All the Republican candidates for president have attempted to claim the Reagan mantle. But it takes more than a formulaic recitation of conventional conservative pieties — low taxes, balanced budgets, strong defense, traditional values — to deserve to be heir to the Reagan legacy.
Of course Ronald Reagan believed in — and fought for — all those goals. But I believe there was something quite unconventional about Mr. Reagan’s view of America that accounted for his great success as a conservative. Perhaps the key to Mr. Reagan’s unique brand of conservatism can be found in his presidential nomination acceptance speech delivered in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena on July 17, 1980.
As a young Reagan volunteer, I was one of the thousands in the arena audience that night. And I remember being thrilled to hear Mr. Reagan quote Thomas Paine’s line: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” At least procedurally, that thought is about as unconservative as can be conceived. Classic conservatism believes that change comes best by respecting the institutions and values of a society, and by letting their organic development — not some bright new idea — lead to changed circumstances.
And there was Mr. Reagan quoting old Tom Paine, the most radical of our Founding Fathers — who not only championed the American Revolution, but the French one also (he was a member of the French revolutionary councils) — and quoting him for the proposition that we can throw civilization’s institutions and traditions overboard and “begin the world over again.”
Of course it was true that Mr. Reagan had in mind throwing over liberal, statist programs and tax codes (that had encrusted our ancient liberties since FDR’s New Deal).That is what I impatiently wanted, too. Mr. Reagan’s values were conservative, but his impatience with the failures of the status quo was radical. That is why as a young man he had been a full-throated FDR New Dealer. And that is why FDR and Ronald Reagan were the two most successful American politicians of the 20th century.
They both understood that there is a radical, wipe-the-slate-clean, push-over-the-table, ruthless, impatient streak in the American people. While it is true that the American Revolution was the most conservative of the great Enlightenment epoch revolutions (American, French, Russian and Chinese), it was nonetheless a revolution. Yes, it was a revolution for property rights and was deeply dubious of unfettered democratic energies.
But the hot-headed impatience of our Founding Fathers (and the broader population that fought the revolution) abides to this day. While it can be subterranean for years or even decades, when conditions are seen to be too unacceptable, that old radical impatience of the American people floods out across the land.
And, while the American people are generally conservative in values (deeply and broadly religious, respectful of property rights, not particularly envious of the rich, jealous of individual liberties, sentimental for the family, patriotic, proud and insistent to bear arms, willing to fight for God and country), conservative politicians should not forget that Americans are not ideological conservatives — they are practical, and Washington distrusting.
Ronald Reagan shared America’s radical impatience. He didn’t defend past Republican policies both foreign and domestic. He immediately rejected bipartisan detente with the Soviets and set about defeating them. While he was agreeable, he didn’t agree to the traditional appropriation process, but sought (and achieved) radical, more or less across-the-board, spending cuts as soon as he arrived in the White House (with the Gramm/Latta bill of 1981).
Mr. Reagan was — and appeared to the American people to be — as different from the former Republican Party politicians as he obviously was from Jimmy Carter and the Democrats. In 1984, he was able to credibly say — when he was told that people want change — that “We [the Reagan administration] ARE the change.”
There is much wrong with American government today. And there are deep and worrisome conditions emerging. People are worried about the impact of globalization on their jobs and wage rates. They are correctly worried about the health-care and retirement-pension delivery systems — and whether they will be able to rely on — and be able to afford the current systems into the future. The world appears (and is) dangerous. And that danger seems to be currently poorly managed. Americans are also deeply concerned with many of the cultural trends.
While bold, conservative answers to such worries would probably trump conventional liberal ones, if Republican candidates for president merely and complacently repeat 1980s-style conservative policy maxims, it’s my guess an impatient public will go with the more urgent-sounding Democratic Party call for change.
Americans are about to display their radical electoral impatience with failing government. If Ronald Reagan were running today, he would be the boldest candidate in the field — of either party. So far no Republican candidate has caught the radical temper of the times.
Is there not one of the Republican candidates today who is visibly impatient to, with conservative principles and values, “begin the world over again”?