Reagan's victory road
Washington — This election and campaign deserves at least one more backward look. Q: How historic was this outcome? Did Ronald Reagan, indeed, put together a new coalition, one that may be as effective in terms of winning future elections as was the coalition put together by FDR?
A: It is true that Reagan has the beginnings of a mighty potent political force. First, there is his hardcore support in the Western states, made up of millions of people who embrace the free-enterprise philosophy and seem set to give their electoral votes to a conservative Republican from now on.
That's a good start for a new coalition. Add to that the border and Southern states where there are also a great many conservatives. And then -- as Reagan did -- when you add support in the Northern industrial states and elsewhere from blue-collar workers, Roman Catholics, and farmers, together with the traditional Republican backers, you certainly have the makings of a formidable variety of voting groups all across the nation.
But Roosevelt didn't win because of his coalition, which included blacks, Southerners, farmers, and workers. His victory came because these groups, out of despair, voted for a change.
Actually, Roosevelt's enunciated approach to running the presidency sounded quite conservative -- even more so than what Herbert Hoover was beginning to try to do as he neared the end of his term. It was after achieving the election that FDR began to preside over a peaceful revolution -- with the move toward social programs that won him the abiding gratitude and loyal support of those who were in the lower-income brackets -- of out of work.
So FDR really put his coalition together after he became President.
And so it is that Ronald Reagan will only be able to make this coalition a permanent political base by what he does when he is Presiden -- if through his approach to government he is able to help business, provide jobs, cut back on inflation, and do all the things he now promises to do, including winning new respect for the US in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Q: Did Carter make some major mistake in his campaign -- something that may have cost him the election?
A: No, the President clearly lost because the people wanted new leadership. Nothing that he did, tactically of otherwise, cost him the election.
However, from a political point of view, he probably committed a blunder in debating Reagan. It is an old rule that no president should debate a challenger , simply because -- as nixon learned -- an adversary need only show that he can stand up to a president to win the verdict of the voters.
Ford debated because he was so far behind and this gave him some upward thrust -- but Carter felt that he could not be elected without those TV encounters. They gave him the opportunity Carter believed he needed to show the public that he was in the same league with the President.
Carter was apparently closing the gap on Reagan when the Californian, quite unexpectedly, agreed to the Carter offer for a one-on- one debate. The Carter people were taken by surprise. They had wanted this confrontation earlier, when they were way behind, thinking it just might rescue them. But no longer. They seemed to have the momentum. They didn't want a debate after which they might lose this momentum.
Further, the Carter camp had thought that Reagan would never agree to a debate which would not include Anderson -- that Reagan would always want Anderson included so as to prop up a candidacy that was clearly taking more votes away from Carter than from himself.
In other words, the Carter people's continued offer to debate Reagan was to make them look brave and to make Reagan look as if he lacked the spunk to take on the President. They thought they could do this without a risk that Reagan would take them up on the offer.
But Reagan strategists suddenly decided they would jettison Anderson and debate -- hoping to slow the Carter momentum and, coincidentally, to offset the anticipated October or November surprise of a release of the hostages.
Carter's people found themselves trapped. They preferred not debating, but they had persisted too long in calling for a one-on-one debate. They thought they might look bad from the viewpoint of the voters if they now said the debate was off.
So Carter debated. Reagan was the winner in the eyes of the public, even though critics gave Carter a slight edge. Reagan reassured the voters that he was not quick on the trigger. To most people he came through as a reasonable as well as a genial man.
From that moment on the momentum returned to Reagan. And it got bigger and bigger each day. Then the new developments on the hostages actually helped Reagan more than Carter. It seems that most of the voters were reminded of the frustrations they had gone through in watching the President try to gain the hostages' release.
On balance, Carter probably would have been better off if he hadn't debated. It might have allowed him to make a little better showing, to win a few more states. But it wouldn't have made much diffrence.
The American people -- a good majority of the people all over the United States -- wanted someone else to be president. The landslide for Reagan made that completely clear.