April 28, 2014

Somewhere Between Morning and Mourning in New Delhi

by Stanley A. Weiss

NEW DELHI–Watching the national election play out here the past few weeks has brought me back to a late October evening in 1980, when America stood on the verge of making the same choice that India seems poised to make by the time voting ends on May 12. That night, in the only televised debate between the two major candidates running for President of the United States, incumbent President Jimmy Carter repeatedly appealed to voters’ fears by contending that challenger Ronald Reagan’s right-leaning political views were careless, dangerous, and a threat to world peace. While assailing Reagan’s “heartless approach to working families,” Carter charged that Reagan’s eagerness to inject American military force in places like North Korea would lead to the “actual use of it;” and that his “dangerous and belligerent” insistence “upon the nuclear superiority of America as the basis for negotiation in the future with the Soviet Union” would bring a “very dangerous nuclear arms race.”

But none of those strong words were remembered the next day. Instead, all coverage of the debate led with a simple, now iconic question that Reagan asked directly of voters in his closing statement: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” For a country that had lived through four years of Carter-led malaise, inflation and unemployment; endured more than 400 days of American hostages held in Iran; and perceived a softening of America’s military in the face of Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, the answer was an emphatic “no.” It didn’t matter how conservative Reagan seemed to be. People were desperate for strong leadership and wanted a change–proving, as future U.S. President Bill Clinton would later observe, that “when people feel uncertain, they’d rather have somebody that’s strong and wrong than somebody who’s weak and right.”

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