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Ronald Reagan's Biggest Mistake

First published in The Last Jeffersonian during George W. Bush's first term as president.

Most people would say that Iran-Contra was Ronald Reagan's biggest mistake. Certainly from the limited perspective of his own administration, and of Reagan's own goals, it was that. From the longer perspective of American political history, though, Reagan's biggest mistake was his selection of George Bush as his running mate in Detroit at the 1980 Republican National Convention. 

We can't lay at Reagan's door all the bad consequences of this decision. No one would expect him to see what would happen a generation later because he put George Bush on the ticket that year. In the summer of 1980, Reagan wasn't even sure he could unseat a sitting president. His main concern was to select someone who could help him win. So let me tell you how this choice turned out wrong, how for want of a vice-presidential nominee, the republic was lost.

The usual story is that Reagan and Ford talked about a Dream Ticket in 1980, a former president and a popular candidate teaming up to make the Republican ticket unbeatable. Then the talks failed when Ford suggested something like a co-presidency. Reagan didn't like the sound of that, so in the middle of the convention he turned to George Bush, his strongest opponent in the primaries. Gerald Ford had overreached, the story went, and Reagan chose a natural alternate when he couldn't agree to Ford's terms.

That version tells part of the story, but it overlooks some interesting nuances. Those nuances explain why Reagan, usually so astute about things political, made a decision that he might not have made if he had spent more time on it. As it turned out, his choice of a running mate was more consequential than he might have guessed at the time.

Anne Edwards recently published a book called The Reagans: Portrait of a Marriage. She takes us to the spring of 1980, when Reagan is wrapping up the delegates he'll need to gain the his party's nomination at the Republican National Convention in August. Reagan first approaches Ford about the vice-presidency in March 1980, five months before the convention. "Will you help the Republican party out and be my running mate?" Reagan asks.

They'd mended their fences from the 1976 battle for the Republican presidential nomination, but Ford politely turned Reagan down. Vice-president isn't a role you take on readily after you've been president. Reagan, however, isn't one to take no for an answer, especially if he sees any possibility at all of success. He asks Ford to reconsider, and asks him again, until Ford agrees to talk about it. These talks become intense during the convention in Detroit, Michigan. Then Ford goes on live television...

The interview with former President Ford is part of CBS's broadcast from the convention hall. Walter Cronkite asks Ford about his role as vice-president. Ford answers in a way that seems to put him on an equal footing with Reagan. That raises doubts for Reagan, so he places a phone call to Ford's room in the hotel. Reagan presses Ford's representative for an answer. No more complications and negotiations - and I need your answer in three minutes! Ford doesn't come through with a positive reply within the time limit, so Reagan calls George Bush. Bush accepts immediately. The next thing you know, they are out on the convention floor together, a happy pair waving to the delegates!

We can see now that Ford really didn't want to accept. You can't fault him for thinking, "I would only do it if..." For Reagan, the negotiations with Ford were too public and too drawn out. He wanted to bring them to a quick end. He had to, because the convention was going to be over in a couple of days, and the delegates weren't going to wait around while he and Ford figured things out!

Problem was, Reagan's negotiations with Ford displaced the normal selection process, a process that takes quite a range of vice-presidential candidates into account. When the talks with Ford didn't produce an agreement, Reagan didn't have an alternate other than Bush ready to go out on the floor with him. He couldn't start the usual sounding out, vetting and selection process at that late hour.

Bush was a safe candidate. He was there in Detroit. Reagan could be confident that he would say yes. He had a lifelong record of service in the Navy, in the Republican party, and in the federal executive branch. The voters knew him. He was from the big state of Texas, and from the Northeastern establishment. So Bush had a lot to recommend him, even though Reagan thought that he was weak.

Reagan's opinion of Bush improved over the next eight years, but at the time he didn't respect his running mate that much. Reagan's assessment arose from their famous encounter at the high school gym in Nashua, New Hampshire, where Reagan stirred the audience when he declaimed, "I paid for this microphone!" Bush had not behaved with courage and grace during that episode, and Reagan observed it. But George Bush had all those other things to recommend him, so Reagan put him on the ticket.

I thought Reagan's selection of Bush was a mistake well before W. ran and won in 2000. Reagan needed a true believer like Jack Kemp on his side. It's not that Kemp or anyone else would have helped Reagan do a better job during his eight years in office. Bush himself served well as vice-president, and we know that the formal powers of the office are pretty limited to begin with. Bush did what Reagan asked him to do.

 Bush turned out to be a poor choice because his role as vice-president made him Reagan's natural successor in 1988, and Bush was not a good successor for Reagan. In politics, though, you don't think about succession to an office you haven't even won yet. In 1980, Reagan and his team focused their energies on defeating an incumbent president. Their concentration would have been misplaced if they had been thinking about succession eight years down the line.

*     *     *

So why was Reagan's biggest mistake the selection of George Bush as his running mate in 1980? What kind of a claim is that?

Well I'd still like to ask what would have happened if Reagan had chosen Paul Laxalt or Jack Kemp or someone even less known in 1980. It's an interesting bit of what-if history, though the what-if questions get mixed with current discontents pretty quickly. I'd like to blame someone for the rise of our current president, and Reagan's critics would like to blame him for almost anything. Altogether, the line of responsibility that runs from Reagan to George Bush to George W. is long, tangled and tenuous. Bush junior would never have become president if his father had not been president first, and that by itself makes me wish Reagan had chosen differently in 1980.

That's not real analysis, though, and it's not a real answer to the question. Let's begin with Reagan's political calculations at the time. They had to be short-term calculations because he had to focus on how to win the November election. Unseating an incumbent president is not easy, even when the president is as beleaguered as Jimmy Carter. Clearly, Reagan in 1980 could not take into account the results of the vote in November 2000, twenty years later.

Let's see how criticism of Reagan's decision stacks up from Reagan's own point of view, when we look eight years out rather than twenty. George Bush looks like the go-to choice in 1980: the runner-up in the primaries, available, willing to do it, an unimpeachable record. But Reagan thought Bush had no gumption, and that made Reagan reluctant to sign him on. He should have stuck with his instincts. Reagan knew that Bush lacked gumption because Reagan had that quality in abundance: it was the lodestar of all the traits that made him a great man. He needed a running mate who had the same quality, and one who shared his vision of America's future. Here's why.

Reagan needed a leader who could continue his work after his allotted eight years. He didn't know in August 1980 that he'd be elected, and selecting his successor was less important than selecting someone who could help him win. But Reagan habitually took the long view, and his selection of Bush was shortsighted.

People who listened to Reagan's inaugural address in January 1981 could not mistake his ambitions. He wanted to reduce the reach of the federal government here at home, and he wanted to curtail threats to freedom overseas. They could reasonably conclude that he had good chances of some success with his domestic agenda, but that winning the Cold War against the Soviet Union was an uncertain prospect, way in the future. As it turned out, Reagan prepared for the end of the Cold War in just eight years. Turning aside Americans' habitual reliance on government would take quite a lot more time. For that reason, he needed a successor who could carry on his work vigorously, with Reagan's devotion and determination.

Bush, loyal to Reagan though he was, did not declare his allegiance to Reagan's vision, nor did he formulate a vision of his own. He became president because it was the next natural step in his political career, not because he wanted to use presidential power to accomplish well-defined tasks. Reagan needed a successor with vigor and courage to give the country at least twelve years of steady change. Instead, the Democrats regrouped under Bush. Clinton later received credit for Republican programs like deficit reduction and welfare reform because he did have energy, determination, and a clear agenda. And in these two areas at least, Clinton could build on Reagan's foundation. FDR had twelve years to make his mark. To achieve his aims in the domestic arena, Reagan needed the same.

Thanks to several of you for good responses to the first part of this article. Samuel C. Goldman's letter argues that Reagan had no good alternative to Bush. It's a telling point, but it presupposes that a presidential running mate needs a great deal of stature. Bush himself picked a running mate who was nearly unknown: not many many people outside of Indiana had heard of Dan Quayle in 1988, but his selection did not prevent Bush's election. If Reagan had listened less to his advisors and more to his own inner voice, I think he would have picked someone he felt more comfortable with. When Ford said no to Reagan's offer in the spring of 1980, Reagan should have worked hard for a good alternative to both Ford and Bush. He would have found someone fit to continue his work when he left office. He might have gone with Senator Laxalt, and I don't think Laxalt would have prevented him from winning in November.

Alexander the Great's life drew some interest when Oliver Stone's film about him was in the theaters. Commentators said that one explanation for Alexander's success was that he inherited such a good army from his father, Philip. That essential foundation, together with Alexander's courage, ingenuity, and energy, yielded conquests unmatched to that point in history. Reagan had an opportunity to pass the foundation he had built since at least the 1960s to an energetic heir, but he picked the wrong guy. Bush's son argues that he's the right guy to advance Reagan's legacy, but his performance in office shows that he cannot finish what Reagan started.

Let me add a concluding note on sources here. Lou Cannon wrote to suggest that I reread his account of what happened in the summer of 1980 when Reagan picked George Bush to run with him. As always, Cannon explains how events and motivations interacted with each other during the vice-presidential selection process. The story is complete and interesting. To read it yourself, please see pages 261-267 of Cannon's biography titled Reagan.

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