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The politics of inflation

By Joseph C. Harsch / March 18, 1980



The disclosure during the last week of February that the inflation rate in the United States had reached 18 percent made that week a turning point in the 1980 presidential election campaign.

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Foreign policy, up until that disclosure, was the main subject of concern in public discussion, press attention, and political calculations in the US. Beginning with that moment public discussion and press attention switched over from foreign to domestic affairs. The main worry went over from "are we headed towards a war" to "who is going to stop the inflation, and how."

Mr. Carter was the beneficiary of the earlier phase of preoccupation with foreign affairs. The disclosure of the 18 percent inflation figure became a new crisis for him because his residence in the White House will not be the advantage to him in handling the presumed economic problem which it was during the Iranian and Afghan foreign policy affairs, though he has tried to make use of it with his latest anti-inflation program.

But the other side of that coin is whether Mr. Carter's rivals will be any better able to take advantage of the changeover in national preoccupations than he himself.

He will have a harder time since the President in the White House cannot wrap the flag around himself over a matter of domestic policy as he can in a matter of peace or war, or even 50 US citizens held hostage in the US Embassy in Tehran. It cannot be claimed to be unpatriotic to be either for or against, shall we say, gasoline rationing. It was charged implicitly that Senator Kennedy was being unpatriotic by saying that Mr. Carter had made a mistake in letting the ex-Shah of Iran come to New York for hospital treatment. That episode seemed to have hurt the Senator in Iowa. Patriotism cannot so easily get mixed into a debate over ways and means of checking the inflation.

There is no way to prove or even to estimate the degree to which the change in national preoccupation influenced the voters of New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Yet it is an observable fact that the overtones of the Iowa primary, which took place while foreign affairs dominated, were distinctly different from New Hampshire and Massachusetts where the voting took place just as the citizenry was getting the facts about 18 percent inflation.

In Iowa when the hostages were still presumed to be in danger to their very lives Senator Kennedy was trounced. But in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, where people were beginning to worry about their jobs and their ability to buy enough gasoline to drive to their jobs, he did very much better. Had there been no Jerry Brown of California splitting the liberal Democrats in New Hampshire, it seems likely that the Kennedy vote would have come within a point or two of the Carter vote. The combined Kennedy-Brown vote was almost exactly the total of the Carter vote. Senator Kennedy might do better against the President wherever Brown stays out. (The Old South goes to Carter, of course.)

On the Republican side in Iowa, George Bush, who looks like an ambassador -- and actually was one both at the UN and in Peking -- soared far above California's former Governor Ronald Reagan, who never pretended to know much about foreign affairs. But in New Hampshire and Massachusetts the aura of presumed experience in world affairs which surrounds Mr. Bush proved of little value. The prize went to Mr. Reagan who had, after all, run the most populous state in the union to the obvious satisfaction of a majority of its citizens.

Therefore all candidates of both parties have a vivid interest in whether there is likely to be a return to preoccupation with foreign crisis.

There is one powerful reason for thinking that there will not be such a return. Moscow distrusts and dislikes Mr. Carter. Moscow did Mr. Carter an unintentional domestic political favor by invading Afghanistan. Moscow is now launched upon its expected post-Afghan "peace offensive." Thus it is a reasonable likelihood that Moscow will shun any future adventure which might help Mr. Carter, at least until after election day. Ever since Dwight Eisenhower succeeded Harry Truman, Moscow has felt more comfortable with Republicans in the White House. Mr. Eisenhower ended the Korean War which Mr. Truman had entered. In Moscow they tend to assume that Democrats start wars which Republicans then end.

So the chances favor the assumption that the 1980 US political campaign will be dominated from now right on through by domestic economic anxieties rather than by foreign crisis. This is of course a reason for Senator Kennedy to keep on trying for at least another round of primaries during which an increasing number of Democrats may be attracted by his wage and price controls policies.

The above is also why the spotlight in Republican attention may swing away from Mr. Bush to the advantage of both Mr. Reagan and John Anderson. Both have had experience with the legislative process -- particularly Mr. Anderson in Washington. Both have proven ability to deal with domestic matters.