What If . . . Reagan had lost in 1980

Amazingly, it is 30 years now since the constitutional crisis that briefly left the United States without a president. For six weeks during the winter of 1980-81, lawyers, journalists and political junkies descended on California to study the disputed ballots, while the rival campaigns of Ronald Reagan and Edward Kennedy flooded the airwaves with claims and counterclaims. It made an appropriately bizarre conclusion to the most turbulent one-term presidency in American history.

The story began four years earlier when Reagan - just retired as governor of California - beat Gerald Ford by a tiny margin to become the Republicans' 1976 presidential candidate. Against all the odds, he then whittled away Jimmy Carter's lead and prevailed in the general election, becoming the third Republican president in a row. Shell-shocked, Carter gave up politics to become a Baptist preacher. Nowadays Americans often call him "the best president we never had".

Reagan ran into trouble from the start. Coming at a time of recession and austerity, his glitzy inauguration - with John Wayne ubiquitous - was condemned as tasteless gloating, and his sweeping tax cuts were rewarded with surging inflation. As millions lost their jobs, the administration's conspicuous hedonism seemed grotesque. When Nancy Reagan was photographed dancing at Studio 54, the beleaguered president had to go on TV to apologise.

But it was foreign affairs for which Reagan will always be remembered. Within months of taking office, he had torn up détente with the Soviet Union and sent thousands of so-called military advisers into El Salvador. When he refused to sign the Panama Canal Treaty, central America exploded. Even his laudable attempts to strike an unprecedented peace deal between Israel and Egypt came to nothing when he fell asleep during the Camp David negotiations.

By the time revolution erupted in Iran in late 1978, sending petrol prices and inflation soaring, Reagan was already floundering. A US-backed coup to reinstal the shah went badly wrong, and when Iranian students stormed the US embassy and took its staff hostage, the president gambled. Operation Eagle Talon, as it was known, was a disaster: as missiles rained down on Tehran, hundreds of schoolchildren were killed. Across the Middle East, US embassies burned; a few weeks later, Soviet troops crossed the border into Iran.

Although nuclear war was averted, Reagan was finished. Only a relentlessly negative campaign, complete with slow-mo reconstructions of the Chappaquiddick incident, kept him in the race against the Democrats' Ted Kennedy. Not until 2008, when memories were beginning to fade, did the American people elect another Republican president.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.