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.