Theme: Leading a conservative movement to power in Washington, Ronald Reagan vigorously pursued “new right” economic and social policies. Under Reagan and his successor George Bush, these policies brought both economic growth and massive budget deficits that put severe constraints on the federal government.
Theme: The 1980s saw a revival of Cold War confrontation, but the decade ended with the collapse of Communism, first in Eastern Europe and then in the Soviet Union itself. With the end of the Cold War and the U.S.-led victory over Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, America stood as the world’s only superpower. This condition created new challenges in dealing with volatile regional conflicts, especially in the Middle East.
Theme: Democrat Bill Clinton won two elections and tried to turn the Democratic party in a more centrist direction, amidst fierce partisan conflicts with resurgent conservative Republicans. A booming national economy continued throughout the 1990s. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, altered America’s historic sense of security and enhanced fresh economic troubles.
Reagan led Republicans to sweeping victories in 1980 and 1984 over divided and demoralized Democrats. Riding a conservative national tide, Reagan pushed both his “supply-side” economic program of lower taxes and the “new-right” social policies, especially opposition to affirmative action, abortion, and drugs. These policies brought economic recovery and lower inflation, as well as record budget deficits that severely restricted “big government.” The Supreme Court under Reagan and his successor, George Bush, became increasingly conservative, while the confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas highlighted issues of sexual harassment. Religious conservatives assumed growing influence on American politics, borrowing many tactics from the sixties New Left.
Reagan revived the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union, and engaged the United States in assertive military support for anti-leftist forces in Latin America and elsewhere. The ratcheting up of military spending, along with the attempted reforms led by Mikhail Gorbachev, contributed to the unraveling of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989–1991. With America as the only remaining superpower, George Bush led an international coalition to victory in the Persian Gulf War, but the Middle East remained a dangerous tinderbox despite new efforts to resolve the Israel-Arab conflict.
The dynamic young “baby-boomer” Bill Clinton defeated Bush in 1992, and promoted an ambitious reform agenda within the context of his centrist “new Democrat” ideology. Clinton’s stirred fierce opposition from aggressive conservative Republicans, who gained control of Congress in 1994 for the first time in fifty years. But the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans’ over-reaching enabled Clinton to revive and win a second term in 1996.
In his second term, Clinton downplayed reform and successfully claimed the political middle ground on issues like welfare reform, affirmative action, smoking, and gun control. A booming economy created budget surpluses, and encouraged Clinton’s efforts toward ending international trade barriers. A series of scandals, culminating in the Monica Lewinsky affair, led to Clinton’s impeachment and acquittal in 1999.
Texas Governor George Walker Bush defeated Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, in a tightly contested, cliffhanging election that was finally decided by a Supreme Court decision. Bush promoted tax-cutting conservatism at home and unilateralism abroad. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were a watershed in American history, and led to military action in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The attacks deepened a gathering economic recession and made domestic security a central national concern.
developing the chapter: suggested lecture or discussion topics
Describe the rise of conservatism in the 1980s. Explain Reagan’s unique ability to link economic, social-policy, and foreign policy conservative principles into a potent political coalition. Discuss the successes and failures of Reagan’s “supply-side” economics, as well as the ideological polarization of America’s “culture wars.”
reference: William C. Berman, America’s Right Turn: From Nixon to Bush (1994).
Explain the revival of the Cold War in the 1980s. Examine the relation between American policies and the internal changes within the Soviet bloc, culminating in the collapse of Communism, the reunification of Germany, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Include consideration of the new problems for the United States created by the breakup of Communism in places like the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia.
reference: Theodore Draper, The Devil We Knew: Americans and the Cold War (1993).
Examine the increasing importance of religion in American politics and culture in the 1980s and 1990s. Include consideration of both the “religious right” and evangelical movements, as well as other religious voices like those of the Catholic Church, the black churches, and rapidly growing religious groups like American Muslims and Buddhists affiliated with the immigration boom of the period.
references: Garry Wills, Under God: Religion and American Politics (1990); James Davidson Hunger, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (1991).
Examine the ideas and politics of Bill Clinton in relation to the changed ideological climate of the 1990s. Consider how Clinton attempted to steer a middle course between the more aggressively conservative Republicans and his own party’s traditional liberal base on issues like welfare, social security, civil rights, and the environment.
reference: James MacGregor Burns and Georgia Sorenson, Dead Center: Clinton-Gore Leadership and the Politics of Moderation (1999).
for further interest: additional class topics
Focus on Reagan as a personality and a political leader. Discuss why his personal popularity seemed to transcend his politically controversial policies, and what legacy he left to the Republican party and American politics in general.
Examine the growing role of women and women’s issues in the politics of the 1980s and 1990s. Consider the increasing impact of women in public and political life, perhaps by examining the careers of prominent figures such as Sandra Day O’Connor, Dianne Feinstein, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Discuss the new importance of the “Third World” in American foreign policy of the 1980s and 1990s. The involvement of the United States in the underdeveloped world can be considered in relation to both military issues (e.g., the Latin American civil wars of the 1980s and the Persian Gulf War), as well as economic issues involving NAFTA and trade with countries like Mexico and China.
Compare Clinton’s impeachment and trial to that of Andrew Johnson in the 1860s. Focus on the parallel claims that the impeachment was fundamentally motivated by partisan spite and personal disdain for the president, as well as on the substantial differences in the political circumstances and in the charges themselves.
Consider the foreign and domestic policies of George W. Bush before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Then consider the ways in which the attacks drastically altered the directions of the administration, and the ways in which September 11 simply gave a dramatic and urgent push to perspectives and policies that Bush and his advisors already endorsed.
Edward Kennedy (1932– )
Kennedy is a Massachusetts senator and heir to the Kennedy legacy in American politics.
The ninth child and fourth son of the family, Kennedy was indulged by his father and not pushed into competitive activities as the older children had been.
In his freshman year at Harvard, Kennedy was expelled for having someone else take a Spanish exam for him. He later returned to graduate from Harvard and the University of Virginia Law School.
His first run for the Senate came in 1962, only a few days after his thirtieth birthday, and provoked much criticism. But he conducted a successful campaign with the slogan “He can do more for Massachusetts.”
The 1969 accident at Chappaquiddick Island, in which a young woman drowned, has remained Kennedy’s greatest political liability. He was most sharply criticized not for the accident, but for his failure to report it until the next morning and for his unconvincing explanations of the events surrounding it.
Quote: “I understand that people feel strongly about me, as they felt about my brothers before me.…[Some] people have been enthusiastic supporters, and others have been harsh critics. I would expect that to be the case as long as I’m in public life.” (1974)
reference: James MacGregor Burns, Edward Kennedy and the Camelot Legacy (1976).
Ronald Reagan (1911– )
The oldest president before Reagan was Eisenhower, who was about seventy when he left office; Reagan was that age when he first took office.
Reagan’s unemployed father worked for a time for Roosevelt’s WPA program. As a youthful lifeguard, Reagan saved over seventy people from drowning, and he was amazed that many of them later criticized him and claimed that they had not been in danger.
His break into movies came in 1937, when Warner Brothers signed him to a seven-year contract for $200 a week. In the movie King’s Row (1941), he played an amputee who said, “Where’s the rest of me?” Reagan used this line as the title of his 1965 autobiography.
His involvement with many liberal causes continued until the late 1940s, when he took the lead in driving communists from the Screen Actors Guild. His second marriage, to the daughter of a politically conservative doctor, also helped turn him into a staunch conservative.
Reagan first won national political attention for a speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater in 1964. His first try for the presidency came in 1968, when he lost the nomination to Nixon.
Quote: “Either we accept the responsibility for our own destiny, or we abandon the American Revolution and confess that an intellectual belief in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them for ourselves. You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We can preserve for our children this last best hope of man on earth or we can sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness.” (1964)
reference: Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (1992).
Sandra Day O’Connor (1930– )
O’Connor is the Arizona judge who became the first woman U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Her childhood was spent on a ranch in Arizona. At Stanford Law School, Chief Justice William Rehnquist was first in her law class, and she was third.
She served as an assistant attorney general and was elected to two terms in the Arizona state senate, where she became majority leader. A Democratic governor appointed her to the state appeals court in 1979.
In her early days on the Supreme Court, O’Connor was considered a conservative who almost always followed the lead of Justices Rehnquist and Powell. She showed an independent streak, however, in breaking with them on some civil rights and civil liberties issues. She also began as a strong critic of the Roe v. Wade abortion decision and was widely expected to join other Reagan-Bush appointees in a new majority to overturn it. But in Casey v. Planned Parenthood and recent decisions, O’Connor sided with two other justices (David Souter and Anthony Kennedy) in upholding Roe, while accepting various state restrictions on abortion. In the 1990s, O’Connor was usually the key “swing vote” on the Court, especially on issues of affirmative action and abortion.
Quote: “Our decisions…establish that the party seeking to uphold a statute that classifies individuals on the basis of their gender must carry the burden of showing an ‘exceedingly persuasive justification’ for the classification.…That this statute discriminates against males rather than females does not exempt it from scrutiny or reduce the standard of review.” (Opinion in Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, 1982)
reference: Vincent Blasi, ed., The Burger Court (1983).
George Herbert Walker Bush (1924– )
George Bush is the longtime Republican politician who won the presidency as Ronald Reagan’s successor in 1988 but lost his bid for reelection in 1992.
Bush was the son of wealthy Connecticut senator Prescott Bush. His private-school and Ivy League education at Yale were long seen as political handicaps, but he counteracted them by emphasizing his World War II service in the navy and such down-home pursuits as eating pork rinds and pitching horseshoes.
During Bush’s youthful oil-business career, and his two terms in Congress as a representative from the Houston area, he formed strong alliances with the Texas business community. An associate from those days, James Baker, became his closest political ally and later served as his secretary of state.
Bush held a long series of appointed positions—chairman of the Republican party, head of the CIA, ambassador to China—before becoming Reagan’s vice president. Bush’s extensive foreign-policy experience led him to focus his administration on international rather than domestic affairs, at considerable
political cost. In the 1988 election and afterward, Bush denied any knowledge or involvement in the Iran-contra affair, although other Reagan officials, among them George Schulz and Caspar Weinberger, maintained that Bush was not “out of the loop.”
After his defeat in 1992, Bush retired to Texas. His son, George Bush, Jr., was elected governor of Texas in 1994 and president in 2000.
Quote: “We are not the sum of our possessions. They are not the measure of our lives. In our hearts we know what matters. We must give [our children] a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend, a loving parent, a citizen who leaves his home, neighborhood, and town better than he found it.” (Inaugural address, 1989)
reference: Peter Golman and Tom Matthew, The Quest for the Presidency, 1988 (1989). Bill Minutaglio, First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty (1999).
William (“Bill”) Jefferson Clinton, (1946– )
Bill Clinton served many terms as Arkansas governor before being elected the nation’s forty-second president in 1992.
Clinton was born William Blythe in Arkansas. His father died in an automobile accident before Bill was born, and after his mother remarried, Bill took her new husband’s last name. Perhaps the most decisive event in Clinton’s early life was winning a scholarship to Georgetown University, a Catholic university in Washington, D.C. He so impressed some of his teachers that they suggested that he might consider becoming a priest, until he told them that he was a Southern Baptist.
After graduation from Georgetown in 1968, Clinton won a Rhodes Scholarship to study politics at Britain’s Oxford University. After graduation from Yale University Law School, Clinton returned to Arkansas in 1973 to teach at the University of Arkansas Law School. In 1975 he married Hillary Rodham, a fellow Yale Law graduate and Arkansas law professor. Clinton ran for Congress in 1974 but lost to a popular Republican. In 1976 he won election as attorney general of Arkansas.
At the time of his election as chief executive of Arkansas in 1978, Clinton was the nation’s youngest governor. He lost a race for reelection but regained the office in 1982 and every two years thereafter until his election as president.
Quote: “We are on the verge of a new way of doing things, grounded in our most enduring values, a philosophy that says America owes all of us an opportunity if we will assume responsibility for ourselves, our community, and our country. No more something for nothing. We’re all in this together.” (Speech, July 1993)
reference: David Maraniss, First in His Class (1994).
George Walker Bush (1946– )
The presidency of the United States is only the second public office to which George W. Bush was elected, after the governorship of Texas.
George W. Bush is the oldest of five living children (four boys and one girl) of George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush (another girl died of leukemia in 1953 at age 3), and the only one to have been born in his father’s native Connecticut. (The family moved to Texas when George W. was two years old.) While his father became a rising star in Republican politics, George W. attended Philips Andover Academy in Massachusetts and Yale University, graduating in 1968. After several years of dissolution and drifting, Bush entered Harvard University, earning a Master of Business Administration degree in 1975.
He then moved to the west Texas town of Midland, and married a school librarian, Laura Welch. His younger brother Jeb, now governor of Florida, was considered the star future politician of the family, while George W. was considered not cut out for politics. This judgment seemed confirmed when he ran for Congress from Midland in 1978, but lost to the Democrat.
The several oil business ventures he attempted, the Arbusto and Spectrum Companies, were not very successful. But in 1988 he became the leading owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team by investing $600,000. A decade later he sold his share of the team for $15 million.
In 1986 Bush underwent a “born again” religious conversion, moved from his family’s traditional Episcopal faith into the Methodist Church, and began to associate closely with leading figures in the conservative evangelical movement. In 1994 Texas Republicans nominated Bush to run against the Democratic Texas governor Ann Richards. His victory over the very popular incumbent was considered a great upset. He won re-election in 1998 with 65% of the vote, a landslide that quickly made him the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.
Quote: “Our country has been through a long and trying period, with the outcome of the presidential election not finalized for longer than any of us could imagine.…I believe things happen for a reason, and I hope the wait of the last five weeks will heighten a desire to move beyond the bitterness and partisanship of the recent past.” (Victory speech, December 13, 2000).
questions for class discussion
1. To what extent was the election of Reagan an endorsement of his conservative ideology, and to what extent was it a repudiation of the perceived failures of federal government policies in the stalemated 1970s?
2. In what ways might the 1980s and 1990s be compared with the 1920s in economic, social, and foreign policies? Did the economic boom of each period represent a genuine revival of American innovation, or was it fundamentally marred by the growing gap between rich and poor?
What were the successes and failures of American foreign policy in the immediate post-Cold War era of the 1990s?
What is likely to be the enduring legacy of Bill Clinton in American politics?
5. How did the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, alter Americans’ perceptions of their role in the world? Did the aftermath of the attacks seem to point toward the goal of greater American cooperation and engagement with the world, or toward a belief that the United States would have to act more decisively to protect its own national interests?
expanding the “varying viewpoints”
Daniel Bell, ed., The Radical Right (1963).
A view of modern conservatism as an extremist and paranoid fringe movement:
“Anti-elitism oriented toward groups that cannot be regarded as oppressed minorities or victims of bigotry, or anti-Communism directed against the agents or dupes of an evil foreign power, can serve as palatable outlets for those who require a scapegoat.…Intolerant movements, while often powerful, have never been able seriously to endanger the normal processes of American democracy.…But if such movements can not come to power, they can damage the democratic process for short periods of time, and they can and have injured innocent people.”
Kevin Phillips, Post-Conservative America (1982).
A view of modern conservatism as more deeply rooted in American history:
“I submit that the New Right combines three powerful trend patterns that recur in American history and politics. First, to some measure it is an extension of the Wallace movement, and as such represents a current expression of the ongoing populism of the white lower middle classes, principally in the South and West.…Second, the New Right is closely allied with the sometimes potent right-to-life or antiabortion movement, the current version, perhaps, of the great one-issue moral crusades of the American past.…And this one-issue element, in turn, folds into the third phenomenon—the possible fourth occurrence of the religious revivals or ‘Great Awakenings’ that have swept across the land since the middle of the eighteenth century. If so, the religious wing of the New Right may be the political wing of a major national awakening.”