Monday, November 21, 2016

Gerald R. Ford: A Conservative At The Wrong Time

Gerald R. Ford was a moderate Republican who became the first and only person to become President without being elected President or Vice President. He also had the misfortune of entering the presidency at a time when Americans were fed up with liberalism but not quite ready for a conservative president.

Some people might contend that Ford was a Conservative. However, I think this was mainly because he was way more conservative than Lyndon B. Johnson, and even more conservative than even Richard M. Nixon. So, he did have conservative tendencies. That said, he was not, by any means, a conservative of the likes of Ronald Reagan; he was in no way the leader of the Conservative Movement that was salivating, waiting for an opportunity to gain control of the republican party.

For lack of a better comparison, he was more of a moderate republican, along with the likes of George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney, all of whom would lose (with the exception of 1988) their bids for the Presidency.

For the sake of simplicity, let us just assume that he was a conservative. The American people may actually have been ready for a conservative. Who wasn't ready was the republican establishment, which had a false belief (and still does) that a moderate president has a greater chance of drawing in independent voters and winning the presidency than a conservative one. He also had the misfortune of entering the office when liberalism, while on the downswing, was high on pride after the Watergate scandal.

Likewise, even though Nixon, a moderate (with moderate meaning liberal leaning) republican, was fresh off his second landslide victory in 1972, democrats held control of both chambers of Congress. While Ford may have been a good conservative with good conservative ideas, these and other forces would work against him.

He was born in Omaha, Nebraska, although he grew up Grand Rapids, Michigan. He became a star football player at the University of Michigan. He then served as assistant football coach at Yale, where he earned his law degree.

He was first elected to Congress in 1948, and from 1965 to 1973 he served as Minority Leader. When Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace due to the Watergate Scandal on October 10, 1973, then President Richard M. Nixon chose Representative Gerald Ford to succeed him. This made Ford the first person to become Vice President under terms of the 25th Amendment.

Then, when President Nixon resigned in disgrace, also due to the Watergate Scandal, less than a year later, Ford became the 38th President of the United States. He kept some of Nixon's cabinet members, although he named some of his own. To please the liberal wing of the republican party he nominated Nelson D. Rockefeller as his Vice President, thereby making Rockefeller the second person to be named Vice President using terms of the 25th Amendment.

Among his first orders of business, after filling out his administration was to assure the American populace that he would not be an "imperial president," like FDR, Johnson, and Nixon before him.

What is an "Imperial President?"  The term was coined in a 1973 book by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who observed that, since FDR created the Executive Office of the President in 1939, the White House had become overcrowded with staff. In this way, Schlesinger observed that the executive had overstepped its Constitutional bounds: it had become too large and was gaining too much control over the people at the expense of freedom and liberty.

So, Ford assured the populace that this executive overreach would not continue during his tenure in the Washington.

FDR had increased regulations on transportation, communications, finance, and other businesses. Like FDR, Nixon was a fan of federal regulations. Ford was the first post-FDR President to begin a trend toward slashing New Deal regulations in order to get government out of the way so that businesses had more freedom and were more likely to make profits and expand to create more jobs. During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan would continue this trend.

All seemed to go rather well for the Ford administration, that is until he decided it would be a good idea to pardon Richard Nixon for crimes he might have committed during the Watergate scandal. To Ford, this seemed like an honorable idea, as the nation did not need to endure the embarrassment of a criminal trial against a former President.

So, in 1974, not long before the mid-term elections, Ford pardoned Nixon. This did not sit well with the liberal press and was highly criticized; the nation had witnessed a scandal so mischievous that it cost the nation its President and Vice President, and now there would be no trial.

Ford's decision and the media lamenting over it would end up costing republicans many Congressional seats to democrats during the mid-term election.

Like his anti-imperialistic Washington view, Ford's fiscal policies, or his economic policies, were in line with conservatives. He believed it was important to cut the size of government by slashing regulations, slashing taxes, and decreasing spending. Yet he clashed with the democratic Congress and vetoed 66 bills that would have increased spending.

A problem he faced was stagflation or an economic situation where economic growth was low, and unemployment was high at the same time that inflation was high. This was the first time the United States had ever faced this situation, so no one was certain what the remedy was.

Ford believed the solution was to combat inflation through:
  • Decreased government spending on social programs, and this was accomplished by his vetoes. This was good. 
  • Curbing spending by the private sector, and this was accomplished by raising taxes on personal income. He failed to get this through a democrat controlled Congress. 
Part of the reason for stagflation was not Ford's fault, as international forces caused oil prices to skyrocket. This created an energy crisis. Gas prices were high. Most cars were huge gas guzzlers. And, for the first time, American factories were facing competition from Japanese and German imports.

Despite his efforts, the economy continued to lag and inflation continued to climb. Unemployment was 4.8% when he entered office in 1972, and when he left office it was 8.0%. During the same timespan, consumer price inflation increased from 3.4% to 11%. This, along with high prices, made planning for the future difficult.

In 1975, he had an opportunity to put a conservative judge on the Supreme Court when New Deal justice William O. Douglass resigned. But in an attempt to keep the peace (or, showing his libera tendencies) between himself and a democratic controlled Congress, he nominated John Paul Stephens, who would become a very liberal Justice, although not nearly as liberal as Douglass.

In foreign affairs, Richard Nixon called for all forces to be removed from South Vietnam, and Ford was President when it fell victim to Communism. This was one of the sadder events of the Ford administration. All the efforts of the American military and all the lives lost in the name of Freedom were for naught and no thanks to a democratic Congress that seemed to want to see their own country punished and humiliated. 

He supported Nixon's detente approach to the Cold War with the U.S.S.R or Russia. The idea was that both countries would benefit from increased trade and the decreased threat of nuclear warfare. 

Former California Governor Ronald Reagan greatly disapproved of this policy when he ran against Ford during the 1976 Presidential campaign. Reagan also championed for easing regulations and cutting taxes as a means of rebooting the economy.

The up and coming Conservative movement were eager to get a (true) conservative into the Whitehouse, and Reagan was their man. Standing in their way, however, was the republican establishment.

As noted earlier, the establishment had then and still does this false belief (that both Reagan and Trump would prove wrong) that moderate republicans have a better chance of winning. Ford was the embodiment of this establishment. And even though he was former governor of California, Reagan was the embodiment of anti-establishment.

While his policies succeeded at improving the economy and reducing inflation, unemployment remained high. Reagan gave him a good fight, although Ford would be the eventual republican nominee.

The democrats chose a relatively unknown, a Washington outsider, as their nominee. Carter was actually expected to win easily, yet Ford gave him a good fight. Ford lost to Carter by an electoral count of 240 to 297, and a popular vote of 48.0% to 50.1%. 

Ford assumed the office of the President at a time when the nation felt great distrust in government due to Watergate, and a defeatist attitude due to perceived failure in Vietnam. He seemed to improve trust in government, and Faith in the American foreign policy.

He also assumed the office at a time when the economy was depressed amid a period of massive inflation. Perhaps as a result of battling with a liberal Congress, his ideas failed to get the economy moving again and thereby failed to get the public excited about his Presidency.

Not helping matters was the fact that, despite being known as an athlete in his youth, he was a very clumsy president. Chevy Chase, during a Saturday Night Live Skit, made fun of Ford's clumsiness, making everyone well aware of it. Also not helping was, during a presidential debate, Ford seemed confused about Poland being independent of the Soviets, and this seemed to hamper his image.

Ford is often seen as a failed president. In retrospect, we can see that Ford was a good man and a good conservative with good ideas. He may even have had a chance at becoming a great president if only he had given a chance at one more term, or at least one full term.

He just so happened to come into office at a difficult time for the advancement of his good ideas. But he did have some success, and for that, we herald him as an above average president.

References:
  1. Gerald R. Ford, Whitehouse.gov, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/vice-president-agnew-resigns, accessed 11/12/16
  2. Gerald Ford, Conservapedia, http://www.conservapedia.com/Gerald_Ford, accessed 11/12/16
  3. Detente, history.com, http://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/detente, accessed 11/12/16
  4. Remembering Gerald R. FordRemembering Gerald R. Ford, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/219602/model-ford-nro-symposium, 11/12/16