Paul  Weyrich

How well I recall the Panama Canal Treaty fight of thirty years ago. The political establishment was adamantly in favor of the Treaty. The people were against it. There were two political consequences of the ratification of the Treaty. Many Democratic Senators insisted they knew better than the people. The first of these was Senator Thomas J. McIntyre (D-NH). “I was elected by the people. I know more than they do. Of course, I am in favor of the Treaty.” Well, no. The people knew better than he did. He made that statement in 1977. The following year a co-pilot for Allegheny Airlines, Gordon J. Humphrey, upset McIntyre in the biggest story of that election. Likewise in Iowa, Senator Richard Clark campaigned for the Treaty. His opponent, former Lieutenant Governor Roger Jepsen, upended Clark in the second biggest story of 1978. Other incumbents likewise lost their seats in the Senate that year.

It was the beginning of the election cycle in which the establishment challenged popular opinion and lost. In 1980 Ronald W. Reagan was running for President. But in many states the Republican Senatorial candidate outpolled Reagan, who himself was popular. So many states used the Panama Canal as an issue that Republicans won control of the Senate for the first time since the 1952 election. A few of these Senatorial candidates might have won without the Panama Canal issue but not a sufficient number to control the Senate. Many incumbent Senators, such as Senator George S. McGovern (D-SD) were amazed. “We could have had a decent debate over our role in that part of the world but Abdnor (then Senator-elect James B. Abdnor) kept harping that we gave away our Canal.”

The matter also had consequences for Republicans. Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr. (R-TN), then Senate Minority Leader, also believed he knew better than the public. Had he been against the Treaty, he might have been considered by Ronald Reagan for Vice President. But because he supported the Treaty, Reagan declined to offer him the position.

Paul Weyrich

Paul M. Weyrich is the late Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation.
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