All the Republican candidates for president have attempted to claim Ronald Reagan’s mantle. But it takes more than a formulaic recitation of conventional conservative pieties — low taxes, balanced budgets, strong defense, traditional values — to deserve to be heir to the Reagan legacy.
Of course, Reagan believed in and fought for all those goals. But there was something quite unconventional about Reagan’s view of America that accounted for his great success as a conservative. Perhaps the key to Reagan’s unique brand of conservatism can be found in his presidential nomination acceptance speech delivered in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena on July 17, 1980.
As a young volunteer, I was one of the thousands in the audience that night, and I remember being thrilled to hear Reagan quote Thomas Paine: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again." At least procedurally, that is about as unconservative as can be conceived. Classic conservatism preaches that change comes best by respecting the institutions and values of a society, and by letting their organic development — not some bright new idea — lead to altered circumstances.
But there was Reagan, quoting old Tom Paine — the most radical of our Founding Fathers (who not only championed the American Revolution but also the French as a member of the French revolutionary councils) — and proposing that we can throw civilization’s institutions and traditions overboard and "begin the world over again."
True, Reagan had in mind throwing over liberal, statist programs and tax codes that had encrusted our ancient liberties since FDR’s New Deal. Reagan’s values were conservative, but his impatience with the failures of the status quo was radical. That is why as a young man he had been a full-throated FDR New Dealer. And that is why FDR and Ronald Reagan were the two most successful American politicians of the 20th century.
They both understood that there is a radical, wipe-the-slate-clean, impatient streak in the American people. While it is true that the American Revolution was the most conservative of the great Enlightenment-epoch revolutions (American, French, Russian and Chinese), it was, nonetheless, a revolution — yes, for property rights but also deeply dubious of unfettered democratic energies.
But the hotheaded impatience of our Founding Fathers (and the broader population that fought the revolution) abides to this day. While it can be subterranean for years or even decades, when conditions become too unacceptable, that old radical impatience of the American people floods out across the land.
And while the American people are generally conservative in values (deeply and broadly religious, respectful of property rights, not particularly envious of the rich, jealous of individual liberties, sentimental for the family, patriotic, proud and insistent to bear arms, willing to fight for God and country), conservative politicians should not forget that Americans are not ideological conservatives — they are practical and distrustful of Washington.
Reagan shared Americans’ radical impatience. He didn’t defend past Republican policies, foreign or domestic; he immediately rejected bipartisan detente with the Soviets and set about defeating them. While he was agreeable, he didn’t agree to the traditional appropriation process, but sought and achieved radical, nearly across-the-board spending cuts as soon as he arrived in the White House (with the Gramm-Latta bill of 1981).
Reagan was — and appeared to the American people to be — as different from the former Republican Party politicians as he obviously was from Jimmy Carter and the Democrats. In 1984 he was able to credibly say, when he was told that people want change, "We (the Reagan administration) ARE the change."
There is much wrong with American government today, and there are deep and worrisome conditions emerging. People are concerned about the impact of globalization on their jobs and wage rates. They are appropriately fearful about the reliability and affordability of health care and retirement pension delivery systems. The world appears (and is) dangerous, and that danger seems to be currently poorly managed.
While bold, conservative answers to such worries would probably trump conventional liberal ones, if Republican candidates for president merely — and complacently — repeat 1980s-style conservative policy maxims, it’s my guess an impatient citizenry will go with the more urgent-sounding Democratic Party call for change.
Americans are about to display their radical electoral impatience with failing government. If Reagan were running today, he would be the boldest candidate in the field of either party. But so far no Republican candidate has caught the radical temper of the times.
Is there not one Republican candidate today who is visibly impatient to, with conservative principles and values, "begin the world over again"?