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A Man, A Plan ...

The unintended consequences of giving up the Panama Canal.

Nov 3, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 08 • By CRAIG SHIRLEY
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And yet, despite a two-year media barrage, massive fundraising campaign, and the palpable opposition of the American people, treaty proponents scraped together the necessary votes for ratification. But the New Right had only just begun to fight, organizing to oppose pro-treaty senators. In New Jersey former Reagan aide Jeffrey Bell knocked off the old guard GOP senator Clifford Case in a primary, while in New Hampshire an unknown airline pilot and anti-treaty organizer, Gordon Humphrey, beat the incumbent senator Thomas McIntyre almost exclusively over the Panama Canal.

All across the country the New Right ran largely against Democratic luminaries rather than for their Republican rivals, and although these campaigns often came down to a lot more than the treaty, Panama was an undercurrent in almost every close race in the 1978 and '80 cycles--where the GOP picked up 15 seats.

This is a valuable book about an issue that has been largely ignored by historians, but which contributed immensely to conservative political success. And Clymer's wealth of interviews and insider knowledge--including, I should disclose, my own research material on the subject--makes Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch indispensable to any student of modern political
history.

To be sure, readers should be wary of the lessons Clymer draws from this episode: Although he strives to be fair-minded, his bias occasionally peeks through as he blames the "divisiveness" of modern politics on the tactics and rhetoric conservatives first used to great effect in the treaty fight. But the legacy of that fight is this: Being too far out of touch with the concerns of average Americans can cost elected representatives their seats--as a number of Democrats and liberal Republicans learned firsthand. (Indeed, the issue was still so toxic 20 years later that neither Bill Clinton nor his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, attended the formal handover of the Canal.)
Still, Clymer's bias is minimal, and he is "old school" in the sense that, while his politics may be of some particular persuasion, it almost never infected his prodigious and impressive writing for the Times. And as he illustrates here, the status of a small strip of land in Central America helped to propel Ronald Reagan into the White House with a Republican Senate and, as a result, transformed our country. In fitting paradox, conservatives won by losing.

Craig Shirley, president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, is the author, most recently, of Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America.