Carter vs. Reagan: The Last Semi-Intelligent Presidential Race
Presidential campaigns in the United States tend to be discouraging affairs, even if one is not a libertarian who has zero expectations that anything good can come from American elections. The old saw that insanity consists of doing the same thing repeatedly and somehow expecting different results applies to presidential campaigns as well as to anything else.
For whatever reason, Americans (and especially the American media) seem to believe that the process by which voters select presidential candidates some day will produce a Marcus Aurelius (or some other philosopher king) as opposed to the final race we have between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, neither of whom will resurrect memories of orators like Daniel Webster or Frederick Douglass. Instead, it will be a race in which observers watch to see who commits the most malapropisms.
Recent presidential campaigns have not been assuring when it comes to actual content being discussed on the campaign trail. Part of that problem is that no matter how “intelligent” or sound a policy initiative may seem to be, in the end government agents are not caretakers of an economy or possessors of great powers; instead, they tend to be hacks, and no matter how much adoring media (on all sides of the ideological spectrum) tries to make their favored candidates out to be philosopher kings, in the end the best outcome we can hope to have is that they not do too much economic and social damage.
The last election gave us the forgettable lines of “Lock her up” and “Why am I not 50 points ahead?” Before then, we had Bill Clinton asking voters to “help me build a bridge to the twenty-first century” and saying “We’re going to invest in education and the environment.” In other words, we hear slogans devoid of content, and we realize that one of the persons uttering something inane actually will occupy the White House.
The last presidential campaign in my memory that produced anything close to having substance happened four decades ago when incumbent Jimmy Carter ran against Ronald Reagan. Interestingly, the media had written off Reagan, a former governor of California known better for his B-movie acting career in Hollywood, as an intellectual lightweight, someone lacking an intellect worthy of the presidency. (Perhaps one should ask the question of whether the modern American presidency is worthy of someone with intellect in the first place.)
While it is not difficult to find the telltale gaffes and wrongheaded statements in any presidential campaign, nonetheless the Carter-Reagan race stood out, because it was the last presidential campaign in which serious economic concepts were discussed. Even though Carter had enacted a number of grievous economic policies during his time in office (perhaps the worst being the Natural Gas Policy Act of 1978), nonetheless he also had dismantled or was in the process of dismantling huge swaths of New Deal business regulation, a deregulation process that still pays huge dividends today. Carter also began the process of removing price and allocation controls on oil and gasoline, although he accompanied oil deregulation with the infamous Windfall Profits Tax on oil companies under the mistaken belief that deregulation would quickly raise prices that would significantly boost profit margins—something that didn’t happen, as deregulation led to falling fuel prices.
Carter’s errors notwithstanding, his administration through its massive deregulation efforts in passenger air, railroads, trucking, telecommunications, and banking and finance was in itself a supply-side initiative that more than rivaled Reagan’s moves to drop the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 50 percent and to better promote “the private sector.” Unfortunately for Carter and the Democrats, the president was virtually silent about what would be his most important and longest-lasting accomplishments.
In part, Carter’s reluctance to tout his substantive accomplishments seemed to reflect his inability to connect with the Ted Kennedy–led “liberal wing” of the Democratic Party, as Carter had turned back Kennedy’s primary challenge (but with Kennedy humiliating Carter at the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1980). Although Kennedy had been instrumental in the passenger airline deregulation initiative, his 1980 campaign was geared toward a program of massive price controls, regulation, and social democracy. Since much of Carter’s deregulation essentially undid many of the business and finance cartels created by the New Deal, and since Kennedy had geared much of his own campaign toward promoting what could be called a second New Deal, using his presidential campaign to take victory laps for his legislative success seemed out of the question.
Furthermore, Carter initiated the “wage-price guidelines” in an attempt to calm the double-digit inflation rates that plagued his administration, although to his credit he resisted demands from Kennedy and the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) to impose mandatory wage and price controls. None of these initiatives stopped inflation and, again to his credit, Carter appointed Paul Volker as Federal Reserve chairman and Volker’s relatively tight money policies ultimately helped tame the inflation beast, at least in the early 1980s.
So, Carter entered the fall race with at least some economic successes—although the dividends from deregulation would be long-term and could not be seen right away—while Reagan at least was talking a much better game of free markets than any of his predecessors had done, at least since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Furthermore, Reagan's embrace of “supply-side” policies invoked the memory of Jean Baptiste Say and his contention that the source of demand was not government demand-side policies but rather what people produced. While Say never wrote, “Supply creates its own demand,” nevertheless the Reagan camp was not wrong when it called for measures to reduce regulatory and tax burdens on producers, as the government’s Keynesian policies were creating havoc with inflation.
What is more important is that people actually were debating whether Keynesian policies were effective or harmful, something that is in contrast to the Barack Obama campaign in 2008 calling for Keynesianism to be resurrected. No campaign since Reagan-Carter in 1980 has even mentioned Say or, for that matter, any other economist of note.
This is not to say that the Reagan-Carter campaign resembled an old-time Oxford debate. The Carter camp tried to resurrect memories of Lyndon Johnson’s portrayal of Barry Goldwater as a bomb-throwing madman, and they floated a number of Reagan’s old quotes about Social Security and the minimum wage, as though Reagan were going to abolish both things without congressional approval (which would be politically impossible).
Reagan, on the other hand, accused Carter of being weak on communism in general and on the USSR in particular. Like so many people caught up in the rancid politics of the Cold War, both men—but especially Reagan—saw the Soviet Union as an entity that would last for generations, despite the fact that the once mighty Evil Empire was only a decade away from collapsing. Carter at least stuck with a foreign policy based upon noninterventionism and promotion of human rights, something that Reagan portrayed as weakness but in retrospect was a major accomplishment, especially given the military ventures of the United States beginning with George H.W. Bush’s Gulf War. Unfortunately, at the time Carter’s achievement was portrayed as failure.
There also was the infamous Iranian Hostage Crisis. Carter had given into bad advice (against his own instincts) and allowed the deposed shah to receive cancer treatment in New York City in the fall of 1979. While he was there, Iranian militants invaded the US embassy in Tehran and took more than fifty Americans there as hostages. Carter approved an ill-fated rescue attempt the following spring which resulted in the deaths of eight US servicemen, something that made Carter look even more out of his element.
To the credit of both campaigns, the hostage issue was not overtly placed front and center and Reagan was reasonably restrained in his statements, even though the issue itself really was the proverbial elephant in the living room. If one wished for the hostages to come home safely, then American responses were limited, especially since Iran had experienced an Islamic revolution that was thumbing its nose at the diplomatic niceties of the “civilized” world. In the end, the hostages came home safely right after Reagan’s inauguration.
At the time of the campaign, the usual criticisms were uttered (“They aren’t talking about The Issues” or “We are tired of the mudslinging”), but the 1980 presidential campaign, in retrospect, at least had its intelligent moments. Although it is unfortunate that Carter’s own Democratic Party members did not see the value of economic deregulation, nonetheless Carter’s initiatives probably were as significant a boost to the economy as any president has accomplished since 1980.
No president is able to live up to the promises made in a campaign, but there is no doubt that at least some of the issues debated in the fall of 1980 were substantive and certainly would seem to have depth, especially when compared to the vapid and utterly shallow contest between Trump and Biden. At the time, many of us expressed our disappointment with Carter and Reagan; would it be that we had anything today close to what we had forty years ago.