The Quiet Conservatism of President Ford
With the passing of President Ford, most people have, by now, been disabused of the notion that he was a perpetual klutz and have learned that, in fact, he was a two-time All-American football player at Michigan. Nonetheless, the role that history has cast him is as the man who pardoned Nixon. Yet, believe it or not, while conventional wisdom seems to be that President Ford was a centrist, he was a relatively conservative politician: not Reagan conservative, to be sure, but a sort of natural conservative. To today’s conservatives, that may border on heresay, but there is some evidence to support this.
Most contemporary conservatives, no doubt, would agree with Robert Novak:
The failure of the Ford presidency was the reason Reagan became the first challenger since Roosevelt to threaten seriously the renomination of an incumbent Republican. His pardon of Richard Nixon is usually cited as the reason for Ford’s unpopularity, but it went much deeper. He seemed to have no public purpose, and his presidency revealed no philosophy. A Republican president whose hero was Harry Truman has perception problems from the beginning. A career politician from Grand Rapids, Michigan, he appeared to share Henry Kissinger’s belief that the declining West could not successfully compete with the Soviet bloc and an accommodation had to be found.
Reagan’s grassroots popularity grew as the public perceived he would take a harder position against the Kremlin than the Republican president who declined to see Russian dissenter Alexander Solzhenitsyn because it might offend Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and undermine detente. But Reagan’s clever and manipulative campaign manager John Sears pulled him away from such divisive issues in the interest of seeing him nominated by a united party. In the meantime, the Ford campaign pounded mercilessly against Reagan as unfit for the presidency. Ford disdained Reagan, and his attitude was spread throughout the president’s campaign. The contempt for Reagan was palpable.
But perhaps the error is in characterizing the personal animosity between the Reaganites and the Ford supporters (including the Bushes, I might add) as reflective of wide gulf between governing philosophies. Instead, it seems more apt to view the political dispute as that between a nascent, revolutionary vision of conservatism (Reagan) and a more pragmatic, traditional conservate Republicanism (Ford). To be sure, today, Reagan’s brand of conservatism has essentially triumphed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Ford wasn’t conservative at all. While Ford’s foreign policy is what we would call “realist” (ie; George H.W. Bush/Jame Baker)–his belief in detente with the U.S.S.R. is usually given as an example–he did have some conservative moments (the Mayaguez incident) and his economic policy was essentially conservative (though he was no supply-sider).
George Will (via NRO) wrote a column 30 years ago (PDF) that helps to illustrate this latter point. According to the piece, Ford stymied the Democrat-led Congress:
Congress was going to rescue the nation’s economy from Mr. Ford’s “inhumane” concern with inflation. It was going to treat unemployment as the priority problem. To that end it ginned up a $6-billion bill to put 900,000 people on public payrolls. Mr. Ford vetoed it, and Congress failed to override.
Congress was going to codify in laws the trendy environmentalism which appeals to an intense minority of its constituents. To that end it passed a tough law restricting strip mining. Again, Mr. Ford vetoed. Congress failed to override.
The third and most intense humiliation for Congress came when the House gutted the energy bill prepared by Representative Al Ullman (D., Ore.)…[which] arrived on the floor with a steep gasoline tax and left with that and all other teeth pulled.
Perhaps most telling is Will’s excerpting of a Business Week article on Ford:
Now [Ford’s} Administration is preparing a domestic package that seeks to bolster his ’76 candidacy with such diffuse issues as a strong defense posture, a tough anticrime program, a drive to aid business through tax reforms that assist in capital formation, and rnoves that would curtail government regulation of industry.
That means that, despite his serious split with conservatives. Ford at this point is running on little more than his basic conservatism. To complicate matters further, many of Ford’s deeply felt convictions center on unabashedly probusiness stances that may be deflected by his political opponents into potent anti-consumer positions.
Now, this is not to say that Ford fits the definition of a contemporary conservative, but it is too simple to say he was a “moderate.” Nor was he a tax-and-spender. He didn’t have “the vision thing” and wasn’t a revolutionary conservative in the mold of Ronald Reagan. Instead, he was an honorable and gracious man who–much like the silent majority of the time–was a natural, traditional conservative. May he rest in peace.