With the passing of Gerald Ford, we have lost more than a former president who served the nation honorably in trying times. The Republican Party has also lost its last link to a tradition it once embraced. Gone now is any trace of the solid Midwestern ethics that Ford personified – things like not spending more than you take in, being skeptical about the use of force, and not imposing one's values on others.Gone also is any trace of the Western-style libertarianism that Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan exemplified. Instead, we now have a Republican Party that has imposed vast financial costs on future generations just to win a few votes today, that is hasty and imprudent in the use of force, and that takes a virtually puritanical approach to imposing on everyone the views of evangelical Christians.Ford and Reagan were much closer to each other philosophically than either of them would be to George W. Bush. Although Reagan and Ford faced off against each other for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, they weren't really fighting over basic principles – on those, they mostly agreed with each other. The big debate was about political strategy and tactics.
The Reagan people thought that Ford was insufficiently bold in pursuing a conservative agenda – when he declined, for example, to propose a permanent tax cut and instead, in 1975, offered only a one-shot tax rebate. The Reagan people thought that the Ford people had essentially given up hope of turning around the ship of state and that the best they could do was just keep the ship from sinking on their watch.
Indeed, there was a certain fatalism to the way Ford viewed his options. He had been elected to the House of Representatives in 1948, and during all but two of his long years of service there, the Democrats were in the majority, and Republicans could do little to pursue their agenda. Moreover, in 1974, the Democrats greatly increased their majority, putting many aggressive liberals in positions of leadership for the first time. (The chairmanship of the House Democratic Caucus, for instance, passed from the relatively conservative Olin Teague of Texas to the liberal Phil Burton of California.)
Consequently, Ford saw no chance for any legislation that might fix the problems caused by price controls on energy or skyrocketing entitlement programs. He had his hands full just beating back measures that would have increased spending and made matters worse. But at least he knew how to use his veto pen and did so on 66 occasions in a little more than two years. The fact that Ford was overridden 12 times – the second largest number of any president * – shows just how difficult his political position was.
The circumstances of the time were atrocious. The nation suffered the worst economic recession since the Great Depression** on Ford's watch, yet inflation remained unacceptably high. The Vietnam War was officially lost while Ford was president. And the Soviet Union was at the peak of its military and political power.
The point is that it was not unreasonable to think, as Ford did, that the best that could be done was just to keep things from getting worse. Some of his younger aides, such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, no doubt chafed at this reality. This may explain why they still exhibit a kind of bunker mentality when criticized. They remember too well the unfair criticism of Ford in 1975 and 1976, when many national problems were simply out of his control.
The more optimistic Reagan people saw the Ford approach as defeatism. In crisis there is opportunity, they thought. And as outsiders, they weren't awed by the power of the Democratic leadership, the national media or the federal bureaucracy. The Reagan people thought that strong leadership and new ideas about foreign and domestic policy could overcome these forces.
In 1976, Ford probably had the better of this argument. The country wasn't ready for Reagan that year, and Reagan himself wasn't really ready to be president either. The nation needed the experience of Jimmy Carter to make Reagan's presidency possible. The American people needed to give the conventional wisdom one last shot at fixing the country's problems before they would be open to new conservative ideas. And Reagan needed time out of office to study and think and discuss these ideas, and learn to articulate them and how to implement them.***
By contrast, the current President Bush came to office without ever having had the humbling experience of laboring for years as a minority leader in Congress or the long years of thought and study Reagan put in on the problems of public policy. From his life in the West, Bush picked up none of Goldwater's libertarianism, but instead absorbed the bravado and evangelicalism that are characteristic of many Texans.
I would be less concerned if I thought Bush was an isolated case of a president out of step with his own party, as Carter was. What bothers me is that I don't see anyone in the Republican Party today who exemplifies either Ford's philosophy or Reagan's. Yet I believe that many at the party's grass roots yearn for a leader who has Ford's humility and prudence and Reagan's optimism and love of ideas, and none of Bush's overconfidence and anti-intellectualism.
* Andrew Johnson was overridden the most times, with 15 overrides. Ford is tied with Harry Truman, but Truman served almost four times as long.
** It's a source of some irritation to me that politicians are always saying that the latest recession was the worst since the Great Depression. By any measure, the one Ford dealt with was the worst. Raw data can be found here.
*** To learn about the research Reagan did in the late 1970s and the evolution of his thinking, I strongly recommend reading "Reagan's Path to Victory," by Kiron Skinner, Annelise Anderson and Martin Anderson, which contains many of Reagan's own writings. Clearly, by 1980, he was much better prepared to be president than he was in 1976.