Alternate History: What If Reagan Had Lost in 1980–By Winning in ’76?

[I’m not one for alternate histories. I think there are no ifs. But I’m not oblivious to the attractions of the genre, and, after recent thoughts on Jimmy Carter, visions of what might have been flitted through my mind.]

Election Day 1976: after a grueling primary and a difficult election, Ronald Reagan, former governor of California, sweeps to victory, bringing with him a cohort of new Republican congressmen. In his victory address, he promises to restore America’s power and moral standing.

For a year, everything goes well. Under Ronnie’s watch, government spending is slashed in order to undercut inflation. The defense budget is increased some, but, with the Soviets relatively quiet, Reagan mainly talks bigger on that front. Pornography and drugs are cracked down (Mrs. Reagan takes a particular interest in the latter, appearing on the popular sitcom “Three’s Company” to urge Suzanne Somers to ‘Just Say No.’)

For about a year and a half, it works. Reagan’s approval ratings soar.

Then the situation begins to unwind.

Riots break out in Iran. Since the Shah is a valuable ally in the war against Communism, Reagan tries to do whatever he can to prop up the Persian monarch, but all his efforts seem to backfire. It’s as if any American action is seen by the Iranian people as ipso facto corrupt. The Shah, suffering from lymphoma, asks to travel to the United States for medical treatment, which Reagan graciously allows. Upon the monarch’s departure, the Ayatollah Khomeini sneaks back from Paris and soon seizes power.

Meanwhile, the unrest in Iran puts a major crimp in world oil production. Suddenly a new energy crisis, redolent of 1973, has begun. Reagan does all he can to encourage U.S. oil production, but American energy companies can pump only marginally more. Inflation shoots up and a recession is under way.

Even Reagan would like loose money under the circumstances, but to his horror, newly appointed Fed Chief Paul Volcker thinks differently. Volcker, determined to strangle inflation once and for all, jacks the prime rate higher than ever thought possible.

At the same time, Iranian radicals, furious at the U.S. collusion with their former ruler, storm the American embassy in Tehran and take hostage 52 staff members.

Did I mention that Reagan encouraged the CIA to pursue their wildest anti-Soviet schemes? One such was overthrowing the government of Afghanistan in hopes it would force the U.S.S.R. to invade and give the Russians their own Vietnam. This works—too well. The Red Army surges south. The Cold War is hot again, but Reagan, rail though he might, cannot push back in any way stronger than canceling American participation in the 1980 Winter Olympics.

The economy is in a shambles. The U.S. seems in retreat on all fronts. And then Ronald Reagan’s worst nightmare comes true.

In New York City, in Madison Square Garden, before ten thousand screaming Democrats, Edward Kennedy raises his hands and declares he will undo seventeen years of chaos and restore the liberal paradise of Camelot over which his brother once presided. In these perilous circumstances, Chappaquiddick is forgotten. Kennedy and running mate Jesse Jackson immediately leap to a commanding lead in the polls.

Desperate, Reagan authorizes a commando raid to free the hostages. Huddled by the radio, listening to reports live from the scene, he hears his rescue force scattered by desert winds. The operation fails. The Americans try to fall back to negotiation with the Islamic Republic, but it becomes obvious the Iranians are waiting for a new administration.

The Democrats receive a landslide, taking back the White House and both houses of Congress. Broken, Reagan persists in trying to free the hostages. The Iranians agree—then, in final insult, delay the release until just after the inauguration of the new president.

President Edward Kennedy deftly juggles right and left. On one hand, he enshrines affirmative action, jams national health care through Congress, appoints Bella Abzug to the new cabinet position of Secretary of Women. On the other, he proclaims a return to the Kennedy anti-Communist tradition. Having no fear of government spending, he is free to ask for gigantic defense budgets.

It doesn’t work at first. Republicans denounce the spiraling deficits. The world seems on the brink of nuclear war. Volcker resists pressure to cut interest rates, and another recession begins, worse than the first.

But Teddy holds on.

By 1983, things have begun to turn around. Like a fever, inflation breaks. The price of oil dives. Employment shoots up, buoyed by generous government deficit spending. By the time 1984 rolls around, the economy is going great guns. Teddy is swept back into office, rolling over sacrificial Republican candidate George Bush with 49 states (Bush manages to take his home state of Connecticut).

During Teddy’s second term, it is obvious the strain of matching America’s massive defense spending is taking its toll on the Soviet economy. When Teddy suggests a “Star Trek” line of satellites that could intercept incoming Soviet missiles, Republicans denounce it as the ultimate in liberal pie-in-the-sky thinking, with a cost that would surely bankrupt the country. But to the Soviets, it seems the end. New General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev tries to restructure the Russian economy and permit new freedoms. The Cold War is coming to an end.

The Kennedy years (Teddy’s historical image soon overshadows his brother’s) set a center-left orientation for America that lasts another quarter-century. At his death, every Democratic political figure in the country issues glowing tributes. Even Bella Abzug puts aside the bitterness from her contentious resignation in 1982 (she was replaced as Secretary of Women by Geraldine Ferraro).

Historians look at the Kennedy legacy and think how terrible it would have been if Reagan had been in office when the Soviet Union began to come apart. Surely, with his warmongering ways, he would have pressured them into a final showdown. But such contemplation is an idle game. There was only one way history could have happened, and that’s how it did.

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