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