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A charismatic politician who stressed reduced government, balanced budgets, protection of family values, and peace through increased military spending, Reagan capitalized on suburban middle-class resentment against increased taxes, welfare expenditures, and government regulation and emerged as the perfect Republican candidate.
Reagan in Power
Ronald Reagan and other conservatives took advantage of splits in the long-lasting liberal Democratic coalition and took power in a dramatic fashion in the 1980 election.
The Reagan Victory
The failure of Carter's economic policies and America's weak image abroad were issues seized by Reagan in the 1980 campaign. Reagan scored important points in a televised debate and captured 51 percent of the popular vote. The Republicans also made major gains in the congressional elections, yet most Americans voted hoping for economic relief, not for an ideological preference.
Cutting Spending and Taxes
Reagan supported supply-side economics, seeking to diminish the tax burden on the private sector and enhance investment-oriented growth. Reduction of government spending would hopefully ease inflation. Major congressional victories gave Reagan a 25 percent cut in personal income taxes over three years and significant reduction of domestic appropriations for social services.
Limiting the Role of Government
Under the direction of Reagan and cabinet officials such as Interior Secretary James Watt and Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis, deregulation of the economy and restriction of federal activities became a major theme. Congress attempted to slow the rapid growth of Social Security benefits with legislative changes in 1983. Feminist groups and minorities found Reagan's policies disappointing. Reagans appointees were overwhelmingly White males.
The Reagan administrations sweeping economic changes gave rise to conflicting economic expectations. Reagan put his faith in supply-side economicshe believed tax relief for investors would spark quick business growth.
Recession and Recovery
After a temporary recession in 1981-1982 (which included as one casualty the supply-side theory), the economy rebounded in 1983 with the help of the automobile industry, consumer spending, low inflation, and global decreases in energy and food.
The Growing Deficit
The failure of supply-side economics fed a huge and growing federal deficit. Congress responded with the Gramm-Rudman Act, a compromise that forced the president to give up further increases in the defense budget while Democrats sacrificed hopes for expanded social programs. A decline in exports led to an alarming second deficit in the balance of overseas trade. Foreign investment turned the United States into a debtor nation in 1985. Reaganomics maintained a high American standard of living through massive borrowing that threatened the economic security of future generations.
The Rich Grow Richer
Under Reagan, the rich got richer, the middle class scrambled to hold its own, and the poor stayed poor. Additionally, there was increasing income stratification.
Republicans convinced Americans that Reaganomics worked, enabling the president to easily defeat Democrats Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro in the election of 1984. Yet voters revealed mixed feelings by leaving Democrats in control of the House and the Senate.
Reagan and the World
Determined to alter America's shattered image abroad, Reagan continued the hard line adopted toward Russia and the massive military buildup begun by Carter. New military expenditures went to develop new weapons systems, and to an expanded navy.
Challenging the Evil Empire
Denouncing Soviet- sponsored terrorism and human rights violations, Reagan depicted the Soviet Union as the evil empire and pushed for the deployment of additional missiles in European NATO locations. Prompted by Soviet intransigence on arms control, the United States quickened the pace of Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) research and development. The nuclear arms race reached an unprecedented level.
Turmoil in the Middle East
The United States made no significant effort to halt the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but did agree to send troops under multinational direction to Beirut to permit the evacuation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The vulnerability of American noncombat troops was underscored by the destruction of a marine barracks in 1983. Despite Reagans aspirations, the Arab-Israeli conflict continued to worsen.
Confrontation in Central America
In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza regime in 1979. Carter had previously authorized economic aid for the Sandinistas; Reagan reversed that policy. Accusing the Sandinistas of accepting Cuban and Soviet military assistance, the president opted for covert support for the anti-government Contras. American forces invaded the small Caribbean island of Grenada in October 1983 to confront Cuban workers and troops and prevent the communists from acquiring a strategic military base.
Trading Arms for Hostages
An initiative in 1985 aimed at improving American influence in the Middle East by establishing contact with moderates in Iran deteriorated into an arms for hostages deal. In 1986, members of the National Security Council staff tied this initiative to an illegal and unconstitutional scheme to funnel arms profits to the Contras in Nicaragua. Although Reagan was never personally tied to the diversion of funds, his popularity dropped rapidly.
Reagan the Peacemaker
Mikhail Gorbachevs ascendancy as the Soviet leader in 1985, offered hope for improved U.S.-Soviet relations. With Reagan hoping to rebound from the Iran-Contra affair and Gorbachev anxious to repair the Soviet economy, the two world leaders held a series of meetings during Reagan's second term. The resulting treaty, signed in late 1987, banned intermediate nuclear missiles. U.S.-Soviet cooperation eased tensions in global hot spots, further enhancing Reagan's reputation.
Two complex social issues that fostered concern for all Americans, AIDS and a new drug crisis, erupted during Reagans tenure.
The AIDS Epidemic
First noted in the U.S. in 1981, AIDS quickly reached epidemic proportions, ultimately affecting over 500,000 people by mid-1996 and killing over 345,000. The Reagan administration proved slow and halting in its response. Only with the development of powerful new drugs by the mid-1990s has the disease perhaps become contained. While the threat in the U.S. may have diminished, it has become more of a crisis in areas that cannot afford expensive drugs used in America.
The War on Drugs
The 1980s witnessed the rapid spread of cocaine and crack use and a consequent explosion of urban crime in America. Nancy Reagan urged an educational policy of Just Say No and the Reagan administration later sought to seal the nations borders more effectively to prevent import of the South American product. Diplomatic attempts to curb the planting of coca fields abroad failed to stop the lucrative business. The Bush and Clinton administrations would pursue similar measures, with similar lack of success.
Passing the Torch
The Reagan presidency suffered some rough road in the middle of his second term as he changed staff. Reagans continued successes, however, opened the door for a George Bush victory in the 1988 election. The Changing Palace Guard
Reagan used the interplay of his chief of staff, White House counsel, and special counsel to carefully guide his first administration. In 1985, however, these key advisors took different positions and achieved only limited success. Reagan had only partial success in appointing conservative judges. George Bushs nomination of Clarence Thomas led to a national public discussion of whether Thomas was appointed for his merit or his ideology.
The Election of 1988
Republican strategists effectively deflected public attention from such issues as the Iran-Contra affair and budget woes by portraying the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, as soft on crime and defense. Although the Democrats increased their control in Congress, Republican candidate George Bushs promise not to raise taxes helped the GOP retain the White House.
Bushs Domestic Agenda
George Bush sponsored few initiatives in education, health care or environmental protection and maintained Reagans theme of limited federal interference. He did, however, support the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This act prohibited discrimination against the disabled in hiring, transportation, and public accommodations. Otherwise, Bush focused on two pressing problems: the nations savings and loan industry and the nations budget.
The End of the Cold War
An attempt at internal liberation by Chinese students proved tragically premature, while communist regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed with surprising speed in mid-1989 once it became apparent that Gorbachev would not use Soviet power to support them. By late 1991, both Gorbachev and the Soviet Union became victims of the demise of communism. Bush negotiated first with Gorbachev, then with Russian President Boris Yeltsin on the START I and II treaties, significantly reducing nuclear weapons on each side.
The end of the Cold War did not mean a world free of violence. In December 1989, the United States invaded Panama to overthrow the regime of drug-trafficking General Manuel Noriega. In January 1991, the United States began an aerial assault leading to a ground offensive the next month against Iraq, aiming to free Kuwait and protect the vital oil resources of the Persian Gulf.
Conclusion: Republican Economic Woes
The Persian Gulf War may have damaged George Bush more that it helped him politically. It forced him to enter into a budget deal with Democrats in 1990 that raised taxes. This alienated him from conservative Republicans and interrupted the slow recovery from recession. A slow economy opened the door for a Democratic presidential takeover.