When Republican strategists like Karl Rove cite 1980 as a model for this year’s election, they usually have in mind two main elements: Ronald Reagan’s question in the late October presidential debate about whether voters felt better off than four years earlier, when they elected Jimmy Carter, and Reagan’s ability in that debate to reassure swing voters about his ability to serve successfully if elected, converting a very close race into a ten-point blowout by “closing the deal.”
The premise of most GOP analysts is that because of the bad economy, Carter was seen as presiding over a failed presidency, and that to throw him out four years after he had ousted the Republicans, all the voters needed was affirmation that Reagan was up to the challenge of turning the economy around. The application of this precedent to Mitt Romney’s race against Barack Obama is too obvious to need much elaboration: establish Romney as economically qualified and the election will be his.
It’s a plausible analogy and does suggest part of Romney’s opportunity. But its implied portrait of the 1980 election leaves out at least as much as it includes.
Bad as the economy was, by 1980 American foreign policy was beginning to look even worse. On December 25-27, 1979, the Soviet Union executed the president of Afghanistan, installed its own man, and began its bloody occupation of that country. It was the first projection of the Red Army outside the nations of the Warsaw Pact since the creation of that Soviet-sponsored bloc more than three decades earlier at the dawn of the Cold War. President Carter responded by suspending grain exports to the Soviet Union and ending U.S. participation in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. ...
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