This essay was originally published in the October 6, 1980 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here
Carter blitzes Reagan with charges he is trigger-happy
With the gunfire in the gulf as his backdrop, Candidate Jimmy Carter last week launched an attack of his own, charging that Ronald Reagan’s past suggestions for using American force abroad betrayed a simplistic world view that could lead to war. As in his previous assaults on the Republican, Carter struck with a hyperbolic intensity that threatened to obliterate his point; some of Reagan’s recommendations were pretty mild stuff, and he has qualified others years ago. Even so, Carter is determined to keep up the attack, and the question of which man is more likely to keep the world at peace is central and could conceivably prove decisive in the presidential contest.
Addressing a state AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles, Carter put the matter bluntly: The coming election, he said, “will determine whether we have peace or war.” In a local television interview the next morning, Carter got down to specifics: “To call for the use of military forces in a very dangerous situation has been a repeated habit of [Reagan’s] as a Governor and as a candidate for President. What he would do in the Oval Office I hope will never be observed.”
“Unforgivable,” was Reagan’s quick reply to Carter’s attack. He told a rally in Pensacola, Fla.: “I think that to accuse anyone of deliberately wanting war is beneath decency. I have two sons. I have a grandson. I have known four wars in my lifetime and I think, like all of you, that world peace has got to be the principal theme of the nation.”
Reagan’s strategists felt that the accusations of warmongering required a strong personal response, unlike Carter’s charges of racism against the Republican, which the Governor’s aides correctly assumed would backfire. Said Senior Adviser James Baker:, “They’ll keep trying to hype this war issue unless someone calls them on it for factual accuracy and demagoguery.” Reagan’s aides also hope that the shrillness of Carter’s statements will detract from one of his strongest attributes—his image of decency and fairness.
While conceding that the President’s words were “an overstatement,” Presidential Spokesman Jody Powell was not about to sound retreat. As the presidential entourage prepared to leave California for Oregon, Powell boarded the press plane. “Any questions?” he asked. “War and peace!” someone shouted. “Tolstoy,” Powell retorted. But then, with careful calculation, he proceeded to pour a little water on the fire with one hand, while adding fuel with the other. Said he: “We have absolutely no apologies to make for raising that issue and for asking Governor Reagan to explain the numerous occasions over the past several years upon which he has advocated the use of American military force in international disputes.”
Brandishing a bill of particulars, Powell ticked off nine countries (“just so we don’t miss a continent”) in which Reagan has suggested military involvement. He included Reagan’s call that Cuba be blockaded in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, that a destroyer should be sent to Ecuador in response to the seizure of American tuna boats and that American troops should be sent to Lebanon during its civil war.
Carter intends to stick with the warmongering theme because his polls show that it is by far the voters’ biggest fear about Reagan. But the issue could cut both ways. A September Yankelovich survey for TIME does indeed indicate that, by a 2-to-l majority, voters feel that Carter is less likely than Reagan to “overreact in times of crisis.” Still, by a similar majority, Reagan beats Carter as being more effective at “standing up to the Russians.”
Thus Reagan has been treading a thin line, trying hard to shed the interventionist image that has long haunted him, without changing himself into a pantywaist. Reagan has also been painting Carter as too dovish and indecisive in foreign affairs, a lack of firmness that he says led to the situations in Iran and Iraq.
Carter’s attack on Reagan made it all but impossible for the G.O.P. candidate to urge any strong action in the gulf area without automatically creating the impression that, as the President keeps claiming, he is all too eager to get his finger on the trigger. Worse yet, Carter’s tactics (“a scorched earth campaign,” snorts one scornful Reagan adviser) make it difficult for Reagan and the President to engage in a debate—even if at long range—on the key question of how muscular U.S. foreign policy should be.
A clear delineation of the issues was also missing from last week’s Baltimore debate, partly because of Carter’s absence, partly because Reagan and John Anderson had not added significantly to their early rhetoric. Both candidates could claim victory and, by general assent, both be right. Party less, Anderson has only issues as a plinth, and he used them. His brief hour in prime time seemed to demonstrate that he is a candidate to be taken seriously, even if he was too intense for some tastes. Relaxed, amiable and avuncular, Reagan made a persuasive case perhaps more for himself than for his positions, and without committing any of the celebrated gaffes that have plagued his campaign. An A.P.-NBC News poll showed that 38% of probable voters who watched the debate thought that Anderson had won, while 35% chose Reagan and 23% believed they did equally well. The Governor undoubtedly made some gains among people who are fearful that he may be too extreme. Said a former top aide to President John Kennedy: “Reagan certainly disappointed those who hoped to see him come across as a right-wing ideologue or a slogan-spouting windup doll.”
Though his aides stoutly denied it, the loser was the man who was not there: the President, who claimed that Anderson had wiped up the floor with Reagan. An ABC News-Harris survey showed that the debate had given a boost to both the President’s opponents. Reagan, who had been running neck and neck with Carter, took a 42%-to-36% lead, and Anderson jumped from 16% to 19%. The A.P.-NBC poll put Reagan at 42%, Carter at 33% and Anderson at 13%.
Campaigning last week, Carter was peppered with questions about why he had failed to debate. Arriving in Springfield, Ill., he was greeted by a picket with a sign reading CARTER IS A CHICKEN. The Baltimore outing might be the alpha and omega of presidential debates in Campaign ’80. Having stuck to its guns for Round 1, the League of Women Voters last week offered the President what he wanted: a two-man debate with Reagan, to be followed by a three-way encounter that includes Anderson.
The Carter camp immediately accepted. Anderson could only say that he was “disappointed” that the league chose to “appease Carter.” Reagan, not keen about meeting the President head on so long as he is still the front runner, said no. He continued to insist that Anderson had to be included in all debates or that Carter had to take on the independent candidate alone, just as he had. Hearing that Reagan was ducking, Press Secretary Powell said: “We think their duplicity is obvious in the extreme.” The prospect for any more presidential debates is dim indeed.
The postdebate strategy of Anderson and his running mate, Patrick Lucey, is to continue to advance at the expense of the President. Last week Anderson lashed out at Carter for injecting the issues of racism and warmongering into the campaign. When asked how he, a professed liberal on social issues, could stomach helping to elect Reagan, Anderson shot back: “I don’t want on my conscience the re-election of a President who has given us 8 million unemployed and a core inflation rate of 10%.” Neither of his opponents, complained Anderson, is a bar gain. “People talk about being a spoiler. What’s to spoil?”
Reagan plans to hammer away at the economic issue, with defense and foreign policy close seconds. In Knoxville, Tenn., he introduced a freshly minted measure of Carter’s shortcomings: a “family suffering index,” which combines the rising cost of food, fuel and housing along with the unemployment rate. The FSI, charged Reagan, has soared from 24.2 when Carter took office to 77 today. “Carter caused it. He tolerates it. He’s going to have to answer to the American people for it.” Rea gan still plans to devote much of his remaining time to five key states: Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas and Florida, which have 121 of the 270 electoral votes he needs to win. If Anderson can main tain 10% in the polls, Reagan figures he has the edge in electoral votes, however close the popular tally, and should go to the White House.
But Carter is conceding nothing—not even Reagan’s home state, where he has budgeted some $2 million. The debate was scarcely concluded when the President flew off to California to announce that he intends to win its 45 electoral votes, the largest bloc among the 50 states. He was encouraged by his pollster, Pat Caddell, who found in his California surveys that Reagan’s support was soft. The latest studies by Independent Mervin Field gave the Republican a ten-point lead. Reagan, who has won four prima ries and two general elections in the state, professes not to be worried. Scoffs Aide Spencer: “They’re trying a little psychological warfare.”
In the weeks ahead, Carter will step up his attack on Reagan’s economic plan and try to brand him as antilabor and against women’s rights. But the President’s best bet may well lie in events be yond his control. As long as the war be tween Iraq and Iran continues, his ratings are likely to improve whatever he does. Says Jim Baker: “Carter can respond to events, and that helps him.” Reagan and George Bush, on the other hand, could do little more than accept an Administration invitation to be briefed on the war.
Conventional political wisdom has it that an overseas crisis strengthens an incumbent, at least in the short run—the “rally-round-the-flag effect.” If Carter is reelected, says Dartmouth Government Professor Larry Radway, he should “invite the Iraqis to sit in a grandstand seat at his Inaugural parade.” Whether the Iraqis and the Iranians will be that cooperative remains to be seen. Foreign affairs has not been Carter’s long suit, and it is possible that the gulf war has come too soon—and its consequences, once the scare passes, might prove too messy—to be of much help to the incumbent on Nov. 4.