|Critical Debate||Making America Great Again||The New President's Inaugural Parade|
1980: Getting Government Off Our Backs
The 1980 campaign was not a contest between two
overwhelming Party favorites. President Jimmy
Carter was facing trouble at home and abroad. The country was in the
midst of an economic recession under the Carter administration. Each day
voters turned on there television sets to find news stories of the American
hostages in Iran. Carter had gained favor with the public in several
foreign policy accomplishments, but these two major issues had severely cut into
his approval ratings. Ronald Reagan
had a nagging issue of his own. He could not seem to gain the confidence
of the growing anti-Carter movement. One poll asked which candidate voters
were "personally interested in or excited about." Eleven percent
chose Reagan. Carter received only nine percent.
Carter's numbers were so low that he had to fend off a serious challenge from within his own party. Ted Kennedy had gained support earlier in the process, but refused to take on a sitting President. On Labor Day of 1979, he finally acknowledged Carter's weakness and entered the race. A seemingly confident President responded to the entry with, "I'll whip his ass," when hearing of the new contender. To Carter's benefit, Kennedy self-destructed and the media played a huge role. Roger Mudd interview Kennedy for CBS. The Senator from Massachusetts was not on top of his game. He rambled while answering questions about the Chappaquiddick car accident. Most notably, he did not give a coherent answer when asked, "Why do you want to become president?" After the interview, Kennedy slowly faded away. The Senator continued to fight for the nomination all the way to the convention, but Carter won a first ballot confirmation. The press had hurt the President with images of long lines at the gas pump, job loss, and hostages, but now they had disposed of his would-be challenger.
Ronald Reagan also had to work hard for his party’s nomination. With Carter's obvious weakness, a large Republican field turned out for the competition. Reagan did have a definite advantage. He had been traveling the country for three years building networks, raising money, repeating one simple message: "Get the government off our backs." After a setback in the Iowa Caucus, Reagan went on to win the New Hampshire Primary and roll to the Republican Convention. With the party's pick established, press coverage turned to the selection of a Vice-President. The media's style of reporting on this developing story weighed heavily on the eventual choice.
Republican's felt that a Reagan-Ford ticket would be unstoppable. The former President was interested in the position, but the media's story line made for a difficult decision. The press portrayed the possible team as equals and that Ford would assume increased responsibilities in the White House. The best example of this spin was a Walter Cronkite interview with Ford. Cronkite went as far as to use the word, co-Presidency. At this time, both Reagan and Ford decided against the possibility. After a first ballot nomination, Reagan selected George Bush, his rival in the primaries, as his running mate. Although not as strong as Ford, Bush was more to the left of the ultra-conservative platform established at the convention. The Republican Convention provided Reagan more than a platform and a running mate. It also gave the nominee his first opportunity to reach a national television audience.
The televised convention was upbeat and filled with confidence. When it was Reagan's time to speak, America got its first glimpse of the former actor in his element. He looked stately and presidential in front of a crowd. His voice was reassuring and certain. Reagan's convention speech was the first move towards building a better image with Americans.
Over the next few weeks, the advances in image building that Reagan had made at the convention took a hit as he and Carter went negative. Reagan was invigorated by the success of the convention, and eager to attack the wounded Carter. He had found ammunition in a statement the President had made about the loss of spirit in the American public. Reagan addressed this criticism by asserting that the American people are just fine and that new leadership was all that was needed. Although Reagan's major objection to the administration was well received, his enthusiasm in attacking was sprinkled by several noticeable slips. This led Carter strike back, but in his pointing out of the Republican's gaffes, he displayed so much overkill that it ended up backfiring in the press. The President eventually had to apologize.
In the midst of the mudslinging, a new challenger stepped into the fold. One of Reagan's former primary foes, John Anderson, launched his campaign. Anderson campaigned on the National Unity ticket and selected a former Democrat for a running mate. When the press started calling him a spoiler, he replied, "What's to spoil? Spoil the chances of two men at least half the country doesn't want?" Anderson's candidacy was an example of the doubts of many in Reagan's ability to lead the country. With such a bold statement coming from a former party member, the Republican agreed to debate Anderson and finish the challenges off once and for all. Jimmy Carter refused to engage in the debate hoping that Anderson might weaken Reagan's growing momentum. When the debate was finished, Reagan had won convincingly. John Anderson continued his campaigned, but was no longer a real factor in the race. Reagan carried the confidence from the Anderson showdown into his debate with Jimmy Carter.
During the debate, the two candidates provided clear differences of opinion on the issues. Carter's answers resorted to more government programs and aid. Reagan, on the other hand, stayed on his recurring message of freeing the taxpayers and limiting government intervention. Although the candidates were very far apart on policy, the most striking difference was in appearance. As in the Anderson debate, Reagan was enthusiastic and self-assured. Carter seemed somber and preachy. Reagan's brightest moment came when he asked the viewing audience a simple question: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Carter's solemn face reflected the answer coming out of many living rooms in America.
The victories in the debates and a continuous ad campaign reassured the public that Ronald Reagan could handle the job of President. Carter's approval ratings were so low from the highly publicized trouble at home and abroad that he did not stand a chance in November. When the votes were tallied, Carter was out of office. Reagan won 489 electoral votes to Carter's 49. After this sweeping victory, Ronald Reagan only furthered his image of charisma, humor, and charm in front of the camera. He went on to use various media outlets to make a connection with Americans of all walks of life. Reagan's effective use of the media led to him being called "The Great Communicator."