign relations. When Gallup asked the public in 2003 who was the greatest U.S. president, Reagan placed third behind only John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. Thirty-five years after his 1980 victory, public polls continue to place Reagan among the five greatest presidents.
In his farewell address, President Reagan referred to America as the “shining city on a hill,” a phrase he borrowed from the Pilgrim leader John Winthrop and modified, adding the word “shining.” The reference to the first city on a hill, Jerusalem, was clear to Winthrop and his followers and to Reagan and his audience as well.
The president asked the millions watching him that January evening:
And how stands the city on this winter night? … after two hundred years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite edge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet, for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.
The president reassured the men and women of the “Reagan revolution” that they had made a difference—they had made the city stronger and freer and had left her in good hands. “All in all,” he said, with just the suggestion of a twinkle in his eye, “not bad, not bad at all.”
And then, having survived an assassin’s bullet, an early recession, the slings and arrows of outraged liberals about his tax cuts, the alarums of nervous conservatives about his summits with Gorbachev, and the Iran-contra affair, having done his duty and served his country as few presidents have, Ronald Reagan went home.