A work in progress ....
PODs: (1) Carter selects Frank Church, and not Walter Mondale, as his running mate in 1976. (2) Carter never gives the "Malaise Speech." (3) Operation Eagle Claw, a catastrophic failure OTL, is successful. (4) Ted Kennedy never runs against Carter in 1980.
Summer 1976 - A dark horse candidate in 1976, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter wins the Democratic presidential nomination and chooses Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, one of his his main primary competitors, as his running mate. The choice is widely praised by the media as a good geographic balance, as Carter is still a relative unknown in Church's Intermountain West base.
November 1976 - Carter and Church defeat the incumbent president, Gerald Ford, and his running mate, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, with 303 electoral votes to Ford/Dole's 202. Former Gov. Ronald Reagan of California receives a single electoral vote from a faithless Ford elector in Washington state.
Carter's First Term (1977-81)
January 1977 - Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus appoints a placeholder to Church's Senate seat in January 1977 with the intention of running for it in the next special election himself. Carter's initial Cabinet appointments are the same as in OTL except for Secretary of the Interior, which goes to former Oregon Gov. Tom McCall instead of Andrus.
September 1977 - Carter gives Church unprecedented leeway as a vice president, especially in foreign affairs. Accordingly Vice President Church plays a key role in negotiating the Panama Canal Treaties. Although the treaties provoke significant outrage on the right, they prove to be not as politically explosive as they were in OTL. Throughout Carter's presidency, Church is commonly considered the administration's "brains" on foreign policy. Carter effectively acknowledges this in a post-presidential biography.
September 1978 - As in OTL, Egypt and Israel sign the Camp David Accords, but credit is initially given to Vice President Church, so they're initially called the "Church Accords." Church, Carter, Begin and Sadat all downplay the accounts.
October 1978 - Claiming he was "just doing his job," Vice President Church famously refuses the Nobel Peace Prize. It goes to Mother Teresa instead.
November 1978 - Andrus defeats Rep. Steve Symms in a special Senate election in Idaho to finish the final two years of Church's term. Andrus is easily re-elected to full terms in 1980 and 1986.
June 1979 - As in OTL, Carter signs the SALT II treaty with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in Vienna, Austria.
July 1979 - Carter drafts but never delivers the infamous "Malaise Speech." Instead he opts for a more standard (and therefore less memorable) energy policy speech for a nationwide telecast.
Late 1979 - Thanks in part to a slumping economy, Carter's popularity is weak throughout 1979 and early 1980. Sen. Ted Kennedy considers challenging Carter in the 1980 primaries but ultimately declines to run, reportedly out of respect for Church, who was a good friend of his brothers John and Robert. Through 1979 and into early 1980 Carter trails Reagan, the likely GOP nominee, in most polls.
April 1980 - In a dramatic impromptu nationwide address which later comes to be viewed as the definitive moment of his presidency, President Carter announces Operation Eagle Claw, a daring raid to rescue the hostages in the American embassy in Iran, was a stunning success. As such, Iran is not nearly as contentious a campaign issue as it is OTL. Carter's approval ratings surge and Reagan's poll lead vanishes. Most post-Eagle Claw polls show a statistical dead heat.
Later on, it's revealed Carter largely acted without Vice President Church's or Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's input. Both Church and Vance are upset over this. Vance nearly resigns, but stays on, saying in private, "Because it obviously worked. Carter is a lucky bastard."
Also in private, Church simply says, "Mr. President, please don't do something like that again without talking to me first."
May 1980 - Fresh off his Eagle Claw triumph, Carter cuts off diplomatic relations with El Salvador after it becomes clear a government death squad assassinated Archbishop Óscar Romero in March. He also specifically orders the CIA to stay out of the country, allowing the Salvadoran Civil War to end six years sooner than it did OTL. The move slightly boosts Carter's standing with Catholic and Hispanic voters. Meanwhile unrest in nearby Nicaragua continues as in OTL, creating profound consequences later.
October 1980 - According to most news outlets, Carter and Reagan draw in the presidential debates, but Church decisively defeats former UN ambassador George H. W. Bush in the vice presidential debate.
November 1980 - Carter and Church narrowly defeat the Reagan/Bush ticket 291 electoral votes to 247. An independent candidate, former Rep. John Anderson, polled upwards of 10 percent in some states. Anderson is widely seen to have siphoned off key swing state moderate votes from Republicans. This is especially true in the ultimately decisive state of Illinois (Anderson's home state), which Carter/Church wins by a margin of less than one percent. As the OTL "Reagan Wave" never really materializes, Democrats retain and hold the Senate throughout the 1980s with a reduced majority.
After 1980 - Although the Bush family remained influential behind the scenes in Republican politics in the coming years, after the 1980 loss neither Bush nor his sons emerged as serious presidential candidates.
Carter's Second Term (1981-85)
January 1981 - Carter is sworn in for his second term with most of his original 1977 Cabinet intact, including Vance and Attorney General Griffin Bell, in sharp contrast to OTL.
March 1981 - John Hinckley remains mentally disturbed and is eventually institutionalized, but since Jodie Foster supported Carter he never tries to assassinate anyone. Hinckley never attains any sort of notoriety.
1981-82 - After his second inauguration, Carter's approval ratings slowly improve as the economy recovers. Throughout Carter's second term, Church - who always had better approval numbers than Carter - is considered the prohibitive favorite for the 1984 Democratic nomination.
April 1982 - Although the United States and Great Britain remain close allies, Carter's relationship with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is notoriously frosty, especially during his second term. Carter's response to the British decision to go to war with Argentina over the Falklands is muted at best. Thatcher famously proclaims that it is "difficult to do business with Mr. Carter."
May 1982 - "Eagle Claw," a video game in which the player assumes the role of a combat helicopter attempting to save hostages being held in prisoner of war camps, becomes a huge hit in the United States and one of the iconic games of the 1980s, easily sweeping away "Pac-Man."
November 1982 - Longtime Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev dies. Carter sends Vice President Church and Secretary of State Vance to the state funeral in Moscow. Unbeknownst to the United States at the time, the presence of Church in Moscow causes a major intelligence scare among the Soviets. For his part, Church fulfills his diplomatic role at the state funeral and reports a "boring" experience to President Carter upon his return to Washington.
October 1983 - Much to Thatcher's annoyance, Carter and Church are jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This time, neither refuses.
December 1983 - Church formally announces his 1984 presidential campaign in Boise, Idaho. Running virtually as an incumbent, he is expected to face only token primary opposition as most of the party's heavy hitters are quick to endorse him.
January 1984 - Less than a month after his announcement, Church is diagnosed with aggressive pancreatic cancer. The nation is shocked as Church is forced to withdraw from the race. What was seen as a political coronation suddenly becomes a political free-for-all. Several prominent Democrats, including Kennedy and fellow Sens. Gary Hart and John Glenn, scramble to put together presidential campaigns.
February 1984 - Vice President Church's condition deteriorates quickly and he is soon no longer able to carry out official functions. Knowing he is terminal, Church resigns and returns to Idaho. A few days before, still quite fearful of Church's foreign policy prowess and not knowing the true extent of his illness, the Soviet Politburo selects Yuri Andropov's chosen successor, Mikhail Gorbachev, over Konstantin Chernenko to lead the USSR after Andropov's death. Although initially suspicious of Gorbachev, Carter warms to him considerably during the final months of his administration. Shortly before his death in 1989, longtime Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko comments, "We knew Church had cancer 40 years before. The Politburo was paranoid, and considered the events of January a diversion. Had we known Church really was that sick, things would have been very different."
March 1984 - Carter names Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale of Minnesota as Church's successor for the remaining months of his administration. Mondale never runs for president, instead defeating Rudy Boschwitz later in 1984 to reclaim his Senate seat. Later historians reveal Mondale was nearly named Carter's running mate over Church in 1976, which many believe would have been a mistake despite Church's illness.
Mondale becomes something of a national joke and the answer to a trivia question, "Who was the shortest-tenured American vice president in history?" Carter later laments the decision as well, stating, "While I loved Fritz like a brother, I should have never replaced Frank Church in those circumstances. Doing so was the biggest mistake of my presidency."
April 1984 - Church dies at home on April 7 at the age of 59. His funeral in Boise is televised nationwide. Both parties eulogize him as the "best vice president ever," with Reagan memorably weeping during a campaign rally in Phoenix. The late vice president is especially mourned in his home state of Idaho, even though he lost the state as a vice presidential candidate in 1976 and 1980. President and First Lady Carter are reportedly especially broken up by his passing.
Spring 1984 - Hart narrowly defeats Kennedy for the Democratic nomination during a particularly contentious primary season. The mean-spirited primaries irritate President Carter, especially in light of his longstanding relationship with the late Church. Although Carter supports Hart in the general election, he pointedly never formally endorses him.
July 1984 - By contrast Reagan - who never really stopped campaigning after his razor-thin 1980 loss - easily wins the Republican nomination. In a nod to the GOP's still-powerful moderate factions, the conservative Reagan selects Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas as his running mate.
August 1984 - During a tense and solemn Democratic National Convention in San Francisco dedicated to Church's memory, Hart selects Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York as his running mate.
November 1984 - Hart's late start and lackluster campaign style greatly hinder his general election campaign. The Reagan/Kassebaum ticket wins easily with 445 electoral votes to 93 for Hart/Cuomo. Despite the crushing loss, Carter leaves office in January 1985 with a 62 percent approval rating. Democrats lament, "If only Frank Church lived."
Reagan's Term (1985-89)
January 1985 - The 73-year-old Reagan becomes far and away the oldest person in history to succeed to the presidency, but runs into trouble early as the Democratic-controlled Senate rejects several of his more right-wing Cabinet appointments, including Robert Bork for Attorney General and Interior Secretary nominee James Watt.
Summer 1985 - Reagan's health concerns take center stage throughout the summer. Although he was never shot in 1981 as he was OTL, operations for cancer in July and again in August create a great deal of concern in the press. In July Vice President Kassebaum becomes the first woman to serve as acting president due to one of these operations.
November 1986 - What becomes known as the "Iran-Contra Scandal" is first reported. Among other things, as Reagan is a first-term president succeeding a still-popular Carter - who was widely viewed as incorruptible and much more respected than he was at the time OTL - the scandal and subsequent Congressional hearings prove much more devastating to the Reagan Administration than they did OTL. Reagan's approval rating nosedives and never goes above 45 percent for the rest of his presidency. As a result Reagan is much less effective in promoting his agenda, especially after Iran-Contra.
Winter 1987 - Reagan is widely viewed as a "sitting duck" by both parties for 1988. Several Republicans, notably Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich, openly speculate about a primary challenge.
April 1987 - Gary Hart confidently announces his presidential campaign in Denver. Despite much bad blood over the bruising 1984 primaries, including a lingering feeling among some Democrats he profited off Church's death, he's immediately considered the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.
May 1987 - The Democratic field is again thrown into chaos as Hart is implicated in an embarrassing scandal regarding an extramarital affair. Hart's campaign never recovers from the ensuing media circus. Hart "suspends" his campaign twice, but twice returns vowing to stay in.
July 1987 - After weeks of speculation, Vice President Kassebaum rules out running against Reagan in 1988, stating she's "with the president for the long haul."
August 1987 - To the surprise of many Reagan shares Carter's enthusiasm towards Gorbachev, and agrees to meet with the Soviet leader face to face in Reykjavík, Iceland, with the former president in attendance. The meeting is often considered to be the beginning of the end of the Cold War and temporarily revives Reagan's 1988 aspirations.
Fall 1987 - With Hart's off-and-on campaign no longer taken seriously, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis becomes the consensus Democratic frontrunner.
October 1987 - Stating, "If Nancy won't do it, I will," Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, the 1976 GOP vice presidential nominee, unexpectedly enters the Republican presidential race. By early November Dole is consistently polling within five points of Reagan.
January 1988 - Dukakis easily wins the Iowa Democratic caucus. Hart finishes a distant third behind Dukakis and Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, dropping out for good the next day. Dole narrowly defeats Reagan on the Republican side in Iowa, but Reagan prevails in New Hampshire.
March 1988 - Dukakis effectively wraps up the Democratic nomination on "Super Tuesday," with only Jesse Jackson continuing to challenge him afterwards. Reagan and Dole split the day on the Republican side, but it's soon clear Reagan prevailed overall.
April 1988 - After defiantly declaring at a Pittsburgh rally that, "The dream of freedom shall never die!" Dole ends his campaign after a poor showing in Pennsylvania, effectively handing Reagan his third straight GOP presidential nomination.
Summer 1988 - In a convention as festive as 1984's was somber, in July in Atlanta Democrats nominate Dukakis and Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen for their ticket. Republicans re-nominate Reagan and Kassebaum in New Orleans a month later in a much more subdued occasion. Dukakis comes out of the conventions with a 21-point lead.
September 1988 - Republicans begin running anti-Dukakis "Willie Horton" spots, but the ads are largely seen as an act of desperation and dismissed by the general public.
October 1988 - Dukakis easily defeats a seemingly tired and confused Reagan in the debates, reigniting discussion over Reagan's health and ultimately sealing Dukakis' victory. Some years later it is revealed Reagan indeed suffered from early stage Alzheimer's symptoms throughout his presidency, symptoms which got significantly worse after mid-1987. The vice presidential debate between Bentsen and Kassebaum is uneventful.
November 1988 - Dukakis defeats Reagan 402-136 in the Electoral College. A week after the election, conservative columnist George Will writes, "Had Reagan prevailed in 1980, before his health issues overshadowed him, he might have been remembered with the same reverence Jimmy Carter is today." The same day, liberal pundit Molly Ivins writes, "Had Frank Church lived, he would have undoubtedly been elected over Reagan in 1984, and likely would have won a second term last week .... Good riddance to Ronald Reagan, easily the worst American president of the last century."
Most of America agrees with Ivins' assessment of Reagan, especially after he quickly disappears into obscurity.
Dukakis' Term (1989-93)
Yup. He's a one-termer too. Stay tuned ....