On Oct. 27, 1964 — 50 years ago next Monday — a tall, handsome man strode to a podium draped with red, white and blue bunting. Perhaps only he — and the most savvy political observers — knew it at the time, but the speaker was about to launch a transformational political movement.
On that day, Ronald Reagan delivered a televised speech in support of the Republican presidential nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater. Although most folks expected Goldwater to lose to President Lyndon Johnson, Reagan knew that the nascent conservative movement would need a new and charismatic spokesman to lead it in the second half of the 20th century.
Titled “A Time for Choosing,” Reagan’s speech unapologetically championed conservative principles and drew stark contrasts with the big-government leftism of Johnson and the Democrats. It set the stage for the electoral triumph of Richard Nixon, and later, for the conservative revolution that brought Reagan to power in 1980.
Given our current crisis of leadership, it’s useful to review several key passages of Reagan’s game-changing speech. In an era in which a president “leads from behind,” Reagan’s address provides a refresher course in American strength, exceptionalism and moral clarity.
“This is the issue of this election,” Reagan said. “Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”
He might as well be standing before us today, talking about President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and the far left, whose statist policies now dictate every aspect of our lives from health care to light bulbs.
“In this vote-harvesting time,” Reagan continued, ” they have voices that say ‘The profit motive has become outmoded. It must be replaced by the incentives of the welfare state.’ Or, ‘Our traditional system of individual freedom is incapable of solving the complex problems of the 20th century.’”
“Senator [William] Fulbright,” Reagan intoned, ” referred to the president as ‘our moral teacher and our leader,’ and he says he is ‘hobbled in his task by the restrictions of power imposed on him by this antiquated [Constitution].’ He must ‘be freed,’ so that he ‘can do for us’ what he knows ‘is best.’”
Sound familiar? The left never tires of its dream of a Constitution-free authoritarianism.
Reagan also referred to the left’s embrace of “‘the full power of centralized government’ — this was the very thing the Founding Fathers sought to minimize. They knew that governments don’t control things. A government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they know when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose.”
Precisely. Think Internal Revenue Service targeting, Obamacare, crony socialism and bypassing Congress.
Reagan warned of the real choice facing voters: “You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well, I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There’s only an up or down — up to man’s age-old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism.”
Welcome to America, 2014. He could see it unfolding:
“Now it doesn’t require expropriation or confiscation of private property or business to impose socialism on a people . Somewhere a perversion has taken place. Our natural, unalienable rights are now considered to be a dispensation of government, and freedom has never been so fragile, so close to slipping from our grasp as it is at this moment.”
He’d be horrified at how far socialism has advanced just in the past six years.
Reagan’s warnings about the Soviet threat apply today to the threats from the Islamic State, an Iran chasing a nuclear weapon, and newly aggressive Russia and China:
“We’re at war with the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind in his long climb from the swamp to the stars,” he said, “and it’s been said if we lose that war, and in so doing lose this way of freedom of ours, history will record with the greatest astonishment that those who had the most to lose did the least to prevent its happening.”
Reagan was not big on appeasement or “leading from behind.”
Nor was he a fan of permitting internal decline: “And someday when the time comes to deliver the final ultimatum, our surrender will be voluntary, because by that time we will have been weakened from within spiritually, morally, and economically.”
He knew that if we were weak within, we would be weak abroad — and that would be a recipe for cataclysm. So he fought with every fiber of his being to restore America to her founding principles at home and superpower status in the world. And he did.
Yet 50 years after Reagan’s stirring call to action, the left has achieved much of its agenda, from socialized medicine to gutting the military, from the demonization of success to foreign retrenchment.
Now we are back to the future, fighting the same urgent battle for America. Reagan showed that we can win it, if we have the will.
Monica Crowley is online opinion editor at The Washington Times.