“The last words Ronald Reagan spoke to the American People from the Oval office came on a Friday night in early January in 1989. It had been a remarkable eight years, and he wanted to remind us of what we’d accomplished.
“He talked about the great economic recovery, about the effectiveness of his policy of peace through strength, about the reforms that were just then taking hold in Russia, and which we now know were the first stirrings of communism’s collapse, and he talked to us about the resurgence of our national pride.
“It was on this last point, which I think was his proudest achievement as president, that President Reagan issued the traditional farewell warning. The President said he worried about future generations of Americans forgetting the glories of our past.
“And then, speaking directly to the young people of America, he said: ‘If your parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American, let ‘em know and nail ‘em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.’
“So the first thing Reagan did was start to change the way we thought about government. And he was effective in a way that conservatives like Goldwater or think-tank types had never really been before. Primarily, because he did it with humor, and everyman common-sense, and because he was cheerful.
“He wasn’t an eat-your-spinach kind of conservative like so many of the others, who were often either unpleasant or alarmist, or a little too bookish to have broad appeal, or nostalgic to a fault. Not Reagan. He was always looking forward, ahead — even at the end. Indeed, the last thing he wrote in his White House diary, as he prepared to return to California, at age 77, was this: ‘Then home, and start a new life.’
“Reagan communicated his philosophy with a smile, and that was much of his secret. He made many of us feel for the first time in our lives that it was okay to be a conservative, that being conservative was cool. And when he put his philosophy into action, we soon found out that having conservative views was more than just okay. As a matter of policy, it was tremendously effective.
“He told a story in that farewell address from the Oval Office that really captures, I think, the impact of the reforms. Recalling his first international economic summit, in Canada, in 1981, he said that when he showed up everyone was on a first-name basis. ‘It was all ‘Helmut this and Francois that,”’ he said. He told us that he felt like the new kid at school. And at one point he just leaned in and said, ‘Hi, my name’s Ron.’
“Well, two years later, he went to another economic summit, and the same group of leaders was there. At some point at the opening event, he noticed everybody looking at him, and that it was quiet and a little awkward. And then, one of them broke the silence, and said … ‘Tell us about the American miracle.’
“Remember: as the Reagan Revolution began, the socialist hold on Europe was still growing tighter. The year Reagan took office, Mitterand’s government nationalized French banks and many of its biggest companies. It dramatically increased spending on social services and hired about 100,000 new government workers. The U.S. had been trending toward socialism for years. But Europe was already there.
“Meanwhile, by slashing the marginal rate and cutting the tax on dividends in half, Reagan had ignited the greatest peacetime expansion in American history. The boom reached into every corner of our economy — creating more than 40 million new jobs between 1981 and 2005 and a massive increase in living standards and national wealth.
“Yet even if the Europeans were on some level intrigued by Reagan’s success, they were slow to copy it. And they’d suffer as a result. The burden of government in most of Old Europe today is staggering. Government spending consumes more than 50 percent of the entire gross national product of France and Sweden and more than 45 percent in Germany and Italy.
“Compare that to about 20 percent in the U.S, a country that spends much more as a percentage of GDP than all of these countries on defense.
“The effect of all this spending in European capitals has been alarmingly high unemployment rates and economic stagnation for much of Old Europe. Which makes sense: as services increase, people depend on them more. And as people depend on them more, taxes go up. As taxes go up, people have less incentive to work — a dangerous and unsustainable cycle. One Washington economist recently summed up Europe’s economic problems very simply: ‘Europe’s economy is so bad,’ he said, ‘because government is too big.’
“We’ve seen a number of signs that Old Europe is finally beginning to catch on. Ireland, the so-called Celtic Tiger, has experienced the strongest growth in recent years of just about any industrialized nation by doing there exactly what Reagan did here — slashing personal and corporate income taxes and cutting government spending. Other European countries have followed suit: Last summer Sweden’s Social Democrats were ousted after receiving their lowest share of the vote since World War I. The so-called ‘Swedish model,’ which featured a top tax rate of an astonishing 87 percent, turns out to have been a bust.
“We saw it in Germany in 2005 with the election of the Christian Democratic Chancellor Angela Merkel. Canadian conservatives rebounded last year under Stephen Harper after near-extinction. And earlier this summer, we were shocked, but not surprised, to see a tough-minded, pro-American, pro-market conservative elected as President of France. One of Nicolas Sarkozy’s most innovative ideas, that overtime work shouldn’t be taxed, is straight out of Reagan’s playbook. The French just elected the closest thing to Ronald Reagan they could find. And the election wasn’t even close.
“Scared to death by the prospect of total economic collapse, a number of European countries have been slowly moving in the direction of greater economic freedom in recent years. Last year, the average personal income tax for all Western industrialized countries was down to 43 percent, compared to 67 percent in 1980. And corporate rates have followed a similar trend. The Wall Street Journal has referred to all this as the economic counterpart to the fall of the Berlin Wall. And Ronald Reagan pulled out the first, crumbling stones.
“But it’s not at all clear that any of these late-inning reforms will be enough to halt Europe’s deep and possibly irreversible slide into an economic abyss. The cultural forces in most European countries may be simply too strong at this point to counteract. We saw a sign of this last summer when French students came out in droves to protest a mild but necessary effort to regulate France’s notoriously stringent labor laws.
“So that’s Europe, where the legacy of Ronald Reagan seems to be gaining momentum, even if it’s a little late in the game. What about us? Are we acting on the lessons of 1981? Or have we already forgotten them?
“Well, I can tell you that in the Senate it seems as though the other side is still looking to Old Europe for answers. In one of the great political ironies of our time, the new Majority in Congress seems intent on taking America down the path of bigger government and higher taxes just as Europe is frantically trying to steer themselves away from it. These guys want to turn the United States into France when even the French are beginning to have second thoughts.
“Well, as far as I’m concerned, when the French President prides himself on being a tax-cutter, jogs around Paris in an NYPD t-shirt, and spends his summer vacationing on a lake in New Hampshire, it can only mean one thing: we won. But the only people who don’t seem to have gotten the memo just took over the House and the Senate. For the last seven months, Republicans have been fighting off a raft of proposals that seem better suited to The Hague than The Heartland.
“First, there was an effort to regulate grass-roots groups into the ground by forcing them to comply with burdensome new disclosure rules. Think of Sarbanes Oxley for the local pro-life chapter. Then there was a plan to dismantle a wildly successful prescription drug benefit for seniors by modeling it after a price-controlled government model.
“Then there was the union-backed effort to eliminate secret ballot elections from union drives — which even four out of five union members opposed. Then there was a budget blueprint that contemplated a tax hike three times higher than any tax increase in history.
“And then, just last month, the other side unveiled a plan to extend a government insurance program that was created for the uninsured children of low-income parents to the already-insured children of middle-income parents as well.
“If you’re anything like me, you’re scratching your head and saying, ‘I thought we already tried that.’ We did. We called it Hillarycare. And when we learned that it would have federalized about one seventh of our national economy, we rebelled. As P.J. O’Rourke put it: ‘If you think healthcare is expensive now, wait until it’s free.’
“So just when Europe seems to have woken up to the wisdom of Reagan’s policies, the current Congress is getting nostalgic. And when I say nostalgic, I mean it quite literally. Because many of the people who have assumed leadership roles in Congress since the last election are the Old Guard, the senior members of the party who cut their teeth as lawmakers during the era of the Great Society, well before Reagan’s policies put us on a glide path to prosperity.
“These are the people drafting the laws that are coming out of Congress these days, the heirs of the Lyndon Johnson era. And they don’t seem to have learned much in the interim.
“The Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, David Obey, has been in Congress since 1969, the same year Lyndon Johnson left office. John Dingell, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee arrived in 1955. The Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Charlie Rangel, has been there since 1970.
“We could say the same thing about the Senate. The idea here isn’t that seniority is bad, but that Congress today seems intent on applying solutions that didn’t even work when they were fresh, to new challenges.
“So Ronald Reagan would have a lot to say about today’s Congress. And he would say all of it with charm, great common sense, and good humor. He had seen the same mistaken approach to government before, and he laid out a plan for correcting the problems it created in a way that inspired and, more importantly, mobilized a nation. He made people feel like they were part of something great, and that this something was great precisely because it was American. This nation had been proud, he told us, and he restored that pride and that idealism. And we loved him for it.
“Reagan’s biographer, Lou Cannon, liked to say that a lot of Ronald Reagan’s success lay in the fact that he spoke about the future in the accents of the past. And if I were to offer an assessment of the new Majority in Congress, I would say something similar. I would say their ultimate undoing will be the fact that they speak about the past in the accents of the future. New problems, failed solutions.
“Republicans can still learn from Reagan, too. Just as our friends on the other side seem to have embraced a vision that he proved had run its course, so too should we be wary of an approach that doomed people like Barry Goldwater. Ronald Reagan ultimately outshined his conservative forbears because he articulated conservative principles with optimism and an openness to others and the world. And he would lead the party of Goldwater to victory with that same openness and optimism in 1980.
“One of the first official signs of that optimism was at Reagan’s inauguration, which took place for the first time on the West side of the Capitol. By facing out from the old end of the country to the new, to these hills around us, Reagan was telling us that his administration was going to be one of openness and adventurousness and ideals as big and as wide and as promising as the country itself.
“He had that same spirit the day he left office. And we who learned so much from Ronald Reagan, who owe so much to this wonderful man, should do our part too.”