Defining National Security as Peace through Strength: Ronald Reagan's Visionary Rhetoric of Renewal in the 1980 Presidential Campaign

By Drury, Sara A. Mehltretter | Argumentation and Advocacy, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Defining National Security as Peace through Strength: Ronald Reagan's Visionary Rhetoric of Renewal in the 1980 Presidential Campaign


Drury, Sara A. Mehltretter, Argumentation and Advocacy


In the 1980 election, Republican actor-turned-governor Ronald Reagan challenged incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter for the presidency. It was a challenging time for the United States. In his now-infamous Crisis of Confidence (or "Malaise") speech, Carter (1980) addressed the nation and described his presidency as a time that produced a "crisis of confidence" in the United States, with a "growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation" (p. 1237). The long and controversial struggle in Vietnam was over, but U.S. global power seemed to be waning on multiple fronts. An oil shortage depressed the economy. In the fall of 1979, U.S. television screens broadcast supporters of a new, radical government in Iran holding fifty-two Americans hostage in the U.S. embassy. There indeed seemed reasons to doubt the strength and security of the nation. In contrast, the Republican candidate promised "a rebirth of the American tradition of leadership" in domestic and international affairs (Reagan, 1980a, para. 7). Reagan's advocacy relied not only on a call to renew what he referred to as the American spirit, but also on substantive changes in foreign policy and national security strategy.

In his 1980 foreign policy discourse, Reagan offered a visionary rhetoric of renewal, employing emotional appeals and narration alongside national security policy plans to return the United States to "peace through strength." To analyze these rhetorical strategies, this essay examines four significant foreign policy speeches during Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign: the nomination speech at the Republican National Convention, two speeches devoted to Reagan's plans for foreign policy-the Veteran of Foreign Wars Convention speech and A Strategy for Peace in the '80s-and Regan's speech the night before the election (Reagan, 1980a, 1980b, 1980c, 1980d). I argue that Reagan's campaign rhetoric represented visionary rhetoric--a. deep, substantive form of argument relying on emotion, narration, and appeals to change.

To begin, I draw from previous scholarship on presidential rhetoric, rhetorical visions, emotion, narrative, and crafting a methodological framework for understanding visionary rhetoric. I next consider previous accounts of Reagan as a rhetor. Then, I identify four major foreign policy speeches of Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign and analyze the ways Reagan constructed a visionary rhetoric of renewal for U.S. national security and foreign policy. Reagan's visionary rhetoric of renewal gained resonance as the campaign progressed, linking emotion and values with the potential for specific changes and actions in foreign policy. To conclude the essay, I reflect on visionary rhetoric as demonstrating the interplay between emotion, narration, and public policy discourse in U.S. political rhetoric, and argue that visionary rhetoric is a powerful tool for political candidates.

PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGNS AND VISIONARY RHETORIC

The president's ability to define political and social reality is one of his essential rhetorical powers. This power does not function in a direct, causational way, but rather through the nuanced influences within the rhetorical landscape (Hart, 2008). Presidents historically have been the "center of American political culture," serving as the symbol of our government, the dominant actor in policy debates, and the chief communicator (Edwards, 2008a, p. 832). Defining events and interpreting history are aspects of what Leroy Dorsey (2002) has called the president's "rhetorical leadership"--the "process of discovering, articulating, and sharing the available means of influence in order to motivate human agents in a particular situation" (p. 9).

Particularly in matters of foreign affairs, the president's power to define the situation and outline the options available is unmatched by any other political actor (Zarefsky, 2004; see also Edwards, 2008b; Hart, 2008; Heidt, 2013; Stuckey, 1991). …

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