Reagan Betrayed: Are Conservatives Fumbling His Legacy?
Grover G. Norquist
Sen. Phil Gramm
Gov. Frank Keating
Sen. Trent Lott
Rep. Christopher Cox
Gov. David Beasley
James C. Miller III
Rep. Dick Armey
Rep. David McIntosh
What can conservatives today learn most from Ronald Reagan? Which features of Reagan’s legacy (his principles, his rhetoric, his policies, his leadership style) are conservatives today most in danger of forgetting or betraying? Policy Review asked these questions of several of the conservative movement’s top leaders.
– Grover G. Norquist –
Before Ronald Reagan, great men like Whittaker Chambers said and believed that conservatives were on the “losing side of history.” In the 1950s, Bill Buckley said that the task of conservatives was to “stand athwart history and yell ‘stop.’ ” From Ronald Reagan, conservatives have learned optimism and discovered they are on the winning side of history.
Today, conservatives know that it is Marxism-Leninism that is in the dustbin of history, and we march with confidence against the welfare state. Speaker Newt Gingrich and Majority Leader Trent Lott move to abolish the capital-gains tax and the death tax and propose a single-rate tax on income or retail sales. Every conservative knows that we will win radical tax reform and reduction as soon as we elect a president who will sign the bill. The flow of history is with us. Our victories can be delayed, but not denied. This is the change wrought by Ronald Reagan.
But conservative leaders sometimes forget that one of Reagan’s great strengths was his ability to remain in visionary mode. He called for tax cuts, then left it to staffers such as James Baker to negotiate and compromise as needed to get a tax cut through Congress. Reagan himself never spoke about compromises. When one Republican leader was quoted recently as saying that conservatives lacked the votes to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts, the press misconstrued the statement as a retreat from efforts to defund the NEA. Leaders should keep their eyes on the goal and leave such comments to their staffs.
Conservatives should also remember Reagan’s willingness to repeat his message-over and over again. Active minds find it difficult to repeat, in speech after speech, the conservative goals of lower taxes, less regulation, and smaller government. But when you give the speech for the 100th time, there will be someone in the audience who is hearing it for the first time. Younger voters are always being introduced to the conservative message.
Conservatives are repeating one important error of the 1980s. During the Reagan years, conservative activists often complained that they would win the day if only the president would focus on their issue of concern long enough to make a few phone calls or send out a letter or have a meeting. This, of course, was true. A president can win any small battle in which he engages. But there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of possible problems to solve. We complained about what Reagan or his underlings failed to do for us. Now some conservatives are falling into the same trap, as they complain that we could win issue X if Gingrich or Lott won it for us. Whining about Gingrich or Lott is no substitute for doing the hard work of fighting these battles ourselves.
Grover G. Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform, in Washington, D.C.
– Michael Reagan –
On the day he was inaugurated, my father placed his hand on his mother’s well-worn Bible and took the presidential oath of office. His hand rested on 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
America certainly needed healing that day. We had endured a long national nightmare: the Iranian hostage crisis, double-digit inflation, and entrenched pessimism. Our economy was in ruins. Our hollow military seemed no match for the Soviet power that threatened the globe.
But the next eight years changed all that.
Ronald Reagan had long known what he intended to do in office. In 1976, he wrote a newspaper column, “Tax Cuts and Increased Revenue,” that foreshadowed supply-side Reaganomics. He predicted that cutting tax rates would increase, not shrink federal tax revenues. In 1981, he signed those tax cuts into law-and tax revenue rose dramatically, from $599 billion in 1981 to $991 billion in 1989.
He predicted that Soviet communism was headed for the ash heap of history. Liberal pundits snickered-but Ronald Reagan had the last laugh. The fall of the Soviet Union was no accident of history, but was methodically planned and executed within the Reagan White House.
Ronald Reagan restored America’s military and respect for American leadership around the world. He restored the American dream and defended the American family. He brought our economy roaring back to life again. He re-ignited American confidence and optimism.
At the end of his presidency, Dad voiced only one regret: the deficit. As president, he couldn’t cut the deficit because he lacked the line-item veto. When he became governor of California in 1966, the state was $1 billion in debt and spending $1 million more per day than it took in. Over the next eight years, he used the line-item veto 943 times to limit the spending of a Democratic-controlled legislature. He not only made California solvent again, he also gave taxpayers four tax rebates totaling $5 billion! With the line-item veto, he could have performed the same miracles in Washington.
Although my father is the one afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, I sometimes think the Republicans are suffering a much greater memory loss. They have forgotten Ronald Reagan’s accomplishments-and that is why we have lost so many of them.
The tax burden on American families is greater today that at any other time in our history. This year Tax Freedom Day (the day on which our paychecks in effect have finally covered our taxes for the year and we start keeping what we earn) fell on May 9-the latest Tax Freedom Day in history. But while the American family groans under the tax burden, the Republican leadership announced that significant tax cuts were “off the table” and there would be no Republican agenda before the election of 2000. And what about the military, once restored by Reagan? The post-Cold War world is still a dangerous place-yet Republicans have struck a budget deal with Bill Clinton that guts defense, leaving our military forces weaker than at any time since Pearl Harbor.
It’s time for conservatives to rediscover Ronald Reagan’s vision of America as a “Shining City on a Hill.” It’s a vision of lower taxes, stronger families, limited government, and peace through strength. Ronald Reagan embodied all that was best in the American character: optimism, conviction, compassion, courage, and an unshakable faith in the power of freedom-free people, free markets, and freedom of opportunity.
Michael Reagan, the son of Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman, is an author and the host of a nationally syndicated radio talk show.
– Sen. Phil Gramm –
Thirty-three years ago, Ronald Reagan delivered an address entitled “A Time for Choosing.” In it, he said, “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We can preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we can sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.” Nobody remembers the title of this speech anymore; his ideas were so powerful that we know it today simply as “The Speech.”
Ronald Reagan’s legacy to us is encapsulated in these potent words, spoken in 1964 to an audience in Phoenix, Arizona. Reagan stood for less government and more freedom, and riveted people with the clarity of his vision. Ultimately, he made freedom such a clear choice over government that a tide of freedom swept our country and the world. The Evil Empire collapsed beneath the onslaught, and socialism everywhere fell into disrepute. He brought us peace and he brought us prosperity, and we have each reaped our own benefits. But as we stand on the brink of a new millennium, who among us can honestly say that we have done all we could?
In Reagan’s great speech, he used facts and figures to make the case for freedom. He lamented, for example, a farm program that paid $43 a bushel for corn that wasn’t grown. Well, we may not do that anymore, but can we say we’ve come a long way when the federal government today pays New York’s teaching hospitals $38,000 for each doctor they don’t train?
To make the point that government was too big and too powerful, he cited the U.S. Government Manual, which needed 520 pages to list the agencies of the executive branch of the federal government. You might be surprised to learn that today, even after four years of alleged reinventing and downsizing of the federal government, it now takes 649 pages to list them all.
Other things haven’t changed, either. A child praying in a school cafeteria is still thought to constitute a danger to the public order, and American business is no less “harassed, bled, and even black-jacked under a preposterous crazy quilt of laws” than it was 33 years ago. In the years since Reagan left office, defense spending has plummeted, social spending has spiraled, and taxes have risen. In eight short years, our government has largely repealed Reagan’s revolution.
In May 1997, Republicans who knew and admired President Reagan, who called themselves conservatives and who were a part of his revolution, found themselves discussing how to rejigger the calculation of the Consumer Price Index and of projected economic growth so they could make a deal with a Democratic president to spend more money.
Even three decades ago, Ronald Reagan understood all this. “If some among you fear taking a stand because you are afraid of reprisals from customers, clients, or even government, recognize that you are just feeding the crocodile hoping he’ll eat you last.” he said. Being eaten last isn’t the rendezvous with destiny that I wish for my family and my country.
Phil Gramm, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Texas.
– Ralph Reed –
On the night that he said good-bye to his fellow Americans, Ronald Reagan told historians how they should remember him and conservatives how they should emulate him. Toward the end of his remarks before the 1992 Republican National Convention, Reagan said simply, “Whatever else history may say about me when I am gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence, rather that your doubts.”
Ronald Reagan knew the kind of America he was working for. It would stand free of the threat of communism. It would recognize that the people are the government. It would erect no external obstacles to achievement and advancement. That was his “Shining City on the Hill.”
Ronald Reagan truly believed in these things. They were not simply poll-tested and focus-grouped-they were core commitments. When he pledged to leave communism on the “ash heap of history” and said that sacrifices would have to be made to confront the Soviet threat, the Soviets believed him. When he told Members of Congress that the tax code needed reform, they listened to him. When he eloquently condemned the decline of morality and family that has frayed the nation’s social fabric, millions responded. The American people know sincerity.
Ronald Reagan never seemed to doubt that the future would be brighter, that our best days are ahead of us. He made Americans believe that his dreams were their dreams. Like Reagan before us we face obstacles and opponents that sometimes seem insurmountable. We have endured slights and barbs and setbacks, but if our agenda appeals to the best of America, and if we believe in it, we have little to fear, much to gain, and the Gipper to thank.
Ralph Reed is the outgoing executive director of the Christian Coalition, based in Chesapeake, Virginia.
– Elliott Abrams –
Conservatives are abandoning several central features of the Reagan legacy. President Reagan was willing to use the power the electorate gave him. By contrast, conservatives in Congress are much too timid-in committee meetings, in dealing with nominees, in setting the legislative agenda, and in crafting necessary compromises with the Clinton administration.
Conservatives would also benefit from President Reagan’s supreme confidence. Reagan always believed firmly that he represented the aspirations of the American people. This required a faith both in conservative principles and in their popularity among his fellow citizens. Conservatives today seem hobbled by doubts, if not about basic principles then about the value of explaining them to the public and enlisting its support.
On the international scene, Reagan knew that only America could lead the forces of freedom. He understood that this required a strong military and was willing to pay for it. Conservatives today are divided on this issue; although many recognize that the U.S. military has been cut far too much, few seem willing to fight for the resources that a capable military will require.
Finally, Reagan knew that leadership means challenging the prevailing political culture. As the governor who stood up to student radicals, as the candidate who challenged President Ford for the Republican nomination, as the president who deployed missiles in Europe, sent troops to Grenada, and described the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire,” he was often condemned and derided by liberals, the media, and the Republican Establishment. This did not deter him, for he did not, at his best, govern according to polls. If politics is the art of the possible, Reagan never underestimated what might be possible through strong leadership.
Today we miss most his notion of leadership, with its remarkable combination of practical political sense, self-confidence, and conviction that our country and its people would rise to the challenges we face if squarely asked to do so.
Elliott Abrams, the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, in Washington, D.C., was President Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs.
– Gary Bauer –
Ronald Reagan was a risk-taker. Conservatives must remember Reagan’s boldness and be willing to take chances in order to revive and extend his legacy. Reagan built his career upon a set of ideas that were profoundly conservative. In so doing he repeatedly challenged the conventional wisdom, not only in the Washington establishment, but among many of his fellow Republicans and even his fellow conservative leaders. He boldly crossed the consensus thinking of his day on the Panama Canal, challenged the GOP’s post-Watergate doldrums in 1976, seized the microphone during his pivotal debate with George Bush in the 1980 New Hampshire primary, endorsed a dramatic cut in personal income taxes, held his course during the 1982 recession, led a reluctant Western alliance to install intermediate-range missiles in Europe, and forged a strategy that he boldly predicted would leave the Soviet Union on the “ash heap of history.”
Ronald Reagan never backed away from a position once he was convinced it was right. The most consistent criticism leveled at Reagan was, well, his consistency. Ronald Reagan used polls, but he was not driven by them. An accomplished rider, he never let the horse get in the saddle.
By the time his presidency was over, the top marginal tax rate had sunk from 70 percent to 28 percent, the personal exemption had been doubled and indexed for inflation, the energy industry had been deregulated, the Soviet Union was thwarted in Central America and tottering at home, and the nation had enjoyed six years of economic growth.
As Ronald Reagan handed over the reins of power in January 1989, he said that his greatest regret was that he had not been able to accomplish more to limit abortion. Conservatives today wince at the very mention of the word. Yet Reagan, the author of two landslide presidential victories, would never demur on such a fundamental issue. He spoke of the sanctity of human life with passion, not merely in targeted speeches to the Knights of Columbus or the Southern Baptist Convention, but on the national platform afforded by his State of the Union address.
Yes, Ronald Reagan was amiable. He was also eloquent. But most importantly, he had the courage to ignore the safe and conventional and to take the risk in fighting consistently for what he knew to be right. Conservatives today must recapture Reagan’s belief that a bold vision is also a winning vision.
Gary Bauer, the president of the Family Research Council, in Washington, D.C., served as White House domestic policy adviser and as undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education during the Reagan administration.
– Gov. Frank Keating –
The presidency was created by the Constitution, but it is up to the individual who occupies the office to define its true boundaries. Jefferson was the first to understand this. He commanded the office, took full possession of it with a confidence shared by few of his successors-and throughout it, he set a clear national agenda. So did Jackson, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and Ronald Reagan.
Reagan’s achievement can be compared to Lincoln’s, because he faced immense challenges in an era characterized by deep and fundamental philosophical divisions among the people he set out to lead. We often forget that Ronald Reagan, on January 20, 1981, faced the equivalent of a two-front war. The economy was in deep trouble. Soviet communism was threatening to burst out of its postwar stronghold in Eastern Europe with offensives in Africa, Afghanistan, and Central America. Americans were troubled and frightened.
As president, Ronald Reagan borrowed the spirit of FDR’s declaration during an earlier time of trouble that we had “nothing to fear but fear itself,” and within two years we were winning on all fronts. The economy boomed, partly through sensible economic policies, partly because Americans saw a leader with his sleeves rolled up and said, “We can do it, too.” Within eight years, pressured by firm talk and firmer action, the Soviets were in disarray. Ronald Reagan was the lumberjack who patiently sawed away at the tree; if he was out of office when it fell, we all knew-the Soviets most of all-who was responsible for toppling the Evil Empire.
How did he do it?
First, he stated his principles, clearly, simply, unwaveringly. That’s what made the liberals cringe. It’s also what gave Americans such overwhelming confidence in the man. Americans are wise where it counts; they have an instinct for recognizing integrity, and given a clear choice between an honest man and a flimflam artist, they’ll opt for the man with principles.
Second, the Reagan style relied on good humor and an “aw shucks” glint in the eye that said, “Let’s not take ourselves too seriously.” People respond to that. It was a welcome relief from the furrowed brows and clenched jaws of the Carter, Nixon, and Johnson administrations. We are not a grim people. Reagan was the Mark Twain of politics, able to make a point with a chuckle and a wry grin.
There has been much talk since the great conservative victories of 1994 about how we have lost our way, compromised too much, or misfired on the issues that really count. Maybe we started micromanaging policy issues again, as the liberals do, instead, of stating clear, basic principles like “lower taxes lead to growth” or “government is often the problem rather that the solution.”
Go back and read Reagan’s first Inaugural Address. He quoted from a diary found on the body of an American soldier named Martin Treptow who died in the First World War. It was a simple statement of his devotion to the cause of victory, and it said, “I will fight cheerfully … .” The winning fight is the cheerful fight, based on simple principles. If we remember that, we will always honor the legacy of Ronald Reagan, and we will prevail.
Frank Keating, the governor of Oklahoma, was an assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury in the Reagan administration.
– Sen. Trent Lott –
More than once, President Reagan reminded conservatives that we do not have three separate agendas: one for the economy, one for social concerns, and one for the nation’s security. Conservatives have one agenda: to restore the strength and greatness of the nation we love. All our efforts, legislative and political, are directed toward that one end. So whether we work for a new era of prosperity and opportunity, whether we strive to restore a family-based culture and respect for human life, whether we campaign for a missile-defense system, we are all laboring in the same vineyard. We need each other; we should trust one another. We want the same future for our country, a future open to all the potential of the century ahead but firmly rooted in all that was good in the past. So today’s conservatives-indeed, all of my fellow Republicans-would do well to remind themselves periodically: One Agenda.
The world is not a perfect place. That’s why most progress must come incrementally, and by compromise. Sometimes moving toward our shared goals requires an indirect approach, and sometimes we have to take two steps forward and one step back. Though we may disagree about strategy at any particular point, we need not disagree over our final objectives. So we should keep our cool, keep our good humor, and keep faith with those who made it possible for us, today, to be in positions of leadership.
Trent Lott, a Republican from Mississippi, is the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate.
– Rep. Christopher Cox –
Ronald Reagan led a revolution of ideas and spirit. In doing so, he infused not just conservatism but America itself with his own unlimited optimism. For pessimists, the world is full of obstacles. For optimists, like Reagan, the world was and is full of possibilities.
That optimism is what today’s conservative leaders most need to recapture. Without it, the Republican party would still be looking backward to an earlier era. Politicians of both parties might still be managing the growth of the state at home, and the decline of American influence abroad. Instead, as a result of Ronald Reagan, the American people have come to expect policies designed to increase freedom and economic growth. Reagan always believed that America’s best years lie ahead. By following his example, we can prove that he was right.
Christopher Cox, a Republican, represents the 47th District of California in the House of Representatives.
– Gov. David Beasley –
Nearly 10 years after he left office, the American people continue to agree with Ronald Reagan that this country will never be truly whole again until we restore our culture. Washington obsesses about dollar figures, but Americans believe the country’s major problem is a decline in morals.
Conservatives in the post-Reagan era, however, frequently shrink from battling the forces that cheapen the value of the American family. It is as if we abandoned our principles in the face of a tenacious enemy. Some want only to talk Ronald Reagan’s game. These faux conservatives permit economic policies-estate taxes and capital gains taxes-that hurt the family. They promote social policies that have yet to find one abortion worth stopping. And they wink at Hollywood and Madison Avenue as they coarsen our culture and poison our children’s minds.
If we fail to confront the great moral issues of our day, we will forfeit the support of “Reagan Democrat” voters who are aching for principled leaders unafraid to promote the traditional family. I believe the Reagan Democrats, and many others, will respond if conservatives will find the courage of Reagan to simply say and do what we know to be true. Sticking by our principles means returning government to the states and returning real power to American families. We can do more for them than mandate the television V-chip.
We need conservatives who share Ronald Reagan’s large vision for our society; who, as Reagan might say, can see beyond the front row. These conservatives-the real conservatives-have solid support from the American people. These conservatives have the moral obligation to continue, not betray, Ronald Reagan’s timeless principles and vision.
David Beasley, a Republican, is the governor of South Carolina.
– James C. Miller III –
Conservatives should recall that Ronald Reagan’s effectiveness stemmed from four things:
His single-minded adherence to a basic set of principles. He was willing to compromise on outcomes, but not on principles.
His communications skills, including the technique of teaching through parables. In cabinet meetings and in other settings, Reagan would make a point by telling some anecdote from his experience as head of the Screen Actors’ Guild or as governor of California. The press made fun of him for repeating these stories, but he did so because his pupils often didn’t get it the first time.
His refusal to take himself too seriously and his sense of humor. As he prepared to return to the private sector in 1989, he actually looked forward to giving up power. And who among those who observed him closely can forget his endless jokes and self-effacing quips?
His constancy in public and private. What you saw is what you got. I never heard him say anything in private that contradicted his public statements.
James C. Miller III, counselor for Citizens for a Sound Economy, was the director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Reagan.
– Rep. Dick Armey –
Ronald Reagan believed in freedom and responsibility-two ideas that are simple and yet powerful enough to change the world. That was the source of his strength; it must also be the source of ours.
He began after four decades of Keynesian confusion. Reagan ended the stagflation that had baffled four of his predecessors by applying generous doses of freedom to the economy. Tax cuts. Sound money. Free trade. Deregulation. What happened? America’s been growing with stable prices ever since. Except for a brief pause during the reign of budget chief Dick Darman (whose tax hike is the exception that proves the rule) our economy has been steadily expanding at more than 3 percent a year since 1982, adding $2.3 trillion to our annual production. Without Ronald Reagan’s freedom cure, we would today be as sclerotic as France or Sweden. Instead, our economy is the vibrant and dynamic envy of all the world (including our formerly smug friends in Japan). There is still no end in sight to the Reagan boom.
But liberty does not mean license, and Reagan knew that freedom requires a strong sense of personal responsibility. Ronald Reagan championed our nation’s spiritual rebirth since that heyday of drugs and promiscuity known as the 1970s. We see this rebirth in the evangelical movement, rising volunteerism, new concern about values and character, and the near-consensus that Dan Quayle was absolutely right about Murphy Brown’s fling with single motherhood. We are made in the image of God, and we have higher ends than to pursue money or pleasure or prestige for their own sake.
On the day he was inaugurated nearly 20 years ago, even Ronald Reagan would hardly dare imagine the world of boundless hope and opportunity these ideas would soon create. The rise of free markets and global trade means that hundreds of millions of people are now working together for their common betterment. Personal computers, digital technology, the World Wide Web-all are expanding the field of human creativity. There is a continuing American-led renaissance in science and the humanities. Certainly we face new ethical challenges-from smut on cable to Dolly the duplicate sheep-but the enduring strength of Ronald Reagan’s own movement ensures we will be equal to them. Slouching to Gomorrah? Nonsense. There has never been a better time to be alive.
Dick Armey, a Republican from Texas, is the Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives.
– Rep. David McIntosh –
When I think of Ronald Reagan and his legacy, the first word that comes to mind is freedom. Every word and every action of Reagan’s presidency was dedicated to the protection of free people and free markets, both at home and abroad. While some political dealmakers today talk of tax cuts and smaller government as campaign promises, they do not always have Reagan’s fundamental conviction about these policies. As a result, they are pale imitators of his leadership.
Reagan believed self-government was built on the rock-solid principle of freedom; with that belief, he overcame liberal opposition-the same opposition that conservatives in Congress face today. Reagan knew the American people cherished freedom as much as he did. This enabled him to win the political debate on his terms. Similarly, modern politicians must realize that they will succeed only by sharing Reagan’s faith in the American people and in the soundness of conservative principles.
In 1980, when Reagan was elected to office, America was in a state of fiscal and cultural malaise. Family paychecks were shrinking due to a combination of high taxes, high inflation, and high interest rates. Middle Eastern terrorists held Americans hostage and hard-line communists ruled the Soviet Union. Worst of all, the sovereignty of the American family was being usurped by the cumulative effect of New Deal and Great Society policies. Big Government had assumed control over the services Americans used to provide themselves and each other.
Despite this grim scenario, Reagan remained undaunted. He outlined exactly what he intended to accomplish and never, ever gave up the fight for lower taxes, smaller government, and a stronger national defense. He slashed marginal tax rates and economic growth soared. Per-capita disposable income increased nearly 20 percent between 1982 and 1990, giving American families their highest standard of living in decades. He stood firm against foreign dictators and America became a beacon of light on a tumultuous geopolitical landscape.
Liberals dismissed Reagan as an old B-movie actor playing the role of a president. They failed to grasp Reagan’s genius in relating his deeply-felt principles to the real, everyday concerns of ordinary people. He could tap into their hopes and aspirations because his allegiance to the principle of freedom came straight from the heart, not from the latest public-opinion poll. Simply put, Americans believed Reagan cared because he did.
David McIntosh, a Republican, represents the 2nd district of Indiana in the House of Representatives. He was a White House aide for domestic affairs in the Reagan administration.
– Jeane Kirkpatrick –
During the presidential primary campaign of 1996 and through the general election, it was clear that many Republicans-candidates, staff, and commentators-had forgotten Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment: Thou shall not speak ill of another Republican. I believe Republicans’ harsh, often malicious, attacks on Republican candidates did as much harm as Democrats.
Since the election, the Republican majority in the Congress sometimes seems more concerned with demonstrating that they can work with the White House than with legislating conservative principles. Ronald Reagan never preferred compromise to victory.
Jeane Kirkpatrick, the director of foreign policy and defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute, was President Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations.