Exam preparation materials

Chapter 34: The Triumph of Conservatism, 1980–1992



Ronald Reagan elected


AIDS epidemic discovered  • PATCO strike broken


Boland Amendment passed  • Sandra Day O’Connor appointed to Supreme Court


Iran-Contra diversions begin


Stock market crashes


George H. W. Bush elected


Berlin Wall destroyed


Desert Storm invasion takes place  • Clarence Thomas appointed to Supreme Court  • Soviet Union breaks up


back channel operations

“evil empire”

The Great Communicator

“Just Say No” campaign




Boland Amendment

Geraldine Ferraro

Saddam Hussein

Oliver North

Persian Gulf War

Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or “Star Wars”



Iran-Contra scandal

Sandra Day O’Connor

Ronald Reagan

Clarence Thomas

Desert Storm

Mikhail Gorbachev

C. Everett Koop


William Rehnquist

voodoo economics

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

—Ronald Reagan, Berlin, 1987


Ronald Reagan was called “The Great Communicator” because he connected with voters. He was called the “Teflon president” because no matter what went wrong during “his watch,” it never seemed to affect his approval ratings. Reagan was a free-market thinker who had the support of the religious right. Fundamentalist Christians led by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell organized mail order fund-raising campaigns on behalf of their extremely active supporters. Their rallying cry was “family values”: They favored prayer in the schools and repression of homosexuality; they were antifeminist and anti-abortion. The stage was set for an all-out assault on liberalism.


The campaign for president, which took place during the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979–1980, pitted Ronald Reagan, former conservative governor of California, against President Jimmy Carter. Blaming Carter for inaction and convincing voters that he would do better—by reducing government and by restoring America’s respect around the world—Reagan, the new outsider, and George H. W. Bush won by 489 to 49 electoral votes. However, only 52.3 percent of eligible voters came to the polls. Reagan, at age 69 the oldest president ever elected, seemed decisive, in strong contrast to Jimmy Carter. He further showed his strength when, two months into office, John Hinckley, Jr. shot him after a speaking engagement in Washington, D.C. Though he suffered a punctured lung and by some reports was close to death, he joked to his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” He quickly recovered.



In his first inaugural, Reagan contended that “In this present [inflationary] crisis, government is not the solution to our problem.” To get government out of the way, he proposed cutting taxes on income and capital gains. This supply-side theory of economics—Reaganomics—would encourage the rich to invest their money in new production, create jobs and increase revenue, and balance the budget. Reagan and his economists maintained that the increased prosperity of people at the top of society would “trickle down” to the workers and the poor at the bottom. Reagan’s program caused the national debt to soar from under $1 trillion to nearly $3 trillion between 1981 and 1989. The double-digit inflation of the Carter years had been reduced to 4 percent, but unemployment stood at 11 percent. Deep cuts in federal spending left states and cities desperate for money.

Income Disparities

Everyone did not suffer. Income distribution became increasingly skewed: The income of the poorest fifth of the population declined nearly 10 percent, while that of the richest fifth increased more than 15 percent. A new group of young urban professionals, oryuppies, graduated from law and business schools and created a flamboyant lifestyle not seen since the Gilded Age. Lawyers arranged leveraged buy-outs (mergers) of businesses, making money for some stockholders while creating extensive job losses. The savings and loan banks were deregulated, spawning new millionaires, but the real estate market went sour in the late ’80s, causing large numbers of these banks to fail. Congress agreed to have the taxpayers bail out the banks in order to protect the reckless investments of a few. A severe stock market crash, possibly caused by overheated electronic (computer) trading, occurred in 1987.

An Attack on Unions

Just as his administration began, Reagan refused to negotiate with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers’ Organization (PATCO), which had gone on strike for better wages and reduced work hours. He broke the union: Strikebreakers could now legally be hired as replacement workers.

Competition with Japan, Germany, and Korea resulted in the loss of many American jobs and a record trade deficit. Reaganomics created mainly low-wage positions in the service industry. The new jobs paid $5 or $6 per hour, as opposed to industrial jobs, which had paid $10 to $15 per hour.

Health and the Environment

Ronald Reagan appointed C. Everett Koop surgeon general in 1981. AIDS had been discovered in 1981, but because it was initially found in gay men, it was ignored. Over the next few years, after the Center for Disease Control (CDC) determined the disease spreads by infected blood and celebrities such as actor Rock Hudson died of it, the public grew uneasy. An educator, Koop fought for the protection of children and adults from AIDS and the effects of smoking.

James Watt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, created political firestorms by attempting to undo clean air regulations and the sanctity of national parks, opening them up to mining and timber development.

First Lady Nancy Reagan led a campaign to reduce drug use among young people; she asked them to “Just say no.”

The Supreme Court

Reagan appointed Antonin Scalia, a professor at Yale Law School, to the Supreme Court. Scalia believed in original intention, a concept claiming that a justice could know the ideas of the framers of the Constitution and had no authority to change these. Also appointed were Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman justice, and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, a conservative who led the Court in limiting access to abortion and remedying civil rights violations.


It was in foreign policy that Reagan experienced his greatest triumphs. The new prime minister of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, had introduced perestroika, a move toward private ownership, and glasnost, a move toward openness of speech and the press. These changes created a democratic ferment in the totalitarian state. Reagan welcomed this new openness and even backtracked from his former characterization of the USSR as an “evil empire.” However, his most dramatic statement was his demand in Berlin in 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Many political analysts claimed that Reagan accelerated the process that ended the Cold War by calling for the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) missile shield in space, which forced the failing Soviets to keep pace with the American arms buildup.


With the Iran-Contra affair, the Reagan administration was involved in a scandal comparable to Watergate. Reagan’s National Security Council, run by Robert MacFarlane and John Poindexter, with Colonel Oliver North as their subordinate, developed a scheme in 1985 to arrange the release of hostages in Lebanon and at the same time give aid to the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua.

In conjunction with the CIA, North arranged for arms to be sold to Iranians, who would intervene with the Lebanese to release hostages. North then used the money to fund the anti-Sandinista Contras in Nicaragua. This scheme broke Reagan’s pledge that he would never negotiate with terrorists and violated the Boland Amendment forbidding military aid without congressional approval. To conceal these back-channel operations, North organized shredding of documents, and Poindexter misled Congress. All the principals pled guilty or were convicted of perjury. North’s conviction was overturned on a technicality. Reagan denied that there was an exchange of arms for hostages. The final report by Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh, released in 1994, concluded that “although it seems obvious that President Reagan made hopelessly conflicting statements … it would be impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any misstatement was intentional or willful.”


Though George H. W. Bush was a loyal vice president, before Reagan’s nomination in 1980, he had called supply-side policies “voodoo economics.” In 1984, Reagan and Bush beat Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman vice-presidential candidate, 59 percent to 41 percent. Bush had been a national political figure as a member of the House of Representatives, director of the CIA, and ambassador to the United Nations. Coming from a wealthy and liberal Republican family, he initially supported abortion rights and Keynesian economics, but his success with Reaganomics reoriented his politics.

In 1988, George H. W. Bush promised no new taxes and a “kinder, gentler” nation. Charity with a “thousand points of light” would substitute for the “tax-and-spend” habits of the Democrats. For his running mate, Bush chose Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana, a conservative supporter of “family values.” Bush accused his opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, of being a “card-carrying” member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Bush’s supporters ran vicious attack ads, which Dukakis never adequately responded to. Liberals were now objects of derision. Bush-Quayle won 56 percent of the vote, but only 50 percent of eligible voters came to the polls.


Desert Storm

The Persian Gulf War (1991) was the major event of the Bush administration. Saddam Hussein of Iraq had threatened to invade oil-rich Kuwait. Bush saw a threat to America’s ally, Saudi Arabia. Discarding sanctions, he announced, “This will not stand,” and submitted a resolution to Congress under the War Powers Act. In the Desert Storm invasion, Bush forced Hussein out of Kuwait. He claimed “we” had “put Vietnam behind us.” He had not only cooperated with Congress, but the United States had won, and protests were nearly nonexistent. Bush proclaimed a New World Order, since communism had fallen in Eastern Europe (1988) and in the Soviet Union (1990).

The Bush Legacy

When Thurgood Marshall resigned as Supreme Court justice, Bush appointed the African American conservative judge Clarence Thomas. During stormy confirmation hearings, he was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, an African American law professor who had been his employee at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Americans were forced to confront racism, disagreements among African Americans, and women’s issues.

Federal debt grew to new heights during Bush’s single term, prompting him to go back on his promise not to raise taxes. Supply-side ideologues denounced him. Despite his defeat of Saddam Hussein and the successful invasion of Panama to capture the drug-dealing dictator Manuel Noriega, Bush could not regain the support of the American people.


During the age of Reagan, the economy endured wide fluctuations. In 1984 and 1988, middle class and wealthy Americans were gaining confidence and voted overwhelmingly for the Republicans. Simultaneously, unemployment was high, and the trade deficit and federal and state debt had all skyrocketed. The gap between rich and poor was growing at an enormous rate. Supporters of family values seemed to be the most prominent group in the political arena, and Reagan remained the Great Communicator. The Republicans seemed to have the support of the majority, but women voted for the Democrats in higher percentages (this is referred to as a gender gap). If only half of eligible voters went to the polls, could elections indicate what the majority thought? How would the Democrats cope with the voters’ shift to the right? In the next period, Americans had to deal with a huge national debt, the legacy of Watergate, and the consequences of the ’60s culture wars.


•  Bailouts: The policy of supplying government support for corporations when they are in severe financial trouble; for example, the Chrysler Corporation got a $1.5 billion bailout in 1980, and the savings and loan banks received at least $159 billion during the bailout of the late 1980s

•  Family values: The political position advocated by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other conservative Republicans emphasizing a life of religious observance along with no drugs, no divorce, no abortions, no homosexuality, no working mothers, and no sex before marriage

•  Gender gap: The difference in the votes of men and women; often men vote Republican in larger numbers than women, who are more likely to vote Democratic, producing a gender gap

•  Independent counsel: A prosecutor chosen by a panel of three judges (appointed by the attorney general) to investigate wrongdoing in the executive branch, independent counsels were established after the Watergate scandal, and they were designed to prevent conflict of interest within the executive branch. This law was used extensively to investigate the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration and the Whitewater and Lewinsky affairs during the Clinton administration.

•  Supply-side economics: The theory that the path to economic growth is through tax cuts for the rich, who will then invest in new businesses and expand old ones, employing new workers as a result


1.   Ronald Reagan was called the Great Communicator because

(A)    he always told the truth.

(B)    he memorized his speeches.

(C)    he connected with people.

(D)    he had been an actor.

(E)    it was his nickname as a radio announcer.

2.   Supply-side economics was designed to

(A)    increase demand by cutting taxes.

(B)    provide more goods and services.

(C)    provide money for new business investment by cutting taxes.

(D)    make government grow.

(E)    cut the size of the government.

3.   Who did not vote for Bush in large numbers in 1988?

(A)    Southerners

(B)    Women

(C)    Those with high incomes

(D)    Residents of Maine

(E)    Reagan Democrats

4.   Which issue is least emphasized by “family values” advocates?

(A)    Abortion

(B)    Stay-at-home mothers

(C)    Religion

(D)    Homosexuality

(E)    Education


1.    C

All the answers are true except (A) and (E), but (C) is the reason he was called the Great Communicator. He instilled a confidence in people that they responded to. It was never clear just how much he remembered from Iran Contra. Reagan had been a baseball radio announcer.

2.    C

Supply-side programs cut the taxes of the rich so that they would start new businesses. This was supposed to increase employment and then the supply of goods. Demand-side programs would promote employing people directly, as the Keynesians and Franklin Roosevelt had done.

3.    B

Bush’s lack of support among women was called the gender gap. Bush had home-state support in Maine and Texas where he had residences. Southerners had been voting for Republicans since Nixon, the rich voted for the Republicans, and many Democrats who had crossed over for Reagan (“Reagan Democrats”) voted for Bush in 1988.

4.    E

The family values advocates want to put prayer in schools, but they do not have a particular view of education, as they do of abortion, sexuality, and their wish that women be housewives.

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