Presidential Aspirations: 1976–1980
Shortly after retiring from politics in California, Ronald Reagan decided to run for President of the United States. He had expressed interests in the job in private letters to members of his family, but had never actively pursued it until the mid 1970s. By 1974, Reagan had both fame and political experience.
In order to run for President in 1976, however, Reagan had to campaign in the primary elections against incumbent President Gerald Ford. Running against an incumbent–let alone a current president–is an extremely difficult task, but Reagan was up to the challenge. He announced Senator Richard Schweiker, a liberal Republican from Pennsylvania, to be his running mate, and then set out on the campaign trail.
Reagan's primary campaign strategy revolved around attacking President Ford. He strongly disagreed with Presidents Nixon and Ford's policies of Detente with the Soviet Union, and consequently opposed the SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) agreement that Nixon and Ford had made with the USSR to curb nuclear armament. Also contrary to Nixon's and Ford's policies, Reagan wanted to cool relations with communist China and support the struggling Chinese nationalists in Taiwan. Furthermore, he disagreed with President Ford's pardon to those who had dodged the drafts during the Vietnam War. Finally, Reagan blamed Ford for the budget deficit, and referred to him as a poor leader.
Above all else, Reagan criticized the federal government and politicians for being too large, too powerful, and too involved in American society. He disliked most social welfare programs and believed the state governments should be solely responsible for education, welfare, food stamps, Medicare, and development projects. He claimed that if the government in Washington could transfer these programs entirely to the states, it could save over $90 billion, substantially cut federal income taxes, and balance the budget.
Reagan's campaign was surprisingly successful, but not successful enough to win the Republican primaries. He lost to Ford, 1,070 votes to Ford's 1,187. Yet, his loss proved to be a mixed blessing; when Ford lost the 1976 election to Democrat Jimmy Carter, Reagan immediately became the favored possible Republican nominee for the 1980 presidential election. The former actor retired to his ranch in California, continued to make dozens of political speeches throughout the country, and let his popularity grow during the next four years.
As a result, when 1980 rolled around, Reagan was ready to run for the presidency again. His campaign included many of the same issues. He attacked President Carter for working too closely with the Soviets in the USSR. He disliked the SALT II talks, and also disagreed with Carter's grain embargo on the USSR in retaliation for the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Reagan believed that the embargo did little to affect the Soviets and only hurt American grain farmers.
Reagan feared that the US was losing the Cold War with the USSR because the American military was much less prepared for war than the Soviet army. He coined the phrase "window of vulnerability" that referred to the imminent moment when the USSR would be able to launch its nuclear arsenal to destroy all of America's nuclear defense missiles in a matter of thirty minutes. To prevent this, Reagan proposed stronger defense systems and a larger military. The Central Intelligence Agency reported at the time that no such "window" existed, but the idea of such a horrific loss worked effectively for Reagan's campaign. Reagan's domestic policies hinged on massive reductions in government spending and a transfer of power to the states. He also latched on to economist Arthur Laffer's new theory of supply-side economics. Laffer essentially claimed that drastic cuts in the tax rates would stimulate the economy.
Before he could directly challenge Carter for the presidency, though, Reagan once again had to face another strong contender in the Republican primaries: the wealthy and highly esteemed George Bush. Bush had served his country with distinction as a one-time Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, ambassador to People's Republic of China and the United Nations, and former chairman of the National Republican Committee. A liberal Republican, Bush referred to Reagan's economic policies as "voodoo economics", essentially saying that they merely looked good on paper but would never work in reality. When Bush won a surprising victory in the Iowa State primary elections, Reagan invited Bush to a debate before running against each other in the all-important New Hampshire primary. Reagan even paid for Bush's expenses to make the trip, in order to make sure Bush agreed to the one-on-one debate with Reagan. When Bush arrived in New Hampshire, however, he discovered that Reagan had invited many of the other primary candidates as well. Unprepared to debate them and politically outwitted by Reagan, Bush appeared naïve and foolish, and ultimately lost the New Hampshire primary as well as the Republican Party's nomination for President.
After winning the party's nomination, Reagan then set out to choose his vice presidential running mate. Ironically, Reagan sought former president Gerald Ford to fill the position, even though he had once strongly disagreed with many of Ford's policies. Many of Reagan's political strategists believed that having a former president on the Republican ticket would ensure Reagan's victory. Reagan soon realized that this combination would be doomed to failure; Ford insisted on having a strong hand in the administration's foreign policy, so strong that Reagan and Ford would actually serve more as co-presidents rather than as president and vice president. He broke off talks with Ford and immediately–even before informing Ford–offered the vice presidential position to the next most powerful Republican: his opponent George Bush. After patching up their personal and political differences, Bush readily agreed.
The actual campaign against President Carter was particularly messy. Both candidates made major political mistakes and both used nasty campaign tactics against each other. Reagan's speeches were often filled with errors and self- reprising remarks. He once claimed that trees produced smog, for example, and affirmed that creationism should be taught in schools. Carter attacked Reagan as a war hawk who wanted nothing but war with the Soviet Union. He also referred to Reagan as an ideological extremist who was too conservative for the nation's good. The press hounded Carter for these remarks, prompting Reagan to casually comment on the President's lack of manners. Reagan tried to loosely associate Carter with the Ku Klux Klan and falsely accused him of trying to promote religion in the public school system (despite the fact that Reagan himself had already done this).
The most pressing current-affairs issue during the 1980 campaign was the Iran hostage crisis. The ruler of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, had sponsored the hijacking of an American plane in late 1979 and was holding fifty- two Americans hostage in Iran. Carter had worked hard to release the Americans, but his attempts proved unsuccessful. Even the covert military operation he authorized failed. Americans at home in the US grew tired of Carter's inability to free the hostages, and Reagan's popularity grew as a result of this frustration.
In the end, Reagan and Bush defeated Carter and a third party candidate, John Anderson (who played a very minor role in the campaign). Reagan received 489 electoral votes and roughly forty-four million popular votes to Carter's forty- nine electoral and thirty-five million popular. As soon as Reagan took office in January 1981, the Ayatollah released the hostages after keeping them in captivity for 444 days.
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