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End of the 20th Century, Politics since Watergate

military costs, Reagan legacy, Arab oil embargo, impeachment hearings, Iran-Contra Affair

In the last quarter of the 20th century, Americans voiced concern about many domestic issues such as the health of the economy, the illegal use of drugs, a growing crime rate, the quality of education, dependency on welfare, spiraling health costs, and contentious race relations. They discussed controversial subjects such as how to fund public schools, whether abortion should be available, whether homosexuals’ rights should be protected, and what should be done about the welfare system. As they had throughout the 20th century, Americans debated the merits of an activist state and the degree to which the government should regulate free enterprise and provide social services.

Meanwhile, voting patterns changed. Many people moved to the Sunbelt, the southern and southwestern United States, which gave that region of the nation new political clout. African Americans achieved voting power in the South and within the Democratic Party. Polls and elections measured a gender gap in political preferences, suggesting that women were more likely than men to support Democratic policies. Finally, starting in the 1970s, several significant changes realigned national politics.

First, the Democratic coalition of the New Deal era, which had been losing bits and pieces since the 1960s, continued to falter. Southern Democrats deserted the party and joined the Republican Party, which gained seats in state legislatures and in Congress. With the loss of Southern constituents, a Democratic majority was no longer a certainty in the South. Second, a revival of conservative political beliefs that had been in progress since midcentury gained force in the 1980s. Third, many Americans began to consider themselves political independents. Consequently, the outcomes of national elections often depended on swing voters. Candidates started to cater to these voters. Overall, the electorate became more suburban, more middle class, and more likely to vote Republican; the political center expanded and became more conservative.

Domestic politics during the administrations of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton centered on economic issues. Under President Ford, who held office from Nixon’s resignation in 1974 through 1976, the nation confronted a mix of inflation and recession called stagflation—a condition in which both prices and unemployment rose. One major cause was an Arab oil embargo in the early 1970s, which generated a steep rise in oil prices. At odds with Congress, Ford made little progress salvaging the economy and faced criticism from political foes for his pardon of former president Nixon.

Formerly governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter campaigned as an outsider who had not been contaminated by the corruption of Washington, D.C., politics. As president, Carter—like Ford—grappled with rising inflation, an energy crisis, unemployment, and battles with Congress. Admired for his advocacy of human rights abroad, Carter failed to turn the economy around, and he lost the election of 1980 to former California governor Ronald Reagan.

In 1980 the growth of conservatism led to Ronald Reagan’s victory. Reagan vowed to stimulate the economy by implementing what was called supply-side economics, a theory that tax cuts would spur economic growth and therefore increase government revenues. Reagan also promised to cut government. “Government is not the solution to the problem,” he declared. “Government is the problem.”

In 1981 Congress reduced taxes, cut social programs, and increased military spending. However, the increased government revenues predicted by supply-side economics did not appear. Over Reagan’s two terms in office, military costs rose, revenues failed to increase, and a huge budget deficit developed. The United States had been a creditor nation when Reagan was elected, but by the time he left office, the United States had become the world’s largest debtor nation.

However, Reagan’s popularity remained high. Inflation that had built up in the 1970s subsided, and unemployment went down. But economic good times obscured uneven distribution of income and growing poverty.

Reagan’s admirers were surprised during his second term when in 1986 and 1987 the public learned about the Iran-Contra Affair. Members of Reagan’s administration had secretly sold arms to Iran in exchange for the liberation of Americans who had been held hostage in Lebanon. Reagan officials then used the profits to subsidize the Contras, a rebel force that sought to overthrow the left-wing Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. Congress had forbidden such aid. The scandal, however, did little to diminish the Reagan legacy. The president’s supporters hoped for less government and lower taxes, and many of them held conservative social positions, such as opposition to abortion.

George Herbert Walker Bush, Reagan’s vice president and successor, inherited Reagan’s agenda and continued Reagan’s policies. Bush won public approval for his management of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. But like his predecessors, Bush met with public disapproval about the economy. First the brief war caused oil prices to rise, and war costs put new pressures on federal finances. Second, Bush had promised “no new taxes,” but in fact agreed to raise taxes. Finally, the president clashed with Congress over how to improve the economy and reduce the huge national deficit.

With dwindling support since the 1960s, the Democratic Party had trouble electing its presidential candidates. As a moderate “New Democrat,” Bill Clinton in 1992 bucked the trend. He supported centrist, middle-class goals such as efficient government, economic growth, a balanced budget, and health-care reform. But Clinton’s most important goal—a sweeping reform of the national health-care system—failed. In 1994 Democrats lost control of Congress, a dazzling defeat—the first Democratic loss of the House in 40 years. With this loss, Clinton’s hope for significant health-care reform vanished.

Clinton succeeded, however, in achieving centrist measures such as welfare reform. In 1996 Congress abandoned the welfare system in place since the New Deal; the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act limited welfare recipients to five years of benefits in a lifetime, and required that adult recipients work after two years. It also denied some welfare programs and food stamps to legal immigrants. Although the bill disappointed his more liberal Democratic base, Clinton managed to hold the center. Riding a booming economy, he also succeeded in obliterating the huge deficit Reagan left behind.

Clinton’s reputation suffered in 1998 with the revelation of an extramarital affair with a White House intern. The affair was brought to the public’s attention by a special prosecutor originally appointed to investigate aspects of the president’s past financial and administrative dealings. The affair and a lack of presidential candor about it led Congress to hold impeachment hearings. Angered by the zeal of the prosecutor, Clinton’s supporters continued to endorse the president, as did many respondents to opinion polls. The president’s detractors denounced him for lying to the public, to his family, and to his advisers for many months. Impeached by the House of Representatives in December 1998 on charges of lying under oath and obstructing justice, Clinton was acquitted by the Senate in February 1999.

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