Morning in America: Ronald Reagan & the 1984 Election
In his 1984 State of the Union Address, President Ronald Reagan laid out his principles and vision that had guided his first term and provided the foundation for his re-election campaign. He reminded voters that the economy was growing rapidly and was back on track after the horrific stagflation of the Carter administration. The “crisis of confidence” of the 1970s was conquered by a renewed American spirit. Reagan was proud to report that, “There is renewed energy and optimism throughout the land.” Indeed, he touted, “America is back, standing tall.”
Reagan was correct that the American spirit was renewed and could claim a great deal of credit for it. His policies resulted in brisk economic recovery (rising 7.3 percent that year with minimal inflation for the first time in a decade) and a stronger national defense. Whereas 84 percent of Americans said they were dissatisfied under Carter in 1979, only 26 percent felt that way under Reagan.
Liberals loved to portray Reagan as a warmonger who might trigger a nuclear war, but he offered a startling proposal in his speech. He spoke directly to the people of the Soviet Union and asserted that the only sane policy in the nuclear age was to avoid war and destroy all nuclear weapons. “My dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the earth.” But, this dream was backed by peace through strength with the recent launching of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the deployment of Pershing II missiles in Europe to counter Soviet nukes, and the successful invasion of Grenada.
Contrarily, the Democratic candidate, Walter Mondale, had great difficulty articulating a clear message about his core message. The best his campaign could come up with was the less-than-inspiring “I am ready.” The former vice-president was linked to the failures of the Carter administration, and rather than defining a fresh message, seemed satisfied to appeal to the fracturing New Deal coalition and large government programs even though the message appeared to be tired and irrelevant to Reagan Democrats who had turned against the welfare state. Mondale was also too reserved and aloof, and he flatly refused to work on his public image for television—virtual political suicide when running against a former actor who loved performing for the camera.
The clearest message Mondale could sell to the American people was expressing concern about rising budget deficits, but he had no real plan to deal with them. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, the inept Mondale demonstrated how politically obtuse he was when he promised to raise taxes. “Let’s tell the truth….Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”
Even Mondale’s bold move of asking Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate—the first female vice-presidential candidate for a major party—fell flat. Observers at the time noted that it seemed Mondale was pandering to women for votes and making a deal to win an endorsement from the feminist National Organization for Women. Mondale also supported the defunct Equal Rights Amendment. Although the historic selection may have won over some female voters, Ferraro failed to make much of an impact because she appealed to the same liberal constituency as Mondale and because of some shady tax returns.
While Mondale was promising to raise taxes, Reagan appeared statesmanlike during trips to China, where he spoke to students about individual freedom and dignity, and in England and Normandy, where he poignantly honored the memory of the fallen on the fortieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Reagan said, “It was faith and belief; it was loyalty and love. The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next….Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their valor, and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.”
Reagan and his advisers were masterful at utilizing modern media. Although Reagan had not performed well at the first debate because he tried to match Mondale as a policy wonk, he delivered a sound bite that was played over again and again on the news while simultaneously deflating concerns about his age. “And I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” Reagan quipped. Even Mondale went into hysterics after the joke.
The Reagan campaign ran some highly successful ads that tapped into the American psyche. Most notable was the “Morning in America” ad which highlighted better economic conditions, a strong sense of optimism, and a renewed patriotism among ordinary Americans in their daily lives. What myopic commentators then and now who attack the ad as simplistic flag-waving ignore is that it resonated with Americans because it was true. Americans were greatly relieved to be free of the economic malaise and weakness abroad during the Carter years. If it painted an ideal vision of middle-class life in America, it was a dream they sought to fulfill in their lives.
On Election Day, American voters showed that they heartily approved of Reagan’s vision and success in achieving it. The president won forty-nine states in the Electoral College and 59 percent of the popular vote to trounce his opponent. Reagan’s victory seemed at the time to point to the triumph of the conservative message of less government, fewer taxes, economic growth, and a sturdy national defense in the Cold War. The New Deal coalition and the Great Society welfare state was gasping for survival in a country that had recovered from the devastating reversals of the 1970s.
Tony Williams is the author of five books on the American founding, including, with co-author Stephen Knott, Washington & Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America. He recently appeared on Bill O’ Reilly’s “Legends & Lies: The Patriots.”