From my research on President Reagan and the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAAA) of 1986, I have been struck by the skilled and successful posturing of Congressional Republicans during that debate. Between 1984 and 1986, apartheid in South Africa was transformed from an issue that was almost entirely the preserve of African-American and liberal Democrats to an issue that captivated the attention and agenda of both Houses of Congress. Many young conservatives within the Republican Party, particularly those in the House of Representatives such as Newt Gingrich (R-GA), Vin Weber (R-MN), and Robert Walker (R-PA) recognized that by coming out strongly against apartheid, they could come out on the winning side of a controversial debate. These young conservatives believed in the possibility that they could build a total and long-lasting majority in both the Senate and the House, and were prepared to take a principled stand against the Reagan Administration to prove it.
These young conservatives worked closely with liberals on the other side of the aisle to craft and pass the CAAA. Without the votes of many House and Senate conservatives, President Reagan’s veto of the CAAA would likely have stood. In the end, 81 House Republicans voted with 232 House Democrats to override Reagan’s veto, while 31 Senate Republicans did the same. These Republicans dealt President Reagan an enormous foreign policy defeat led by members of his own party, and were strongly criticized by others within the Republican Party for abandoning the president on a globally prominent issue. Many House Republicans who criticized apartheid and the Reagan Administration’s position on it rose to prominence within their party during the 1994 elections, popularly known as the “Republican Revolution.” Those voted with Democrats to override Reagan’s veto included: future Senators John McCain (AZ), Dan Coats (IN) and Olympia Snowe (ME), future Governors John Rowland (CT), Tom Ridge (PA) and John Kasich (OH), and future Speaker of the House Gingrich. Judging by nothing more than the lasting prominence of many House Republicans who bucked their party and their president on apartheid, it is likely that the debate over the CAAA provided an interesting crossroads in the future of the Republican Party in the United States.
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