Did the U.S. Win the Cold War Against Russia?

Ronald Reagan
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who forged a conservative revolution that transformed American politics, died on June 5, 2004, after a decadelong battle with Alzheimer's disease. Reuters Pictures

Newsweek published this story under the headline "Reagan Leaves the Democrats Mumbling" on October 27, 1986. In light of recent news involving foreign involvement in U.S. elections, Newsweek is republishing the story.

If the Iceland summit dashed Ronald Reagan's hopes for a negotiating breakthrough with the Soviet Union, it also canceled his party's plans for a world-class "October surprise"—a foreign-policy triumph that would help the GOP keep control of the Senate in this year's elections. But last week Reagan took to the campaign trail to launch a vigorous counterattack, defending his decision to protect the Strategic Defense Initiative so boldly that his Democratic critics were all but silenced. The first chorus of criticism, from Sen. Gary Hart and a handful of other Democratic liberals, quickly sputtered out, and by the end of the week the only real complaints that could be heard were coming from Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, who was attacking Reagan from the right. The outcome cruelly exposed the Democrats' continuing divisions on national-security issues—a confusion that may well haunt them in 1988. Reagan, speaking in Baltimore, called his Strategic Defense Initiative the "key to a world free of nuclear blackmail" and urged voters to ask House and Senate candidates, "Where do you stand on SDI?" He railed against "liberals in Congress" who seek "to take a meat ax and chop up America's Strategic Defense Initiative," and he warned of the "terrible tragedy" if "those on Capitol Hill are allowed to hand over to the Soviet Union free of charge what we refused to hand over across the negotiating table." It was strong, purely partisan stuff which left House Speaker Tip O'Neill grumbling that "the president has abused the bipartisan spirit of Iceland." But leading Democratic strategists stressed the folly of attacking an immensely popular president on the sensitive point of his dealings with the Soviet Union, and most counseled their candidates to stick to bread-and-butter issues back home. At the White House, meanwhile, Reagan's handlers cheerfully predicted that the summit's soggy aftermath would help, not hurt, the GOP in its drive to retain control of the Senate. "We've got a wide-open field," said one. "The Democrats are mumbling to themselves, 'How are we going to play this thing?' And while they're just sitting there, we're all over the place."

There did seem to be quite a bit of mumbling among the Democrats, although there were exceptions. Hart, delivering a farewell speech to the Senate that may foreshadow his unannounced presidential campaign, spoke harshly about the folly of SDI and emphasized the need for arms control. Nunn—who is currently the subject of presidential speculation as well—attacked Reagan from the opposite flank, arguing that the president's extreme proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons would expose NATO to the Soviets' overwhelming superiority in conventional forces. The result: a vivid display of the Democrats' conflicts on national defense.

Those divisions may not make much difference in the fall election (1988 could well be another matter) because of the arcane quality of the debate. While Reagan now seems hellbent on taking the case for SDI to the voters, few experts in either party think that arms control, SDI or the Reykjavik summit will have much impact when America votes on Nov. 4. One reason is that—short of war—foreign-policy issues rarely have much influence on congressional domestic elections. Another is that arms control is still a distant and almost hopelessly esoteric problem for many Americans. As a result, in the view of most political pros, the Reykjavik summit was much like any other highly publicized foreign-policy event—the occasion for a predictable and probably brief spurt of public support for the commander in chief. "For educated voters, the events in Iceland might mean something," said Democratic Rep. Richard Gephardt, who also harbors presidential aspirations. "But for the beer-truck driver in my district, he'll be inclined to give Ronald Reagan the benefit of the doubt. If Ronald Reagan says it was a bad deal, he'll think it was a bad deal."

The pertinent question, then, was not so much whether Reykjavik had given Reagan yet another boost in popularity, but whether the president could transfer any of that voter support to his Senate candidates. Analysts for both parties will be watching closely to see whether his forays into economically depressed Oklahoma and Missouri this week will give Republican candidates a lift—and whether Reagan's attempt to turn SDI into a central campaign issue mobilizes Republican voters to turn out in greater numbers on Election Day. GOP strategy now calls for weaving a hopeful view of arms control into a don't-change-the-horses message aimed at revving up the voters who supported Reagan in 1984. A series of radio and television ads, scheduled to run in late October and early November, will stress Reagan's accomplishments and portray Reykjavik as the beginning of a negotiating process for which the president will need a Republican-controlled Senate as an ally. "Will SDI be the centerpiece? No. But will it be a part of the message? You bet," says one top party official.

The Democrats are sticking to economic issues—and there are signs that strategy is beginning to work. A state-by-state poll by The Washington Post and ABC News suggested last week that the Democrats' chances of recapturing the Senate are improving, primarily because of rising voter concern about the economy. Accordingly, ranking Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Robert Byrd see Reagan's sudden stress on SDI as an attempt to divert attention from issues like imports and farm prices. The irony was that the immensely popular president could well win the war of perceptions on the summit and still lose his Senate majority—and thus spend his last two years in office confronted by a contentious Democratic Congress.