Pete du Pont, Conservative Ahead of His Time

Pete du Pont in 2011 (Public domain via Wikimedia)
Du Pont, who died Saturday, was a great two-term GOP governor and conservative innovator.

Pete du Pont, the man who inadvertently may have jump-started Joe Biden’s political career in Delaware, passed away on Saturday at age 86.

Du Pont, an heir to one of the most successful corporate legacies in America, had a bigger impact on American government than his failed 1988 presidential bid for the GOP nomination would indicate. He served as a congressman and then rescued his bankrupt state during two terms as governor by applying classic Reagan conservatism: cutting taxes, deregulating, restraining spending, and expanding economic opportunity.

His record as Delaware’s governor won bipartisan plaudits and prompted him to run for president in 1988, when Ronald Reagan retired. His campaign attracted plenty of attention from pundits, but GOP primary voters plumped for a more well-known member of another aristocratic family: George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president.

Though he never ran for office again, du Pont devoted another quarter century to building and supporting the conservative movement, including a stint as president of the National Review Institute from 1994 to 1997.

He studied engineering at Princeton and law at Harvard, and then he worked for six years in product development at the family company. Frustrated that he would have to wait his turn to run the company until he was past 60, he entered politics at age 33 and won a seat in Delaware’s part-time legislature. In 1970, he easily won Delaware’s sole congressional seat.

In 1972, Republican U.S. senator J. Caleb Boggs was preparing to retire. Du Pont prepared to run, but he would have faced then–Wilmington mayor Harry G. Haskell Jr. in a bitter Senate primary. To avoid a divisive primary, President Richard Nixon helped convince Boggs to run again with united party support.

But Boggs was 63 — he looked tired and ran a lackluster campaign. He was upset by a hard-charging young Democrat named Joe Biden, who beat Boggs, even though he didn’t reach the required age of 30 until after the election. We can speculate how different history might have been if du Pont had beaten Biden and sent “Uncle Joe” in a different direction.

Instead, in 1976, du Pont decided to tackle a real challenge. Delaware had 9 percent unemployment, some of the highest taxes in the nation, a staggering debt, and one of the lowest bond ratings in the country. Previous governors had failed to halt the slide: None had been reelected in 25 years.

Du Pont won promising bold change, and he delivered.  “We took the attitude, well, you know, if we’re not going to get reelected anyhow, maybe we just ought to go into office and really do what needs to be done and straighten the place out,” he told the Washington Post in 1988. “And so we did.”

Indeed, he cut the top income tax rate of 20 percent nearly in half and passed constitutional amendments restricting state spending and requiring three-fifths votes in the legislature to raise taxes. He also created an independent revenue-forecasting panel, signed legislation restoring the death penalty, and attracted top management talent to work for the state. His deregulation of interest rates brought a new business — financial services — to the state, along with 45,000 new jobs. His program worked, and he won an astonishing 71 percent of the vote in his reelection, running 24 points ahead of Ronald Reagan’s showing that year.

Du Pont’s conservatism came as a bit of a shock to those who had followed his voting record in Congress. There, he had a moderate record, opposing aid to anti-Communist rebels in Angola, supporting campaign-finance reform, and voting for environmental regulation.

When he ran for president, du Pont said his political evolution could be explained by just how much Ronald Reagan had changed the Republican Party. “The example I always use is [that] conservative Richard Nixon, at the height of 4 percent inflation, raging inflation in America, sent conservative John Connally, secretary of the treasury, down to the House caucus to demand wage and price controls for America,” told the Washington Post.  “And Jack Kemp and Pete du Pont and Bob Dole all voted yes. That’s an absurd vote today. I don’t believe any one of us would vote that way today. So the party has changed.”

After du Pont left the governor’s office, he prepared a presidential campaign that would be centered around bold ideas, allowing people to channel some of their taxes away from a bankrupt Social Security system and set up “private financial accounts,” school vouchers, a work requirement for receiving welfare, and ended farm subsidies in five years.

Vice President Bush and Jack Kemp may have campaigned as Reagan’s heirs in 1988, but they both decided to ridicule du Pont’s platform. The aristocratic Bush sneered that du Pont’s ideas were “elitist” and called him by his given name, “Pierre,” in an Iowa debate. He also called his Social Security plan a “nutty idea.” Kemp derided his calls for school vouchers as “anti-teacher,” pointing out that his educator daughter opposed them. In my last conversation with him a few years ago, du Pont expressed satisfaction that “Bush’s son as president proposed private Social Security accounts, and the party is now fully on board with school vouchers.”

But he was ahead of his time in 1988. “He can afford to see things simply,” his former aide Bill Manning mused, “. . . because he can afford the risk that the answers yielded by that kind of analysis will offend somebody.” In 1988, du Pont offended enough people and was outmatched by bigger party warhorses, such as George Bush, Bob Dole, and Jack Kemp. Timing is everything in politics, and du Pont’s time ran out early — he dropped out after the New Hampshire primary.

Pete du Pont was a good man who would have made a great president. But even though he was never elected to the highest office, he proved that conservative ideas work in the most important of arenas: the real world.


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