December 27, 2006

Gerald Ford's Legacy

As I've browsed the 'net this evening, I've come across two articles proposing something other than the Nixon pardon as Gerald Ford's greatest legacy. One suggests the nomination of John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court had the longest range effect -- an effect that I would argue is mostly negative and has done great harm tot he country.

Next week will mark the 31st anniversary of Stevens’ taking his oath as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Stevens has turned out to be one of the stalwart members of the court's liberal wing.

Thirty years after Ford left office, Americans are living under legal rules created by the Supreme Court, in many cases by 5-to-4 decisions with Stevens in the majority.

Among them:

* Stevens wrote the majority opinion in Kelo v. New London, the 2005 decision that held that local and state governments could condemn and acquire private property even when it was not to be used for a public purpose.

* He helped form the five-justice majority in another 2005 case, Roper v. Simmons, which held that convicted murderers who’d been under age 18 when they committed their crime could not get the death penalty.

* He joined a 2000 decision called Stenberg v. Carhart in which the court struck down a Nebraska law banning so-called “partial-birth” abortions.

None of these decisions meet with my approval, and I believe each of them have been destructive of the proper Constitutional order. Indeed, Stevens' liberalism is proof positive that no president can ever be sure what sort of justice he will get when he makes an appointment.

The other argues that Ford's greatest legacy was that he set the stage for the election of Ronald Reagan four years after his own defeat, for any other outcome in 1976 would have likely ended Reagan's chance to be president and certainly sent the country down a very different path.

The true Ford effect was, once again, an unwitting one. By beating Reagan in the battle for his party’s nomination he saved Reagan from himself. It is very doubtful whether Reagan could have stopped Carter in 1976 — Ford as the incumbent President was the only Republican with any chance of winning — and if Reagan had lost against the Democrat peanut farmer that would have been the end of him.

What if, as he nearly did, Ford had defeated Carter? He would have faced a heavily Democratic Congress, a severe economic recession in 1979-80 and an ageing cabal in Moscow intent on sending troops into Afghanistan. He would have been ineligible for re-election in 1980 but, in these conditions, the Republican candidate would surely have been doomed at the polling stations. The odds are that the White House would have been captured by the most prominent Democrat in the land — Edward Kennedy.

The world we live in today might have been very different if that Kennedy, not Reagan, had occupied the Oval Office in the 1980s. He would not have followed policies that led to almost constant economic growth over the past 25 years nor taken on the Kremlin to the point where the Soviet Union imploded.

“What if” is an ultimately unanswerable question in history. Yet it is the real story of the Ford years.

Indeed -- that "what if" would have resulted in a world unrecognizable today -- and one that I believe would be significantly worse-off had Gerald Ford not fallen short in 1976.

I can forgive Ford his making the same mistake as so many other presidents when selecting a Supreme Court justice -- and thank God for his having run the 1976 presidential race just as he did.

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