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Nixon’s Fall and the Ford and Carter Interregnum
Southeast Missouri State University
for UI320--The Modern Presidency,
April 10, 2003
°Nixon’s Fall from Power
°Gerald Ford, the first interregnum President
°Jimmy Carter, the second interregnum President
°Going Public in the Ford and Carter years
°A New Presidential Voting Coalition
The presidency of Nixon, Ford and Carter from
1973 to 1981 was a much reduced institution from its modern precursor.
Richard Nixon’s presidential resignation on 9 August 1974 completed a
sixteen-month process of removal beginning with the April 1973 press revelations
of White House involvement in the cover up of the June 1972 Watergate break-in
and associated activities of the Plumbers group.
Gerald Ford, selected by Richard Nixon himself under 25th Amendment provisions to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew in October 1973, became an
un-elected President and promptly issued a full pardon of Nixon to spare the
nation any legal accounting of the former President’s own participation in
Watergate. Seeking redemptive
election of his own in 1976, he almost lost the Republican nomination to Ronald
Reagan and then did lose the general election, to a relatively unknown former
Governor of the State of Georgia named Jimmy Carter.
President Carter in turn lost decisively in his own reelection bid
against Ronald Reagan in 1980. In
a period of unprecedented centrality of television, the performance of the
rhetorical presidency reached a low point with both men.
What distinction exists in the performance of either one during the 1976
debate exchanges? The American people had come to distrust a strong presidency
after Johnson and Nixon and got a reduced presidency as a result.
This was not a period of robust performance and distinction at 1600
This section demonstrates the reduced standing of presidents in this
period via approval ratings, and then shows that lowered public evaluations were
warranted from performance of both the public presidency and the legislative
presidency under Ford and Carter.
Return to Top
Watergate remains unique in American scandal annals. Richard Nixon led a systematic cover-up of presidential and White House involvement in a break-in and bugging of telephones at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters housed in the Watergate Hotel on the Potomac River waterfront. Seven men were caught, tried and eventually convicted and jailed for their direct participation in the illegal entry to the DNC after they were discovered by a security guard who noticed a door lock's disablement by means of tape. All belonged to an informally named White House 'Plumbers' unit charged with finding and plugging information leaks on national security matters. This unit was formed in direct reaction to the June 1971 revelation that the New York Times was printing detailed accounts of internal Vietnam War decisions made under Johnson and illegally copied by a former Pentagon official named Daniel Ellsberg. The Nixon White House asked the Supreme Court for an immediate review of restraining orders to prevent further publication, even though none of the revelations were from Nixon's own time. When the Supreme Court in 30 June 1971 ruled 6 to 3 to allow publishing to continue, the White House tried to destroy the reputation of Ellsberg by having the Plumbers break into the office of his psychiatrist and rifle his patient file. In 1972 these men were detailed to a related organization known by the acronym CREEP (Committee to Reelect the President) under direction of Attorney General John Mitchell, who doubled as the President's reelection campaign manager. Their apprehension took place on 17 June 1972 and prompted headlines in the nation and worries in the White House, although Nixon personally was not aware of the specific operation in which 'Plumbers' Howard Hunt, James McCord, Gordon Liddy and their four Miami confederates were caught. The record now shows undeniably and clearly that Richard Nixon immediately began an illegal attempt to conceal the presidential knowledge of this unit and all its varied operations (watergate.info - The Scandal That Destroyed President Richard Nixon; washingtonpost.com - Revisiting Watergate).
The seven men in early 1973 went to federal penitentiary with open-ended sentences by law-and-order Republican Judge John Sirica, who was certain they lied under oath in denying that their actions came under higher direction. The White House immediately began a system of financial payments to maintain their silence and keep their families from ruin during incarceration in a Chicago federal prison. Eventually one among them blew the whistle. James McCord, a former CIA agent with expertise in bugging telephones, made clear that higher-ups directed his actions.
Richard Nixon had installed
audio taping equipment in the White House in 1969 for sake
of producing a historical record, about which he cared very deeply, that would
reflect his version of events rather than those of anyone else. These
tapes were hidden from public and congressional knowledge until a direct
question under subpoena produced a full disclosure on 13 July 1973 of their
existence during the Senate's Erwin Committee investigations into
Watergate. A 13-month struggle for public disclosure of the 4000 hours of
tapes followed, the upshot of which was Supreme Court denial of a Nixon demand
that the tapes were private, personal property of the President and were immune
under executive privilege doctrine from being turned over to Congress or its
Special Prosecutor. Once the key transcripts of June 1972 bled out, all
observing parties could see abundant evidence of direct Nixon cover-up and
payoff efforts in contravention of numerous subsequent denials that either had
been done. On 24 July 1974 the House Judiciary Committee conducted six
days of review on live television before a massive audience and concluded with
three articles of impeachment voted out in bipartisan manner with wide margins
of approval. On 5 August 1974 a tape from 23 June 1972, the so-called
'smoking gun' tape, left no doubt in anyone's mind save that of Patrick
Buchanan. The remaining question became one of preserving a pension and
trying to negotiate a presidential pardon from Vice President Gerald R. Ford,
who had been named to replace Spiro Agnew in October 1973 and was confirmed by
House and Senate as Vice President the following December. Nixon resigned
office on 8 August 1974 and flew home to San Clemente with pension but little else
II. Nixon’s Fall from Power Return to Top
Vietnam and Watergate jointly contributed to an important decline of public trust and faith in all national governmental institutions, including the presidency. Public attachment to both political parties dropped among the young adults who took up the franchise during those years in which each major party performed very poorly on at least one critical national issue or problem. Cynical alienation from politics rose nearly everywhere among Americans, and it endured. (For changes from 1958 through 1998, see Index to the NES Guide, Category 5 - Support for the Political System, items 5.A. Trust in Government through 5.C. Government Responsiveness). The effect is robust in the late 1990s (see Pew Center's 1997 profile, Trust in Government - Summary Only). In the process, negative impact on public approval of post-imperial presidents cannot appear surprising. This section profiles the impact of approval ratings on the Nixon decisions which led ultimately to Watergate, and then shows the precipitous fall from approval associated with that scandal. Here is a snapshot for the weakening of the central office of American national government in the 1970s.
The 1970s for Wall Street stock investors was a sustained bear market. In
politics, public approval of presidents also underwent a bear market. The American people expect all modern presidents to manage the
nation’s economy successfully, and to avoid war but keep the nation’s
foreign enemies at bay. Public
approval of Eisenhower, Kennedy and the early Johnson reflected a path of
success in both these goals. Johnson’s
precipitous decline from 1965 stemmed from a failed war effort above all else,
and was exacerbated by the rise of currency inflation and deficit spending
associated with the effort to fight a protracted war abroad together with
effecting a Great Society at home. Nixon’s
record was a more mixed profile, reflecting both the war’s course and the
attendant economic problems with currency inflation which derived at least in
part from the Johnson guns and butter tactics.
Richard Nixon had a respectable first year in 1969 with a
year’s average 61.2% Gallup approval ratings to 16.7% disapproval (Ragsdale
1995, 199-200; King and Ragsdale 1988, 300-301; Edwards with Gallup 1990, 53-62,
129, 162-164; or see Gallup Presidential Approval
Trends - Nixon). That lent credence
to the traditional 'honeymoon' thesis that new presidents enjoy high approval at
first. Nixon certainly ended 1969
on a high note, having won a marked jump of 11 points to 67% approval in the
November 12-17 Gallup poll after his favorably acclaimed Silent Majority speech of
November 3 (Edwards with Gallup 1990, 55).
This encouraged the President to believe that his decision not to rapidly
end the Vietnam War was vindicated. The
White House mailroom got a high proportion of favorable mail, and additionally
there were sophisticated White House polls that may have been the basis for
later White House claims that 55% to 60% of the public supported the
Administration’s phased withdrawal of direct U.S. military conduct of that war
(Jacobs and Shapiro 1995, 191).
Thus Nixon thought his first year had defused the bitter national mood of
1968, and that he could conduct Vietnam without a hasty withdrawal.
Next year, 1970, was less favorable but still averaged a respectable
56.9% approval to 29.2% disapproval although the war dragged on, casualties
mounted, and bitter public rhetoric emanated from the President as demonstrators
and many others concluded that Vietnam had become Nixon's war.
Nixon’s 30 April 1970 Cambodia incursion speech signaled clearly that
he intended not to bring the war to any quick conclusion, and that he viewed
himself as a wartime president who must not bend to popular antiwar uprisings
from a minority of the nation. In
poll terms there was practically no overall impact of the April and May 1970
upheaval upon Nixon’s standing, which was 56% approval before his Cambodia
“pitiful, helpless giant” speech, 57% during it, and 59% in late May's
aftermath of the Kent State killing of four demonstrators by National Guard
troops. Nixon persisted in his war
Peace never came in 1970, and war casualties mounted as 1971 came about.
The domestic economy contributed to a gradual Nixon slide in the polls as
the year wore on. The Consumer
Price Index, which had crept up to 4.2 percent annual inflation by fiscal 1968,
rose further to 5.4 percent in 1969 and 5.9 percent in 1970 before moderating
slightly to 4.3 percent in 1971. Nixon’s
war legacy included an economy which persisted in an inflationary cycle to which
the President responded in fits and starts of inconsistent centralized economic
management policy. Nixon even
resorted to a national freeze on wages and prices for a pre-announced 90 day
period beginning in August 1971, ensuring their failure in advance as labor and
management simply waited it out and then resumed their usual escalation of labor
costs and product prices. Nixon meanwhile had National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger
conducting secret advance visits with China, and had modest successes in arms
control with the Soviet Union, but nothing of major importance for public
consumption. So during 1971 the
President’s approval was only 50.3% on average while disapproval rose to
Earlier presidents such as Truman might have considered this an
inevitable and natural tendency of ending the presidential honeymoon and making
hard policy decisions. Not Nixon.
Changes of approval had institutional consequences for policy decisions
by the White House, and these had to be managed. Nixon had followed Kennedy and Johnson by instituting full
scale internal polling in the White House to make policy responses to trends
in ratings at any time during the presidential term (Jacobs and Shapiro 1994,
7-12). By Nixon’s time this
became a sophisticated operation. Nixon
took no actions without first reading internal, closely held polling data
(Jacobs and Shapiro 1994, 27-29, 30-32). That
made sense in an era of detachment of voters from traditional party loyalties,
leading to unprecedented increases after 1966 in split ticket voting on national
offices. The Nixon White House
“treated the management of presidential approval as essential” (ibid., 35)
for good reason.
The chief source for judging that Watergate was unnecessary for the
President’s reelection is not only his eventual 61 percent national popular
vote plurality in November 1972, but also the 56.4% averaged approval Nixon
enjoyed during the year. But policy
and political strategy for 1972 were set down in 1971, when approval ratings
lagged and November 1971 Harris straw polls publicly showed Nixon about even
with either Edmund Muskie or Ted Kennedy for 1972; in December his Gallup
approval rating was only 49% (Barone 1990, 494).
Enough Nixon presidential papers are now open to see the President's
19171 efforts to orchestrate every aspect of both high statecraft
and low politics to bring about reelection and a chance at historical greatness.
Watergate’s seeds were planted
in the president’s efforts to ensure reelection before any seers could
recognize that it would prove easy.
Nixon in 1972 got a rich foreign policy harvest in approval. The triumphant televised state visit to China in March 1972 produced a
rating rise of 4 points to 56%. Then
the USSR visit in June 1972 after the risky May bombing of Haiphong Harbor, gave
Nixon a 59% Gallup approval rating. Meanwhile,
break-ins occurred at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the
Watergate Hotel, while for months the White House and CREEP 'dirty tricks' specialists had
sabotaged the 1971 pre-primary leading Democrat, Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine
(Small 1999, 253-255). It is hardly clear
that sabotage directly hurt Muskie, but in the February 1972 New Hampshire
presidential primary Muskie damaged himself severely on television with a famous crying episode as he railed against the ultraconservative flagship New
Hampshire newspaper for ad hominen attacks on his spouse.
The White House got its fondest wish as the weakest Democratic candidate,
Senator George McGovern, became its presidential nominee in an
eerie replay of 1964 with ideological tags reversed.
It was a campaign of extraordinary meanness. The Republicans gleefully
tagged the Democratic campaign for "acid, amnesty and abortion" along
with laxity on welfare and forced bussing of white school children into
predominantly black schools. President Nixon also employed economic election-year ‘liberal hour’ tactics by
boosting benefits to individuals through political intervention into that
administrative and legislative process. He
always believed that Eisenhower’s lack of deliberate economic stimulation in
1960 contributed to his own defeat by Kennedy.
In 1972 there were extensive presidentially directed economic stimulus
actions on Social Security and veterans benefits, all tailored to take effect as
November 1972 approached (Tufte 1978, 38f10, 45-55; Kernell 1993, 217-221).
Nothing was left to chance.
After November reelection the Nixon foreign policy touch held for awhile
longer. This was a politician who
understood political timing quite well. He
awaited reelection, then produced the intensive Christmas 1972 bombing of Hanoi
and Haiphong Harbor, and safely bore the 'hit' with an approval dip to 51% in
early January 1973. That promptly
shifted back to a lofty 67% in late January after Nixon's peace accord with
North Vietnam was resumed. This was
the high point for him. Foreign
policy, on which Nixon spent nearly all his personal time and counted on for
history to judge him 'great,' would thereafter no longer be germane to public
judgment of Richard Nixon.
On 19 March 1973 the first major Washington
Post headlines revealed White House connections to Watergate and the various
other efforts to undermine the Democrats and ensure Nixon's reelection by all
necessary means. In May and June
1973 Nixon's approval was 44%, exactly the same as disapproval.
It dropped steadily down, and by October 19-22 after the 'Saturday night
massacre' (firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, resignation of the
Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General for refusal to carry out this
firing) Nixon was down to 27% approval and 60% disapproval (Gallup Presidential Approval
Trends - Nixon).
There he remained for the next 10 months until 9 August 1974 resignation.
With a bottoming at 24% approval in July and August, Nixon retained the
faith of one-fourth of the American people as his complicity in Watergate became
common and unavoidable public knowledge. As
he well knew, that would not forestall impeachment by the House, which was
imminent, or conviction in the Senate, where in early August Nixon learned he
had no more than six assured supporters among 100 Senators.
Nixon resigned to set an unwanted historical first among American
This approval profile demonstrates that the American people are
instrumentally rational about judging presidents for good or ill.
Richard Nixon got good ratings for performing well in 1972 and early 1973
on foreign policy, vindicating the public’s earlier judgments to allow him
considerable time to extricate the nation from a war entanglement he had
inherited from a predecessor. Nixon
got mediocre ratings when national economic management was relatively more
prevalent in public thinking as a salient or germane issue--a factor which later
became quite evident with the Bush Administration’s ratings during 1991 and
1992 (see Edwards, Mitchell and Welch 1995, 108-134).
The reason was the Nixon did not perform well in that area, particularly
in 1971. Finally, Nixon got abysmal
ratings and a firm public determination to oust him from the presidency, once
Watergate took over public consciousness from April 1973 onward.
Revealed scandal on the order of a Watergate event obviously overrides
other public judgments about the presidency.
III. Gerald Ford, the first interregnum President Return to Top
Once Nixon was out, his chosen successor was subjected to the same
rational public judgment as he. Former
Vice-President Gerald Ford began his brief presidency effectively, promising in
his 'mini-inaugural' speech to devote himself to reconciling public differences
and governing within constitutional boundaries.
Ford had a de facto presidential honeymoon, that is, a period early in
this new administration with favorable press, lack of negative public judgments,
and a wait-and-see demeanor from Washington’s political elite and the public
at large. President Ford’s first
August 16-19, 1974 Gallup poll rang
up 71% approval to 3% disapproval (no misprint), reflecting universal
relief over Watergate’s temporary end (Presidential
Job Performance Page; Gallup Presidential Approval
Trends - Ford). The
Washington press was filled with laudatory comments, many of them reflecting
pleasant surprise at this new non-Nixonian, open administration after the cold
war press climate of the Nixon years (Rozell 1992, ch. 3, pp. 31-49).
Ford’s honeymoon lasted one month and one day. On September 6-9 his Gallup-measured approval still held at 66% to just 13% disapproval. But on 8 September 1974 Watergate caught up to Gerald Ford. He exercised one of the very few pure constitutional prerogatives of his office, and officially pardoned Richard Nixon of any and all crimes associated with his conduct of office (see Gerald Ford's Remarks on Signing the Nixon Pardon Proclamation). The Washington press was stunned, partly because Ford had given no hint that this decision had been taken and had included no prior warnings to his own White House Press Secretary (Rozell 1992, 53). Press Secretary Jerald TerHorst promptly resigned the office. Neither press nor nation responded favorably to this hasty foreclosure of public account-taking of former President Nixon. Gerald Ford immediately dropped 16 points to 50% approval overall, with a sudden jump to 28% disapproval (Ragsdale 1995, 201; Gallup Presidential Approval Trends - Ford). It was the shortest presidential honeymoon on record, and one which demonstrates that the American people accord most presidents a grace period until inherently divisive and partisan decisions are made. Then judgments promptly ensue.
One product of honeymoon’s end was the immediate resumption of an
adversarial relationship between White House and working press.
John Robert Greene’s study of the Ford presidency refers to post-pardon
relations as “a war between the Ford White House and the press that would rage
for the rest of his administration” (Greene 1995, 61).
Maltese’s careful study of White House public relations demonstrates
that Ford’s White House never succeeded in establishing ‘spin
control’--that essential defining of what is important and what is not, by
which a president’s ability to handle the post-Watergate press is carefully
measured (Maltese 1992).
Economic problems rendered the next judgment on Ford, and a negative one
it was. A new phenomenon was
introduced to American lexicon, “stagflation,” standing for a rise of both
inflation and unemployment in defiance of standard Keynesian belief that both
would not rise at once. They did so in 1974, and Ford was especially distressed at
the hefty inflationary rises spurred partly by worldwide energy price rises of
1973-74. The Consumer Price Index
rose 11.0 percent in 1974. Gas
prices skyrocketed, a distressing experience indeed for a nation still
accustomed to driving V-8 vehicles with 350 cubic inches of engine displacement
and 12 miles per gallon fuel efficiency. Ford
was acutely sensitive to inflation as a danger, but his frequent public
exhortations became a parody symbolized by his “Whip Inflation Now” or WIN
buttons. The limited rhetorical
gifts of this President were not equal to the task of rallying Americans against
economic reversal. Neither did his
extensive travels suffice to bring about cooperation to minimize the impact of
an economic problem which partially had roots in the gradually increased
American dependence upon foreign energy supplies. No other president traveled so often for so little effect.
Americans issued a stern negative judgment to Ford and the GOP in the
November 1974 midterm election. This
historic high point for Democrats saw a net gain of 4 Senate seats and 49 seats
in the House of Representatives, with no fewer than 75 Democratic House freshmen
labeled as ‘Watergate babies’ after the chief single reason for the
existence in public office of some from districts which normally and
historically had voted for Republicans. Presidents
typically face midterm partisan seat reversals, but 1974 was considerably beyond
the customary losses. Democrats won
57.1% of the national congressional vote, the most in any election since World
War II (Ornstein et al., 1998, T. 2-2, pp. 52-53).
Ford hereafter faced a 94th Congress dominated numerically in two-to-one
ratio by Democrats, including a large host of liberal and reformist elements who
were not inclined to follow their own party leadership, let alone a traditional
midwestern conservative Republican who happened to occupy the other end of
Pennsylvania Avenue in 1975 and 1976. Ford’s
chief instrument of policy influence throughout this Congress was the veto,
employed a record 66 times in 28 months of Ford’s tenure with no fewer than 12
of those resulting in veto overrides (Ragsdale 1996, 402).
Although Ford had 25 years as a legislator and eight as leader of his
House party, no background is sufficient
for a president to lead a Congress controlled two-to-one by the opposite party.
By December 1974, President Ford had dropped 10 points to 42% approval
and 41% disapproval, thereafter averaging about 40% approval through May 1975 as
the deepest American recession since the 1930s finally yielded to recovery in
the second quarter that year. Recovery
(despite a 9.1 percent CPI rise in inflation during 1975) plus foreign crisis produced a
modest boost in May and June 1975 to 52% approval as Ford ordered a Marine raid
against the Khmer Rouge Cambodia regime to enforce its release of the captured
U.S. merchant marine vessel Mayaguez. This dubious exercise in presidential power produced the
desired rally effect, but did not quiet skeptics who doubted that a military
raid was ultimately necessary to obtain release of that vessel.
The raid cost the lives of 38 American military personnel (Greene 1995,
143-151). The remainder of the year
he slipped to mid-40s approval as that brief crisis faded and the Saturday
Night Live comics exploited a general public impression that this President
was a bumbler and simply not very bright.
Mark Rozell shows that the press acquired certain impressions of this
President early, and never could be budged from those assumptions later on.
One of these was that he lacked brains, which was not true, but was given
credence by his obvious lack of rhetorical acumen, his plodding personal manner
and mode of speech, his eschewal of intellectual pursuits, and his uncomplicated
common-man personal demeanor. They
also accurately portrayed his personal honesty and decency, his devotion to his
wife and family, his uncomplicated lack of nixonian pretense to royalty, and
his basic common sense (Rozell 1992). But
worst for his image, they portrayed him as clumsy and inept physically.
He was nothing of the sort, unlike the physically awkward Nixon, but he
was also 6’3” and 220 pounds being photographed bumping his head on a
helicopter door designed for someone of different dimensions.
By President Ford’s days in office, a television-oriented,
post-Watergate press had changed the rules of conduct vastly from 35 years
earlier, when the public did not see that Franklin Roosevelt was wheelchair
bound. President Ford was portrayed
often as something other than presidential in stature.
Ford’s high point in the handful of 1976 pre-election polls was only 50% approval in mid-March. The Republican Party's ferocious beating at the polls in 1974 prompted conservatives to look elsewhere. The Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade abortion decision was three years old, and a national campaign was underway to adopt a constitutional Equal Rights Amendment. Cultural conservatives took up the public cause against both, starting creation of what eventually was called the religious right wing. There was a proliferation of state presidential primaries; although this trend was begun by Democrats, state law revisions made the trend equally applicable to the GOP. The southern states were unmistakably moving toward the most conservative Republicans. All this plus personal free time for a campaign prompted the former Governor of California Ronald Reagan to audaciously challenge a sitting President for nomination by his own party in 1976. President Ford eventually won that delegate-count contest thanks to backing from nearly all other national office-holding Republicans and his own decisive wins in nearly all early primaries. But late in primary season Reagan won decisively in southern state primaries and cut deeply into the public’s sense that the GOP was united behind its titular leader. The pro-choice Ford was on the historical wrong side of what has eventually become a conservative party on cultural issues such as legal abortion.
Ford reinforced the adverse judgments on him with a mediocre debate performance against the Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter in the 1976 general election campaign. It is less that Carter performed well than a matter of Ford committing a notable rhetorical gaffe on Poland as a free state during a time well before Poland's actual escape from the Soviet orbit of control was remotely possible. Given a chance by the moderator to recoup and state the point accurately, Ford only reinforced the error (See on line the PBS file Debating Our Destiny 1976; and excerpts of adverse press reaction to Ford on Poland, at The Great Debate & Beyond The History of Televised Presidential Debates).
This does not mean Jimmy Carter of Georgia was an overwhelming candidate.
Carter's victory in November 1976 was a narrow one, only 2.06 percentage points
of advantage in popular vote and a 297 to 240 Electoral College win (see Dave
1976 Election Results; and my file Presidential Elections through 2000).
hardly impressive next to Democratic congressional advantages of 292 to 143 in
the House and 62 to 38 in the Senate (Presidents and Congresses).
Ford bitterly blamed Reagan’s primary challenge for his defeat by Carter in November 1976, but it would be far more accurate to
assign this to Richard Nixon. Edwards
and Gallup conclude: "His
pardon of Richard Nixon lost him the goodwill of a substantial segment of the
American people, and he had to struggle for support throughout his term (1990,
172)." Reagan exploited rather than created an insurmountable
Reagan exploited rather than created an insurmountable weakness.
Neither could Ford escape attachment to Amendment 25 of the U.S. Constitution. Ratified in 1967
after Lyndon Johnson served all of 1964 without a sitting Vice-President, this
belated modernization of rules of presidential succession provided that a
vice-presidential vacancy be filled through presidential nomination to that
office, subject to confirmation by simple majority of both House and Senate.
After Agnew's resignation from the Vice-Presidency on 10 October 1973,
President Nixon nominated House Minority Leader Gerald Ford the same day upon
assurance from Democratic leaders on the Hill that Ford would easily muster
confirmation while Nixon's Secretary of Commerce John Connally assuredly would
not (Cannon 1994, 197, 205). By December,
Ford was confirmed. Eight
months later on 9 August 1974, Vice-President Ford became the first man in
American history to assume the presidency without having run for or won a vote
for either national office. In this
vein Ford's gracious introductory speech to the nation that day was a true
admission of his special shortcoming: "I
am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots
Ford's Swearing-in Speech, Aug. 9, 1974). The following day Garry
Trudeau’s Doonesbury cartoon column
portrayed spring arriving on the spacious lawn behind the gates with the White
House in the background. But the
presidency is an office dependent upon legitimacy of power through election, and
in this respect Gerald Ford faced a unique struggle for public affirmation.
The pardon undercut much of the good will he inherited from replacing
This is true even though available evidence does not point to a deal
between Ford and former President Nixon (Greene 1995, 37-52, 66).
Ford’s time was brief, and he will be most remembered for this action
and other consequences of the Watergate presidential crisis.
IV. Jimmy Carter, the second interregnum President Return to Top
Jimmy Carter was also a product of Watergate politics, a fairly obscure
two-time former Governor of Georgia whose chief 1976 primary appeal was that he
was honest, earnest, open, and guileless in character.
He was indeed most (not all) of that, but only in a climate of
post-Watergate politics would such qualities take someone far in presidential
primaries. Carter took a positively anti-political view of policymaking
into Washington politics, trusting that by doing what is right he would somehow
win over the public, the press, and other politicians (Jones 1988).
Once elected narrowly (by 51 percent in popular vote) over Gerald Ford,
everyone wondered how a novice to national politics would fare in the White
President Carter had almost as much travail in public approval as Gerald
Ford. His tenure became a textbook
illustration of what the presidential 'honeymoon' really is.
Kerbel (1989, 11) says "the 'honeymoon' label has long been applied
to describe the first months following the birth of a new administration, when
Congress supposedly puts aside political and philosophical differences and
embraces the new President in an act of bipartisan support." How long was this period before presidential decisions
galvanize the normal skeptics and partisans into confirmed opposition?
In Carter's case, about seven months from January 20 inauguration.
He skipped along with 70% or so approval till April's national address
labeling the national energy shortage the 'moral equivalent of war' and
remained thereafter in the low 60s till August, when Carter sent the Panama
Canal Treaty to a skeptical Senate (see Gallup Presidential Approval
Trends - Carter). Carter never saw the
favorable side of 60 again. This
pragmatic acknowledgement of reduced importance of the Canal to the U.S.
nevertheless became a convenient symbol of Carter’s weak foreign policy, and
right wing Republicans led by Ronald Reagan used the occasion to test strongly
nationalist rhetoric with the public in anticipation of the 1980 election year.
The Carter honeymoon was definitely over before 1977 ended. With the ultimately unpopular Senate ratification of the Panama treaty, President Carter dropped ten points to the mid-50s for the period through one year's tenure in late January 1978. He would never reach that level again. The year 1978 should have been fairly good for the President, since the economy grew nicely with 3%-plus real growth just as it had in 1977. But a very widespread public perception of Carter's personal and political ineptness crept outward from Washington circles to the nation at large. The post-Watergate national news media decided that Carter, like Ford, was not very competent as a politician or a president despite his obvious intelligence and abundance of personal character.
Carter did have a long suit that produced important foreign policy accomplishments for the country. That was his personal commitment to peacemaking. The chronic troubles of the Middle East in the 1970s concentrated most upon the direct military confrontations of Egypt and Israel. The wars of 1956, 1967, and 1973 all saw the chief source of Arab military forces coming from the other side of the Suez. The last of these was engineered by President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, who won considerable cachet in the Arab world for resolute military actions against the superior military prowess of Israel in 1973. President Carter made it his personal mission to seek peace between these adversaries. Their venomous history was anything but promising as 1977 saw the historic rise of a new and more militant party, the Likud Party under leadership of Menachem Begin, take power in Israel. Nonetheless, Carter took considerable personal and political risk in committing himself directly to reconciliation of the two nations, and in a grueling set of summer 1978 meetings he was successful in bringing them together for an historic agreement to cease hostilities. Carter personally announced the agreement before Congress on 17 September 1978 with the pair of Begin and Sadat sitting almost together in the House gallery seats reserved for honored parties (see Camp David Accords -- Framework for Peace; and The Avalon Project Camp David Accords; September 17, 1978).
Jimmy Carter's personal religious convictions underlie his lifelong commitment to peacemaking, and on this occasion they bore considerable fruit. Carter persistently sought to make promotion of human rights and democracy the central guiding principle of United States foreign policy. Followers of doctrinal realpolitik often dismissed these aspirations as pipe dreams and sloppy thinking. But despite the long travail of Israel with the Palestinians since 1978, no direct hostilities have engaged Israel against Egypt since the Accords were signed.
Carter did benefit politically in fall 1978 from the Accords, but the bump was modest in approval terms. He rose to 52% approval over 34% disapproval in November 1978, and remained near there for two months. Then he dropped rapidly in 1979 as other news took over. By June 1-4, 1979, Gallup had him at a dismal 29% approval against 56% disapproval. Carter felt compelled to take stock. He chose to highlight the public's loss of confidence in national institutions, notably with his midsummer 1979 retreat to Camp David isolation. Taking another dismal 29% approval rating with him and following a secluded epiphany there, he came forth to speak to the nation of a 'crisis of confidence' over the objections of Vice-President Walter Mondale (see Speeches by Jimmy Carter: The Crisis of Confidence). Thus was born the association of Carter with the political death knell term 'malaise.'
Carter had a technically correct and valid point to make about public dismay and distrust in its public institutions. Public confidence in government was remarkably low in 1979. The National Election Study asks respondents: "How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right-- just about always, most of the time or only some of the time?" In 1964, 62 percent answered "most of the time." In 1968, 54 percent responded that way. In 1972, 48 percent responded so. Then after Watergate, in 1974 only 34 percent; in 1976, just 30 percent; and in 1978, a scanty 27 percent (Trust the Federal Government). Similar but blunter questions evoked a similar decline. Another item reads: "Do you think that quite a few of the people running the government are crooked, not very many are, or do you think hardly any of them are crooked at all?" Just 29 percent answered "quite a few" in 1964; 25 percent said so in 1968; but 36 percent in 1972, 45 percent in 1974, another 42 percent in 1976, and 39 percent in 1978 answered accordingly (Are Government Officials Crooked?). The effect of Watergate faded only a little in the 1970s, and not at all in the long run. In 1980 through 1998 between 40 and 52 percent answered this way. The crisis was not contrived, it was real.
this forceful speech to quite
favorable initial elite and media reaction.
But he promptly undercut himself by returning to Camp David to fire or
accept resignations of no less than five major Cabinet officers in a single move
that inevitably was labeled the Midsummer Massacre. This more than offset any
good his speech did, for "his gambit of asking for mass resignations made
it appear that the government was falling apart.” (Kaufman 1993, 146)
Carter compounded it by naming longtime Georgia aide Hamilton Jordan as White
House Chief of Staff, a post for which he was exceptionally ill-suited in the
estimation of nearly everyone in Washington.
This was a very poor managerial confidence-building exercise by
Thus summer 1979 helped Carter not one whit in public approval as fall
1979 came about. He
languished at 31% approval in October before the infamous
4 November 1979 assault on the American Embassy by orchestrated mobs in Teheran,
Iran. The immediate effect was a
textbook case of the "rally effect."
Short for "rally around the flag," this is any temporary
approval surge attending a crisis or perceived crisis, usually one in foreign
affairs. Iran was the perfect foil
to produce a rally, for few Americans of any political persuasion could tolerate
the nightly televised vision of radical Iranians parading blindfolded American
diplomats before howling crowds in Teheran.
So the President experienced a steep rise to 58% approval and 32%
disapproval in a 22 January 1980 poll (Ragsdale 1995, 203).
This almost doubled his approval preceding the early November 1979 period
when the radical new Iran regime took American embassy personnel hostage, there
to remain for the next 444 days until immediately after Carter's 20 January 1981
departure from office.
The ever-increasing television factor proved a key player on
disposition of the hostage issue. The
essential impact of the mass media upon public approval is that of determining
what issues and public events occupy the public's attention (Iyengar 1991).
Iranian hostages were covered with extraordinary intensity.
The nightly ABC program "America Held Hostage," which
eventually became its Nightline, was a
riveting spectacle in the early months of the crisis.
The President himself spurred American preoccupation with this event by
publicly affirming that it would become his own near-obsessive concern as well.
That was a human enough motive for a President who emphasized an
international human rights perspective, but strategically it held major risks.
As well, it proved to be a major political expedient, for the Iowa and
New Hampshire events were in February 1980.
Carter's rise in the polls lasted long enough to decisively beat Ted
Kennedy in the early spring 1980 primaries.
The problem with this political benefit is that the crisis had better be
brief. At 444 days of hostages
held, Iran was not. But President
Carter kept highlighting the unresolved hostage crisis, publicly saying he was
putting aside all else to personally concentrate on this issue.
Thus we had the famous daily media watch in which ABC and other national
networks signed off nightly news with 'This is day ___ of captivity for the
hostages in Iran.'
Iran was not the only serious foreign policy problem, although television coverage at times gave that impression. The Soviet Union in 1979 had made its ultimately disastrous armed move for conquest in Afghanistan. It did not look like disaster for them at the time, but instead was read as another sign of communist aggression during an unsteady watch of a Democrat who was willing to cede the Panama Canal to control by a small Latin American nation. Carter’s primary public response to Leonid Brezhnev’s bold Soviet gambit was a refusal to permit American athletes to compete in the 1980 Summer Olympics upcoming in Moscow. That embittered athletes, dismayed fans, and deprived Americans of the propaganda opportunity to witness the Moscow authorities flagrantly cheat several non-Soviet track and field athletes out of rightful medals.
This was Carter's political reward for
championing human rights abroad, and insi sting
that the rules of American engagement abroad be rewritten to foster respect for
human rights. It embittered American conservatives and neo-conservatives,
who saw some of what historian Douglas Brinkley said of Carter: "the
Carter administration had championed a post-cold-war foreign policy before the
cold war was over." (Brinkley 1998, 20).
sting that the rules of American engagement abroad be rewritten to foster respect for human rights. It embittered American conservatives and neo-conservatives, who saw some of what historian Douglas Brinkley said of Carter: "the Carter administration had championed a post-cold-war foreign policy before the cold war was over." (Brinkley 1998, 20).
President Carter suffered
a spring 1980 crash to earth as the Iranian hostage event proved different from the
incident four years earlier. The rally
effect faded as the yellow ribbons on trees grew dustier by the week. By June 1980
Carter was at 32% approval and 56% disapproval, and he remained in the 30s until Ronald Reagan's
ten-percentage-point popular vote win in November ended the Carter presidency (1980
Election Results; Presidential Elections through 2000).
And then the unkindest cut of all; in the last two polls, of November
21-24 and December 5-8, the lame duck president earned only 31% and 34% approval
(Edwards with Gallup 1990, 89-90) while the Iran hostages awaited release till the
start of the Reagan Administration on 20 January 1981.
Burton Kaufman’s study of the Carter presidency claims the decisive
moment which lost the election for Carter was the 28 October 1980 debate with
Reagan a week before the election (Kaufman 1993, 205).
This event produced the famous Reagan summation.
“Are you better off than you were four years ago?
Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four
years ago? Is there more or less
unemployment in the country
than there was four years ago?
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?” (Kaufman 1993, 205; and Debate Transcripts October 28 1980
in final paragraph of text) This nicely
captured the American habit of retrospective voting in presidential
elections. When an incumbent president runs for a second term, Americans
essentially take a look back and evaluate whether things went poorly or well
with the country (and for themselves) in the first term. If in a year like
1996 or 1956 the basic answers on both economic and foreign policy basis are
'yes,' then the opposition has a difficult onus of tagging the incumbent for
probable failures to come. McGovern tried that, stating on 4 October 1972
that "the Nixon Administration is the most corrupt Administration in our
national history" (Small 1999, 260). That proved exactly true, but
went to no avail in a year of prosperity, foreign policy breakthroughs, and lack
of direct evidence linking White House to Watergate plumbers. When things
have gone poorly, as for Hoover in 1932, the challenger barely need campaign at
all to ensure victory. Reagan in 1980 had only to reassure Americans that
he was not a personally intemperate or politically radical figure who would
endanger the fundamentals of the American way of life. Once he did so,
victory was assured. Reagan’s
summation was indeed skillful, but the words did not teach people to do something new
to them. They did what they
Students should remember that hindsight is at work here. Very few forecasters predicted the size of the Reagan margin in 1980. He won easily in national popular vote (50.75% to 41.01%), states (44 to 7 with D.C.) and Electoral College (489 to 49) (1980 Election Results; Presidential Elections through 2000).
Few periods afford a better profile than the Ford/Carter era of
presidents rising or declining in public esteem according to the quality of
their policy decisions and the overall evaluation of their competence or fitness
for office. Americans decided that first Ford and then Carter were
comparatively weak, ineffectual Presidents who came to power more or less by
accident and did nothing particular to justify another term of office.
What remains for asking is what, if anything, might have been done to
curtail this judgment and convey a more robust, successful presidency.
Going Public in the Ford and
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A new political regime was emergent in 1970s America. Presidents once relied heavily on political party for nomination, for election, for reelection, and for influence in Congress. By the 1970s that had radically changed. Presidents Johnson and Nixon presided over the historical low point of organizational strength of the two American national parties. The 1972 abuses by Nixon's CREEP against the Democrats were not committed by the Republican National Committee, whose director Robert Dole in 1973 acidly commented that it stayed a million miles distant from the entire Nixon reelection campaign. The 1976 nominations saw victory by a nearly unknown former Governor of Georgia in one party and a near-upset of a sitting president for nomination in the other. Presidents took soundings from their own public opinion pollsters instead of relying on party links to the public. The White House ran its own extensive public relations and "spin" operations. The 1970s were also a historical low point for cohesion of parties within the Congress; the majority Democrats were irrevocably divided into mainstream liberals and stubbornly conservative white southerners, while Republicans saw an influx of cultural conservatives alongside traditional moderates. Congressional reformers cut away at the apparatus for ruling the Congress through its committee chairs, but the alternative control mechanism of party caucus or conference was hampered by absence of ideologically cohesive party membership.
This all presented a serious problem for presidents in the 1970s. If party ties did not bind during election or thereafter, how were presidents to achieve much of significance with Congress? Samuel Kernell defined an alternative strategic response known as 'going public'.
Basically Kernell says modern presidents regularly use their bully pulpit
position to apply pressure on
Congress through the media's impact upon public opinion (Kernell 1993, ch. 6).
Outsider presidents who lack robust standing with the Washington elite are
especially reliant upon this strategy as an alternative to insider bargaining of
the type that Johnson employed so effectively. Carter planned instead to go
over the heads of Members of Congress to the citizenry if necessary. Ford
did not say that but did try it, and very often at that. 'Going
public' meant public speaking and use of the media to pass a president's program or prevent passage of something the president
dislikes. However, it did not free
a president from bargaining with other serious Washington power figures.
To the contrary, the effectiveness of going public required that a
president possess enough public approval that Members of Congress will take a
presidential promise or threat seriously (Kernell 1993, 157-158).
In 1973 through 1980, Presidents Ford and Carterrarely had that approval.
Going public requires both the willingness and capacity to employ public rhetoric with a large impact. However, competent use of political rhetoric was a significant personal shortcoming of both Ford and Carter. Neither used television effectively, although candidate Carter had done so at times in 1976 campaign appearances. Neither had a systematic administrative plan to compensate for such weaknesses by emphasizing other avenues for putting the president’s policies before the public in a favorable light. The suspicions and outright hostility of the post-Watergate national media contributed to that failure. Nor were other avenues readily available. Political parties were becoming ever less influential in selling a slate of policies, so alternative avenues for trumpeting policy success were lacking. Ford resorted to sloganeering against inflation with buttons reading “Whip Inflation Now.” That failed badly enough to become a routine butt of jokes, and some skeptical citizenry wore the buttons upside down. Carter in April 1977 labeled American energy problems the “moral equivalent of war,” the hyperbole of which inspired issuance of buttons saying “MEOW.” The result was the same as Ford’s, ridicule and belittlement.
Carter exacerbated the problem further by actively disdaining the modern
presidential obligation to use rhetoric as a crucial means of establishing and
keeping political support. He
refused to practice speech presentations because to him it had an air of
posturing rather than actually accomplishing something. His delivery
was often peculiarly disjointed so that speeches sometimes read quite well but
are disconcerted to hear. This had
something to do with Carter's personal disdain for politicking along Lyndon
Johnson's lines. He could not or would not flatter, cajole, horse trade,
and bully Members of Congress despite the palpable indications that this would
produce better results than straight recitation of the moral and practical case
for a policy.
His delivery was often peculiarly disjointed so that speeches sometimes read quite well but are disconcerted to hear.
This had something to do with Carter's personal disdain for politicking along Lyndon Johnson's lines. He could not or would not flatter, cajole, horse trade, and bully Members of Congress despite the palpable indications that this would produce better results than straight recitation of the moral and practical case for a policy.
Ford did not thrive either. Although he spent more time campaigning and
more speeches were given than any other president, he never became an
accomplished stump speaker.
Ford did not thrive either. Although he spent more time campaigning and more speeches were given than any other president, he never became an accomplished stump speaker.He was deliberate and slow in speech, not given to poetry or high culture
Ford and Carter needed political skill, for they each had plenty to defend against. They faced regular
congressional challenges to presidential authority.
A direct reaction to both
Vietnam and Watergate was congressional reassertion of many of its dormant
sources of authority. The Watergate
era was the height of congressional antagonism to presidential prerogative with
1973 enactment of the War Powers Resolution (over Nixon's veto) and 1974
creation of a separate Congressional Budget Office to avoid further reliance
upon the president's Office of Management and Budget.
The Ford White House faced an overwhelming predominance of Democrats in
Congress, the 94th of 1975-96 including not only a 291-144 Democratic edge in
the House but also a contingent of
75 ‘Watergate baby’ Democratic freshmen who largely ran for office
successfully in the 1974 midterm election as reformers and independent operators
who would not defer to presidential (or other) authority.
Liberalism was on the rise in 1975, which started in the House with the
unprecedented ouster of three senior southern Democratic committee chairmen in
direct violation of their traditional seniority right to chairmanships. Ford’s chief legislative response was to issue numerous vetoes, 66 in all with 18 pocket vetoes and 48 regular session ones subject to
possible overrides. Of those, one in four, or 12 in all, were overturned by the
No other president had ever suffered that low a success ratio with the
veto, but few previous men had served during divided government, and none was an
inheritor of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.
Democrat Carter in 1977 had his own deep troubles with Congress.
He began badly by organizing the White House Office of Congressional
Relations around issue concentrations rather than geography, thereby ignoring
predominant Democratic party realities on the Hill and overriding unanimous
counsel of experienced Washington hands from the Kennedy and Johnson days.
Carter compounded his troubles by choosing April 1977 to sound a moral
charge against pork barrel politics in the form of that year’s water projects
bill. This deeply displeased Senate
figures such as Russell Long of Louisiana, who also chaired the Senate Finance
Committee which had jurisdiction over a hefty part of the Carter domestic policy
agenda. Carter was to discover more
generally that fellow Democrats in Congress had become deeply accustomed to
running their own affairs from the Hill without presidential direction.
He was handicapped as a southerner with conservative fiscal policy views
but a moderate and national appeal on racial issues, which left him suspect to
both the still-dixiecrat white Southern Democrats and to the Kennedy-oriented
Northern Democrats. He won the
great preponderance of congressional floor votes on which the President’s
Position was recorded, but often was forced in advance to withdraw or
drastically alter proposals before they ever reached the floor.
The Lyndon Johnson approach to governing Congress had vanished. Neither Ford nor Carter had
the political capital plus the direct links to Congress to do direct bargaining in Johnsonian fashion.
Exactly when presidents most needed to 'go public' forcefully, these two
presidents were least able to do it successfully.
But they also lacked the requisite mastery of television appeals to make
the case by going to Congress through appeals for public support.
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In the 1990 American Experience film Nixon,
the astute political commentator David Broder noted that Richard Nixon's
sweeping 1972 reelection was a selfish personal landslide in which the President
hoarded all available campaign resources for himself.
Nixon's campaign is estimated to have spent a staggering $66 million in
pre-inflation 1972 dollars to achieve a landslide.
To equal that in 1988, the Bush campaign would have had to spend $187
Nixon tried hard in 1970 to campaign for a Republican Senate majority
(since the Senate then had much more real authority over foreign policy than the
House) but with hardly more success than Franklin Roosevelt harvested in 1938.
So in 1972 he largely gave up real hope of a congressional majority, and
concentrated on himself.
Such a selfish electoral concentration was to become the rule rather than
exception after 1972. Americans
assumed the unprecedented habit of largely detaching their vote for president
from their vote for Congress. Coattail
effects, which depend upon a reliable tendency for most to vote a party ticket,
were drastically diminished. Candidates
for national office on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue picked up the cue by
separating themselves from party organizations and running their own personally
directed primary campaigns. This
was very obvious by 1976, when the near-unknown former Georgia Governor Jimmy
Carter won enough primaries to secure the party's nomination before it ever met
in convention; and incumbent House Democrats from the sweeping 75-member Class
of 1974 (nicknamed "Watergate Babies") stressed personal district
services in gaining 1976 re-election with only two casualties.
Individual Democrats had figured out a winning formula for detaching
themselves from the party's several liabilities--in foreign policy, in lack of
active nationalism, in waffling about rising crime rates, in uncertainty about
how to rein in 1960s cultural excesses--while staying away from the emerging
conservatism that was progressively taking over the Republican party.
Thus while 1968 to1992 was Republican as they won 6 of 7 presidential
elections, Democrats dominated the House of Representatives all of those 24
years and all but the first six Reagan years of 1981-86 in the Senate (per Presidents and Congresses).
government became the norm for the first time in American political history.
Division also reached a new peak in the 1970s within the larger
congressional party, the Democrats. An on-line graphic display from
It all brought major legislative difficulties for any activist Democratic
president considering the Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson approach of actively
pushing a major legislative agenda.
Divided government became the norm for the first time in American political history. Division also reached a new peak in the 1970s within the larger congressional party, the Democrats. An on-line graphic display fromDr. Keith Poole - University of Houston demonstrates that the Ford and Carter-era 94th through 96th House and Senate are right at the peak of cases where the Democrats are most widely splayed along the horizontal ideological dimension (usually called left-to-right, or liberal-to-conservative). That is because the non-south had largely gone to liberalism after the many congressional policy victories of the preceding decade and a half; but the southern Democrats were still there, were deeply unhappy, had plenty of policy targets to shoot down, and had not yet departed in favor of Republican replacements.
It all brought major legislative difficulties for any activist Democratic president considering the Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson approach of actively pushing a major legislative agenda.
Meanwhile, the Republicans were going more solidly conservative. Control within that party had first swung away from the northeast moderate wing with the Goldwater presidency candidacy in 1964. The cultural liberalism of the 1970s, symbolized by the 1973 legalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade, brought forth more and more conservative defenders of traditional religious standards to the GOP. There was a gradual geographical shift of the party away from the Northeast and the West Coast in favor of southern, border-state, midwestern, and mountain western rural and suburban areas. All this reflected in the congressional center of power shifting away from me-too politics and accommodation with the liberal Democrats. It was not a formula for another Lyndon Johnson. Even with large Democratic majorities, Jimmy Carter as President could not always override the conservative opposition housed in both the Republicans and un-reconciled Southern Democratic boll weevils.
New Deal era of 1932-1964, the era of cultural division since 1965 has never
to this day produced a reliable electoral majority base for either of the two
The parties did, however, pull farther and farther apart from each other as the
1970s yielded to the Reagan-era 1980s ( see
University of Houston on the 97th and more recent Congresses
see Poole - University of Houston on the 97th and more recent Congresses). This reflected the nation. The demography student Michael Barone in Our Country concluded: "The America of 1976 was very different from the America of 1960, and the changes in cultural patterns ... help to explain why the years which followed the narrow Democratic victory of 1976 produced such a different result for the two parties than the years which followed the narrow Democratic victory of 1960 (Barone 1990, 556)."
A New Presidential Voting
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How was it possible, in light of Nixon’s demise in 1974, the limited
abilities of Gerald Ford, and the generally downcast feeling of Americans toward
national governmental institutions in the 1970s, to commence a period when
Republican could dominate elections to the White House?
For this we return to the institutional approach, emphasizing basic
underlying political trends above the specific judgments on competence of one or
two presidents at a given point in time.
Recall that Richard Nixon's support was consistently greatest among
whites, and southerners. Nonwhites
averaged only 39% approval in Nixon's honeymoon 1969, and gave him only 12% of
their vote in 1968 (compared to 32% in the pre-civil rights 1960 election).
In 1972 while Nixon got 60% white approval, nonwhites averaged only 28%.
The South, complete with Billy Graham and conservative religious and
country music rallies in Nashville, gave Nixon an average 4 to 5 yearly
percentage points more support than any other region--even though the South had
by far the highest nonwhite population component of any region and was less than
ten years past its ninety-year adherence to Democrats only.
Those factors which once distinguished the parties sharply are notably
lacking variation; union households were almost as favorable to the
not-too-conservative Nixon (on economic affairs) as were other households.
Age also did not work against Nixon--those under age 30 supported Nixon
no less than their elders (Edwards with Gallup 1990, 164, T. 3.14).
Both the distinctive demographic categories and those without distinction
commonly speak to the terminus of the New Deal as the elementary dividing point
of American political coalitions. Nixon
avoided traditional economic class and management-labor divisions and
concentrated on the division of race and the 'New Class' v. Silent Majority
factor associated so closely with the Vietnam War as a cultural divide.
One effect has been a thorough partisan realignment of the South.
Elections after Nixon showed as much.
Jimmy Carter in 1976 won all eleven core Old Confederacy states over
Ford. The Voting Rights Act enacted
after Selma in 1965 ensured that southern blacks could register and vote en
masse for the first time in history. They
did so, reliably casting 90 percent or more for the Democrat even while a narrow
plurality of southern white votes went to Ford instead of Carter.
In 1980 Carter lost all but his home state (Georgia) in the South to
Reagan, including the high-population Florida by 17 points and even larger Texas
by 14 (1980
Presidential Election Results - Florida and
1980 Presidential Election Results - Texas). The southern white vote was
on its way to rivaling traditionally Republican Kansas and Nebraska, and Mormon
Utah and Idaho as the most Republican-leaning presidential vote in the nation.
The presidency has undergone major variations in robustness and standing with the people and with other institutions. The modern presidency showed as much in the 1973 to 1981 period of relative weakening. Textbooks from the period overstated the case for that weakness, using such terms as “imperiled” in lieu of “imperial” to signify its fall from grace. That was an exaggeration. The overstatement was in mistaking a negative public judgment toward what they observed from chief executives in this era, with a built-in or structural failing of the basic office. Nixon in 1973-1974, Ford in 1974-1976, and Carter in 1977-1980 got relatively poor approval ratings (and historical ones no doubt will follow suit) because they did not perform very well. Nixon was essentially dishonest and was flagrantly revealed in that during his second term. Ford lacked core legitimacy in his means of getting to the presidency combined with his premature pardon for the one individual who was the source of that problem. Carter was a product of a peculiar era, almost an anti-politician whose essential decency and high intelligence could not rescue the office from his shortages of political acumen, rhetorical skill, and leadership qualities.
Public distrust endured beyond Ford and Carter, and it probably had enduring effects. Its chief political effect probably favored conservatives. Liberalism since Roosevelt was always premised on the central government creating demonstrable improvements on the lives of common folk. Conservatives, on the other hand, follow the rhetorical guide of Ronald Reagan. He concluded his 28 October 1980 debate thus: "I would like to have a crusade today, and I would like to lead that crusade with your help. And it would be one to take Government off the backs of the great people of this country, and turn you loose again to do those things that I know you can do so well, because you did them and made this country great." (Debate Transcripts October 28 1980) For those who already distrust central power, that is surely an effective message. If, that is, those citizens can be persuaded to vote.
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Barone, Michael. 1990. Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan. New York: The Free Press.
Brinkley, Douglas. 1998. The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter's Journey Beyond the White House. New York: Viking Press.
Time and Chance:
Gerald Ford's Appointment with History.
New York: HarperCollins.
George C. III with Alec M. Gallup. 1990.
A Sourcebook. Baltimore:
The Johns Hopkins University Press.
George C. III, William Mitchell, and Reed Welch.
Presidential Approval: The
Significance of Issue Salience. American Journal of Political Science 39:1 (February), 108-134.
John Robert. 1995.
The Presidency of Gerald R. Ford.
Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
Is Anyone Responsible?
How Television Frames Political Issues.
Chicago: The University of
Lawrence R. and Robert Y. Shapiro. 1994.
Disorganized Democracy: The Institutionalization of Polling and Public
Opinion Analysis During the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon Presidencies.
Paper presented at Annual Meeting of the American Political Science
Association, New York, New York, September 1-4.
Lawrence R. and Robert Y. Shapiro. 1995.
The Rise of Presidential Polling: The
Nixon White House in Historical Perspective.
Public Opinion Quarterly 59:163-195.
Charles O. 1988.
The Trusteeship Presidency:
Jimmy Carter and the United States Congress.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Burton I. 1993.
The Presidency of James Earl
Carter, Jr. Lawrence, KS:
University Press of Kansas.
Matthew R. 1989.
Before the honeymoon ends: Presidential
leadership and congressional response. Congress
and the Presidency 16:1 (Spring), 11-22.
New Strategies of Presidential Leadership, 2d ed.
Washington, D.C.: Congressional
Gary and Lyn Ragsdale. 1988.
The Elusive Executive:
Discovering Statistical Patterns in the Presidency.
Washington, D.C.: Congressional
Norman J., Thomas E. Mann, and Michael J. Malbin.
1998. Vital Statistics on Congress, 1997-1998. Washington, D.C.: Congressional
Vital Statistics on the Presidency:
Washington to Clinton. Washington,
D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press.
Mark J. 1992.
The Press and the Ford Presidency.
Ann Arbor: The University of
Small, Melvin. 1999. The Presidency of Richard Nixon. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
Harold W. and Richard G. Niemi. 1992.
Vital Statistics on American
Politics, 3d ed. Washington,
D.C.: Congressional Quarterly
Edward R. 1978.
Political Control of the Economy.
This, of course, is hindsight of near-perfect proportions.
I know of no one in 1974 who predicted
that approval ratings of post-1974 presidents would be significantly lower than those before that date; that
they would be less powerful and imperious, yes, but lesser in public standing, no.
Thus Carter made good his promise that on the subject of Kennedy, the
President would 'whip his
ass.' The hostage issue alone was the basis for elevating Carter over Kennedy and giving Carter
temporarily respectable approval ratings. See Barone 1990, 588.
This is figured simply by taking the annual Consumer Price Index for
1972 and any later year for
which one seeks a real dollar comparison. The real CPI rise for 1972 to 1988 was 2.83. See
Stanley and Niemi 1992, 412-314, T. 13-2 for CPI data.
Nixon got only a 12-seat Republican gain in House seats to accompany
his record 61.1% national
popular vote victory, and his party actually lost a net two Senate seats to leave 57 of 100 seats in the
Democrats' hands. Compare this to the House seat harvest from past landslides--37 net seats gained for
Democrats in 1964, 75 gained for Republicans in 1946 midterms and then 75 lost in 1948, or approximately
100 gained in the 73rd House from the Roosevelt election year of 1932.
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