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Ronald Reagan Redux

Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Detroit. I wrote about the speech this week in my Baltimore Sun column which, limited to 700 words, provides insufficient room to discuss fully the impact that Reagan’s campaign and presidency had on the course of American politics during the three decades since.


I am beginning my next book, to be published by Yale University Press, about the fate of the Republican Party and the conservative movement in the 20 years following the end of Reagan’s presidency–that is, from the start of the first Bush Administration to the end of the second. So I’ve been thinking a lot about Reagan, and specifically how Republicans following him dealt with his legacy. And I found myself reading that 1980 speech in full for the first time. (You can read it here, or watch the video above.)

Reagan is still deified by most Republicans and conservatives, and it’s not difficult to understand why. For whatever liberals may think of his policies, or however much selective memory may permit conservatives to remember Reagan’s not-always-so-conservative record, this much is indisputable: He unified his party just six short years after it was in shambles–the RNC effectively shut down at one point soon after Watergate–and just four years after that produced a 49-state victory Republicans could publicly boast. (Obviously, Richard Nixon’s 1972 victory cannot be touted as proudly.) So enduring is his mythical power that we heard almost every one of the 2008 Republican presidential aspirants attempt to either invoke Reagan’s legacy or present himself as the one, true heir to that legacy. Rank-and-file Republicans can show their continuing devotion in a variety of ways, from “What Would Reagan Do?” t-shirts to Reagan-themed bumper stickers.

In any case, Reagan’s “A New Beginning” speech–which came almost a year to the day after Jimmy Carter’s so-called “Malaise speech” delivered 31 years ago today–sought to accomplish five things. In addition to the aforementioned unifying of his party, Reagan also issued a stinging indictment of the Carter Administration; set the tone for lowering taxes and reducing the government’s size and regulatory reach; addressed the energy worries of the nation; and promised a more aggressive global posture for the United States in military and diplomatic matters. Here is a short but key section (which starts around 10:45 mark of video above, if you want to watch it) that hits upon the middle three of those five themes:

As your nominee, I pledge to restore to the federal government the capacity to do the people’s work without dominating their lives. I pledge to you a government that will not only work well, but wisely; its ability to act tempered by prudence and its willingness to do good balanced by the knowledge that government is never more dangerous than when our desire to have it help us blinds us to its great power to harm us.

The first Republican president once said, “While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years.”

If Mr. Lincoln could see what’s happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement. But, with the virtues that our legacy as a free people and with the vigilance that sustains liberty, we still have time to use our renewed compact to overcome the injuries that have been done to America these past three-and-a-half years.

First, we must overcome something the present administration has cooked up: a new and altogether indigestible economic stew, one part inflation, one part high unemployment, one part recession, one part runaway taxes, one party deficit spending and seasoned by an energy crisis. It’s an economic stew that has turned the national stomach.

Ours are not problems of abstract economic theory. Those are problems of flesh and blood; problems that cause pain and destroy the moral fiber of real people who should not suffer the further indignity of being told by the government that it is all somehow their fault. We do not have inflation because — as Mr. Carter says — we have lived too well.

The head of a government which has utterly refused to live within its means and which has, in the last few days, told us that this year’s deficit will be $60 billion, dares to point the finger of blame at business and labor, both of which have been engaged in a losing struggle just trying to stay even.

High taxes, we are told, are somehow good for us, as if, when government spends our money it isn’t inflationary, but when we spend it, it is.

Those who preside over the worst energy shortage in our history tell us to use less, so that we will run out of oil, gasoline, and natural gas a little more slowly. Conservation is desirable, of course, for we must not waste energy. But conservation is not the sole answer to our energy needs.

America must get to work producing more energy. The Republican program for solving economic problems is based on growth and productivity.

Large amounts of oil and natural gas lay beneath our land and off our shores, untouched because the present administration seems to believe the American people would rather see more regulation, taxes and controls than more energy.

What’s remarkable is how we still hear the same, core arguments about the role and functions of government–and how the policy-specific debates over matters like offshore drilling persist as well. And yet here we are, 30 years later, and the tax burden is at its lowest since 1950, the regulatory state has been cowed if not captured by the industries it is supposed to oversee, and America stands as the world’s lone remaining superpower. The antipathy toward government Reagan popularized has, even if indirectly and merely in spirit, contributed to a governing approach that has led to everything from coal mine disasters to the BP oil spill. (Just to preempt comments, I’m not blaming Reagan for the BP spill; indeed, I too wonder “What Reagan Would Do” if he had cogently witnessed the de-regulatory behaviors of the previous administration. But anyone who thinks energy policy deregulation had nothing to do with the spill should read this first.) But because a lot of the goals Reagan set forth in his 1980 Detroit speech have been achieved, even if in part, it is tempting for Republicans and conservatives to conclude, “Hey, Reagan was right, so let’s duplicate his model”–when, in fact, 2010 is not 1980, and a continued fixation on Reagan may be doing more to hamper than help the modern GOP.

Such are the puzzles I’ll ponder in the book. For now, enjoy (re)reading or viewing Reagan’s pivotal, 45-minute address–a speech that set the tone for American politics for the next 30 years. Among other things, take special note of Reagan’s comments about the poor, minorities and those who live in the inner cities. Notice, too, how Reagan invokes Franklin Roosevelt, for whom he voted in his younger days as a Democrat. And don’t miss the remarkable ending which, if you are not already familiar, is so good I won’t dare spoil it.