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The Seriousness of Ronald Reagan

Fifty years ago today, Ronald Reagan staked his claim to leadership among conservatives with a speech meant to rescue Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. It didn’t rescue Goldwater. But it saved conservatism. And maybe the nation.

Writing in the Washington Post, Steven Hayward, the Ronald Reagan distinguished visiting professor at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy, notes that the Reagan Americans saw on the night of Oct. 27, 1964 was was not the avuncular optimist remembered by conservatives today, nor the dunce portrayed by liberals then and now.

He was on fire with conservative principle, laying out a stark choice for Americans between statism and freedom and in a speech that is known as “A time for choosing.”

From Hayward’s piece:

Reagan . . . was not the avuncular, optimistic Reagan of his film roles, or of his subsequent political career that emphasized “morning in America” and the “shining city on a hill,” but a comparatively angry and serious Reagan, serving up partisan red meat against liberalism and the Democrats. “Our natural, unalienable rights are now considered to be a dispensation of government,” he declared, “and freedom has never been so fragile, so close to slipping from our grasp as it is at this moment.”

Reagan delivered a deeply ideological speech, with strong attacks on liberalism and its vessel, the Democratic Party of LBJ’s Great Society era. “In this vote-harvesting time,” Reagan said early in the speech, “they use terms like the ‘Great Society,’ or as we were told a few days ago by the president, we must accept a greater government activity in the affairs of the people.”

Reagan made his appeal not by moderating his message, the tactic so often advocated by professional Republican  strategists, but by letting all Americans know how conservatism applied to them:

At the same time, Reagan made great efforts to transcend partisanship by portraying his views as common sense: “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: man’s old, old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism.”

Would-be heirs of Reagan should take note: He wasn’t just trying to speak to the base. He was trying to expand the base through persuasion of independents and, later, disaffected Democrats.

Another notable aspect of Reagan’s rhetorical strategy was claiming populism for the right. He asserted that it was now progressive liberalism, with its embrace of ever-expanding “administrative government,” that represented the elitist force in American politics: “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 capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”

Reagan didn’t divide Americans along the typical interest group or class lines. Unlike Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remark or the “makers and takers” theme popular with many conservatives today, Reagan portrayed big government as opposing the interests of all Americans, not just the entrepreneurial or property-owning class that forms the GOP’s core constituency.

Reagan drew one of the sharpest distinctions between conservatives and liberals: The left’s faith in revoking freedom to create comfort versus the right’s belief that freedom and justice must prevail for mankind to be happy and successful:

“You and I know and do not believe that life is so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery. If nothing in life is worth dying for, when did this begin — just in the face of this enemy? Or should Moses have told the children of Israel to live in slavery under the pharaohs? Should Christ have refused the cross? Should the patriots at Concord Bridge have thrown down their guns and refused to fire the shot heard ’round the world?”

This ending, though not as sunny as Reagan’s later evocation of “a shining city on a hill,” and despite its historical references, is essentially forward-looking. That set it apart from Goldwater’s campaign, which emphasized looking back without explaining how it would make for a better future. Bob Dole made the same mistake in 1996, when he offered himself as a “bridge” to an earlier, better America.

“A Time for Choosing” shows that effective political rhetoric is sharp and subtle at the same time. It is not easy to emulate, though few Republicans who claim to be Reaganites today seem to take much trouble even to try. They settle for conveying mere information and rely on cliches and slogans instead of serious argument and persuasion.

A look at the speech makes clear that Reagan, in contrast to a frequently repeated slogan by Democrats and their friends in the press, would in fact be very comfortable within the Tea Party:

In fact, the charge of Republican extremism today is a revival of the charge liberals made against Goldwater and Reagan in the 1960s when they didn’t want to argue the issues directly — a point Reagan made in “A Time for Choosing”: “Our Democratic opponents seem unwilling to debate these issues.”

This continuity explodes the claim that Reagan was “too moderate” for today’s GOP. This charge has become comfortable for liberals who fear a renewal of Reaganism through the auspices of the tea party, as well as for Republicans frustrated that they can’t measure up to the Gipper’s standard as a “great communicator.” The central conservative proposition might be summarized as the view that some things do not change. In practical politics, this includes the need for leaders to lay out serious and compelling cases for choosing.

Ronald Reagan was a man of ideas. A man persuaded by certain ideas. Americans can also be persuaded by these ideas today. But first, Republicans will have to find someone who is persuasive. And since Americans know fakery when they see it, that means Republicans, if they want to win an election with any meaning to it, will need someone who not only believes what they are saying, but understands it.

They will need someone with the seriousness of Ronald Reagan.

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19 Responses to The Seriousness of Ronald Reagan

  1. It’s great to go back and hear and read the thoughts of true leaders. I find it interesting that much of what he was warning us of back then is eerily similar to what we are fighting today. It gives me hope that we can turn this around.

  2. Republicans today must take Hayward’s advice and follow Reagan’s example. The zeitgeist once again is ready for a true conservative to win over the disaffected. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 50 years since I bought into LBJ’s line taking up Goldwater’s slogan. “In your heart you know he’s right.” (Goldwater) “In your head you know he’s nuts.” (LBJ)

    • And as a college student at the time, I did not see him as the great man he was.
      I do now.
      And we need a new shining man on the hill, or we will all loose what our founders fought for.

  3. 1964. MrReagan was still a hippy actor from California’s farms of fruits and nuts to my peer group. We were still reeling from the assasination of PresKennedy, and dreading the letter from the draft board.
    Young, starting our families, afraid to watch WalterCronkite, looking for jobs with a future.
    College was for the rich kids, or the athletes, not for us. Steel mills, coal mines, auto assembly lines were our future. Women forced to quit their jobs when they got married, shamed if they got ‘knocked up’, and a future dependent on someone else.
    MrReagan was too early, too soon. This is his time now.

    • One of the biggest ironies was how the left portrayed Goldwater as a crazy hawk, and almost immediately after LBJ was elected, Viet Nam started heating up like a tea kettle.

    • a “hippy [sic] actor”? I don’t know where your particular “peer group” was located, but up in the People’s Republic of Ann Arbor, the host of “Death Valley Days” was never any kind of hippie. he was considered a scary warmonger, just slightly to the left of Father Coughlin. I remember he got a shout-out at Woodstock in 1969 as “Ronald Ray-guns” by someone like Country Joe or John Sebastian.

  4. He was a decent man with a good moral compass and he served and defended this country well.

    We have in the WH today neither decent, nor moral, nor service nor defense and protection of this country.

  5. the reason Reagan could reach out to “disaffected Democrats”–and the reason there were “Reagan Democrats” in the ’80s–was that Reagan used to BE a Democrat himself. he wasn’t a partisan ideologue; excerpts from his diaries show that he really thought about things. so he was able to speak with authority.

    and that’s just one more reason my dark horse for 2016, Susan Martinez, would be a good candidate. she is also a recovering Dem.

    (speaking of diaries: I can only imagine what Obama’s WH diaries will sound like. “Sept. 13. Dodged another bullet! Susan’s going on Meet the Press to blame a video Vietor found on youtube….March 10. Had to talk to that SOB Netanyahu again. Uncle Jeremiah was so right about the Jews!”)

  6. Why do pure red blood maniacs keep pushing Reagan as their flag bearer when the reality is he was too moderate for them? There is no way on earth Reagan would win the presidential nomination in today’s GOP climate. He was way too moderate and in particular Reagan was willing to give a little in order to get more in return. If Reagan saw what has become of the hard core GOP voter, he be appalled.

  7. During the 1980 presidential race, I was not of voting age, being only 11 years old. But let me tell you. At that tender age, I soooo wished I could have voted for Ronald Reagan. I felt then, and still do to this day, that he was strong enough, masculine enough, to meet the challenges of this world and make America ascendant and proud of itself. Do we have anyone today that meet those criteria? Do we have any politician today who is unabashedly proud to be an American? Would that America today deserved another true and great leader like the Gipper.