Like a veteran door-to-door salesman, Ronald Reagan is a huckster, only instead of vacuum cleaners, he peddles fear–so successfully that he is now president of the United States.
In the dark night of its soul, America felt sorry for itself. Unloved in the world, pushed around by glowering, unkempt ayatollahs, watching the Soviet Union wax strong and threatening, beset by seemingly uncontrollable inflation at home, their standard of living eroding, convinced that Washington was the root of all evils, a large number of voters turned to the reassuring, folksy strength of Ronald Reagan. While the aw-shucks Reagan ran a shrewd and clever campaign designed to convince voters they need not fear him, he implied that they must fear the world. Reagan, who liked to quote Franklin Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign pledge to balance the budget, might also have rephrased his inaugural speech: “The only thing we have is fear itself.”
Reagan’s campaign sounded political tocsins from the past beyond F.D.R.’s budget-balancing pledge. There were echoes of John Kennedy’s promise to “get America mov-ing again” in Reagan’s vow to put the nation back to work (paradoxically, the laissez-faire conservative was perceived as the activist), as well as hints of the twinkling uncle-hood of Ike. No matter that Reagan’s chief and only public economic prescription for achieving recovery was the Kemp-Roth plan–which he had gradually abandoned. Etched in our memory will be the victorious Alfonse D’Amato, who is perhaps (if you will excuse a little New York chauvinism) the most dismal of the new class of freshman Senators, elucidating on election night the Reagan vision: “inculcating a desire to do for yourself and unshackling initiative and, uh, people don’t want some big guy telling them how to run their business.” It was as clear a statement of the Reagan program as we have heard. Oh yes, he does advocate tax holidays for businesses that relocate in ghetto areas. This, coupled with his “two-tier” minimum wage, would put blacks and other minorities back to work, his brain trust promises. That is Reagan’s Third World policy in a nutshell: a tax giveaway to business coupled with a cheap and grateful labor force in heavily policed ghettos.
Inflation, the analysts said, was the $64,000 issue with the voters; yet before the elec-tion Time was reporting that Reagan had been “unable to convince a large number of voters that his approach would be much more successful than Carter’s.” True, the Reagan mantra that “Government causes inflation and government can end it” probably had a superficial appeal–but it tapped visceral anti-Washington sentiments more than it did the voters’ belief that balancing the budget and eliminating “fraud and waste” were the cures for inflation.