February 2, 2007

Wanted: A Conservative Republican

Last month the Czech capital of Prague announced its decision to erect a monument to honor Ronald Reagan. And why not? Similar monuments to the man already exist in Budapest and Warsaw, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

It is entirely proper that our nation’s 40th President be memorialized in cities once shrouded by the Iron Curtain. According to one Czech paper, after his 1983 “Evil Empire” speech, “President Reagan was probably the most hated and ridiculed of all the Western leaders by the former communist regime. The communist media relentlessly condemned what they called ‘Reagan’s war-mongering’ and the arms race.” Then again, these were state-run media whose leading insights on America came courtesy of CNN.

Following Reagan’s death in 2004, Czech Senator Jan Ruml, a pro-democracy dissident imprisoned under the communist regime, recalled the significance of the U.S. President’s staunch support for himself and his compatriots.

“In the 1980s we placed our hopes in Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher,” said Ruml. “The fact that someone out there called communism by its proper name and actually did something to promote freedom and democracy helped us a great deal. Ronald Reagan was the man instrumental in bringing down communism and we should all remember him with great respect as the man thanks to whom we are enjoying our present freedom.” This is high praise, indeed, coming as it does from a man with a first-person perspective on communist tyranny.

Announcing the overwhelming public desire to honor Reagan, Prague’s 6th-District mayor, Tomas Chalupa, agreed. Reagan’s central place in Czech history is assured, he said, as “the most important personality that enabled the fall of communism.”

Born in Tampico, Illinois, to Jack and Nelle Reagan on 6 February 1911, the Gipper would have turned 96 this Tuesday. It’s a fitting occasion, then, on which to ponder an important question: To what extent have we honored the conservative ideals of the Reagan Revolution?

When the Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan introduced conservative candidate Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican National Convention (and in so doing launched his own political career), he too understood the need to ask how freedom-loving Americans had honored their heritage:

“It’s time we asked ourselves if we still know the freedoms intended for us by the Founding Fathers. James Madison said, ‘We base all our experiments on the capacity of mankind for self government.’ This idea – that government was beholden to the people, that it had no other source of power – is still the newest, most unique idea in all the long history of man’s relation to man. This is the issue of this election: 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.”

Today, Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” is considered one of the defining statements of 20th-century conservatism, and the choice he outlined is no less vital in 2007.

In another seminal speech, “The New Republican Party,” delivered on his birthday in 1977 – two gubernatorial terms and one presidential bid later – Reagan had not altered his theme:

“When a conservative quotes [Thomas] Jefferson that government that is closest to the people is best, it is because he knows that Jefferson risked his life, his fortune and his sacred honor to make certain that what he and his fellow patriots learned from experience was not crushed by an ideology of empire. … Conservatism is the antithesis of the kind of ideological fanaticism that has brought so much horror and destruction to the world. The common sense and common decency of ordinary men and women, working out their own lives in their own way – this is the heart of American conservatism today. Conservative wisdom and principles are derived from willingness to learn, not just from what is going on now, but from what has happened before.”

As President, Ronald Reagan did not waver from the precepts of conservatism he’d laid out in those earlier years. He enacted Executive Order 12612 on federalism “to restore the division of governmental responsibilities between the national government and the States that was intended by the Framers of the Constitution and to ensure that the principles of federalism established by the Framers…”

“Constitutional authority for Federal action,” the Order read, “is clear and certain only when authority for the action may be found in a specific provision of the Constitution, there is no provision in the Constitution prohibiting Federal action, and the action does not encroach upon authority reserved to the States.” Freedom, Reagan understood, was dependent on the limitation and division of governing powers.

Later that same year, on 12 June 1987, despite the objections of the State Department and the National Security Council, President Reagan uttered these forceful and historic words before listeners at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin:

“General-Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate … Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

In this sense, our friends in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland honor this man for the same reasons that we in the United States honor him today: Ronald Reagan didn’t simply stand for the dissolution of communism; he stood for the building up of a new edifice of individual liberty and limited government where that awful, all-powerful state once stood.

As the ostensible heirs of the Reagan Revolution, today’s Republicans are committed to subsidizing prescription drugs, leaving no child behind, enlarging the federal footprint in the private sector and inventing government solutions to non-government problems. So we must ask the question once again: To what extent have they honored the Reagan Revolution? To what extent have they honored “the freedoms intended for us by the Founding Fathers”?

Like Ronald Reagan’s foes on both sides of the Berlin Wall, these Republican leaders seem all too willing, all too often, to expand the state at the expense of liberty. With candidates aplenty and the 2008 election just around the corner, let’s hope and pray that a true conservative – a Reagan conservative – will soon emerge.

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