Romney, Reagan, and Campaign Foreign Policy

News Abroad


Chester Pach teaches history at Ohio University. This article is based, in part, on his book, "The Presidency of Ronald Reagan," which will be published by the University Press of Kansas.

Mitt Romney’s criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the deadly attacks on U.S. embassies and diplomats in the Middle East has raised questions about the Republican nominee’s judgment during foreign policy crises. The concern over the propriety, wisdom, and even factual accuracy of Romney’s accusations evokes memories of similar charges against Ronald Reagan during the 1980 campaign against President Jimmy Carter. Reagan, too, had many critics who thought he was inexperienced, inept, or incompetent in dealing with international issues. A closer analysis, however, shows that Reagan’s approach to foreign policy was more temperate and principled than critics recognized. Reagan was also more successful than Romney has been so far at persuading the American people that they could trust him to serve as commander-in-chief.

In 1980, like today, a troubled economy dominated the campaign, but foreign policy was never far in the background because of the Iranian hostage crisis. The lengthy incarceration of fifty-two Americans after the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979 was a continuing source of popular anxiety and anger. A new, late-night, ABC news program, America Held Hostage, (which eventually became Nightline), provided a daily reminder of the ordeal of the captives and the failure of the Carter administration to secure their release. Public patience eroded as diplomatic efforts produced only infrequent and ephemeral glimmers of hope and a military rescue mission collapsed in failure in April 1980.

Reagan pledged that he would not make the hostage crisis a partisan issue, and his reaction to the ill-fated rescue mission was strikingly different than Romney’s comments about the Obama administration and the recent violence in the Middle East. After receiving the news of the mission’s failure, Reagan declared that it was “a difficult day for all of us” and “a time for us as a nation and a people to stand united.” He thought “words should be few and confined essentially to our prayers.” No one could accuse Reagan of unseemly haste in trying to score political points. Later in the campaign, however, he blamed Carter for the hostages’ extended ordeal. By that time, polls showed that the American people believed that Reagan would do a better job of handling the hostage crisis.

Reagan was far less restrained when discussing issues of war and peace. In a controversial speech, he asserted that in the Vietnam War “ours was, in truth, a noble cause.” Reagan’s criticism of Carter’s foreign policy record was scathing. He insisted that détente with the Soviet Union had been “a one-way street” that had allowed the Kremlin to carry out “the greatest military buildup in the history of man.” He criticized arms control negotiations and proposed sharp increases in nuclear and conventional forces that he said would restore the “margin of safety” that had vanished during the Carter presidency and would give pause to the leadership in the Kremlin, whose “imperialist ... ambitions extend to the ends of the earth.”

Although Democrats insisted that the Republican nominee distorted complex issues to gain political advantage, Reagan had spent years honing his critique of Carter’s record in speeches, newspaper columns, and syndicated radio programs. The principles that guided his thinking about international affairs had emerged even earlier -- during his work in the 1950s and early 1960s as corporate spokesman for General Electric. Reagan believed that international communism posed a fundamental threat to U.S. security that could only be met with unassailable military strength. He also maintained that the United States was a beacon of hope to people around the world who yearned for liberty. And he never lost faith in America’s future. Even during the gloom of 1980, when economic and international troubles seemed intractable, Reagan told voters that America’s best days lay ahead.

Carter tried to make Reagan’s fitness to serve in the White House the principal issue of the campaign. “The Oval Office is not a place for simplistic answers, ... shooting from the hip, ... [or] snap judgments,” Carter declared. According to the president, Reagan’s nuclear policies were “very dangerous” and demonstrated his “lack of understanding of these issues.” A television campaign commercial put the issue even more bluntly. The message was that President Reagan could start a war -- by accident or design.

Reagan disarmed many critics when he debated Carter just a week before the election. In their only debate, Reagan proved that he could hold his own with the president and insisted that four more years of Carter’s leadership would further diminish the nation’s strength and international standing. “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Reagan told voters to ask themselves as they stepped into their polling places. “Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe? That we’re as strong as we were four years ago?” This masterly closing framed the election as a referendum on Carter’s record, which insured a Reagan victory. Election Day occurred exactly one year after the seizure of the U.S. hostages in Iran. The anniversary reminded voters of the issue that symbolized all that had gone wrong with the Carter presidency.

Reagan had advantages in 1980 that Romney has not enjoyed. Reagan led throughout the campaign, although polls showed the race tightened just before the debate. Romney has been fighting an uphill battle, although the decisions of a relatively small number of voters in several critical states might tilt the election in either direction. Despite doubts that he was unprepared, uninformed, or unreliable on foreign policy issues, Reagan persuaded a majority of voters that he could restore the power and reputation of the United States at a time when talk of American decline was commonplace. Romney has trailed Obama in polls that ask who could deal more effectively with international issues. Reagan had the advantage of the hostage crisis; Romney has no overriding issue that can help sustain his claim that the Obama administration has apologized for American values or failed to show sufficient resolve.

Reagan’s greatest advantages were his political skills and personal qualities. Americans liked Reagan, even if they disagreed with him. In 1980, voters gave Reagan decisive advantages over Carter in leadership, clarity on issues, and the ability “to get the job done.” Romney continues to struggle with inspiring public confidence or assuring voters that his stands on issues reflect conviction more than political calculation.

The upcoming debates could be critical for Romney. In 1980, Reagan used the debate with Carter to assure many Americans that he was fit for the presidency and that he would not plunge the country into war. He also proved to those who did not already know that he was friendly and genial. Voters who made up their minds after the debate overwhelmingly favored Reagan.

The continued volatility in the Middle East may raise the importance of foreign policy in an election in which economic issues have dominated. But whatever the result in November, we can be sure of one thing. Romney is no Reagan.

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