The Republican Party and the conservative movement in America have been brought to their current appalling state because they are full of people who endlessly praise Ronald Reagan while doing the opposite of what he taught and practiced. In fact, Reagan’s brilliant example and crystal spirit can light up the road ahead – if conservatives will open their closed minds and shriveled spirits to him.
First of all, Ronald Reagan was a lifelong optimist and an example of remarkable resilience especially in bad times. After Barry Goldwater went down to the greatest presidential defeat in American history to that point in 1964, Reagan, whose nationally televised speech was the one shining success in that campaign, was neither shaken no disheartened. Within two years he had won the governorship of California – and the rest is history.
Reagan therefore would not have lost heart and despaired of conservative and patriotic principles, nor of America. He would have taken a good night’s sleep and got up in the morning eager to find new directions and new opportunities for the way ahead.
Second, the conservative movement that Ronald Reagan created was generous and inclusive. Reagan welcomed brilliant African-American and Jewish intellectuals alike on to his team.
President George W. Bush understood this generous, inclusive essential component of conservatism. I have been critical of Bush for many important things — unnecessary wars, out of control spending, playing ultimately catastrophic games with keeping interest rates artificially low. But Bush 43, among other things, was highly successful in reaching out to Hispanic Americans. He knew and thought better of grassroots conservatives than assuming that they would never accept Hispanic, black or Jewish Americans in major positions.
Mitt Romney lost a major opportunity when he refused to seriously consider Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico or Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida as his vice presidential running mate. Martinez in particular gave a superb speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa and could have helped Romney enormously with women and Hispanics – two huge constituencies that he effectively chose to write off. George W. Bush did not make that mistake. Neither did Ronald Reagan.
The Republican Party spent at least $1 billion on the 2012 presidential campaign and it still lost by a clear two percentage points in the national popular vote. There was no serious effort to reach out to women or Hispanics, nor to young Americans – a constituency who responded tremendously to Ronald Reagan back in 1980.
Ronald Reagan have never have blamed these groups for not voting Republican. He would certainly never have written off 47 percent of Americans as a waste of time. He would never have dreamed of even thinking such a thought. Ronald Reagan loved and respected ordinary working Americans and they knew it. He always recognized clearly that arrogant, self-appointed elitists were political poison to the conservative movement and the GOP.
Reagan’s two administrations were exceptional from the start in ringing new and brilliant talents and ideas to Washington. Often these ideas and their champions clashed with each other. The fresh blood Reagan brought to the moribund Beltway culture was often remarkably young in years. Sometimes in age it was remarkably old, as in the case of Director of Central Intelligence William Casey. Reagan never cared. He never ruled talent out however old or young it was according to conventional wisdom.
The conservative moment has lost that open-mindedness and flexibility. The same columnists, the same pundits, serve up the same ideas in lockstep with each other time and again. When new ideas and new challenges emerge across America, they are shoehorned into the old rhetoric by the same arrogant, repetitive tired old faces. New minds and new blood are needed.
Ronald Reagan was a social conservative and one of the greatest spokesmen for genuine moral values in the history of American politics. But he was never a bigot or a fool. He never outraged women or any other group by expressing ridiculous, offensive, or plain absurd sentiments. An ill-judged tolerance for such buffoons has just cost the Republican Party and the conservative movement two Senate seats they were otherwise almost certain to win.
Ronald Reagan did not mindlessly worship youth or embody it. His mind and spirit were always young – always optimistic, intellectually curious and ready to challenge old orthodoxies from economics to national security. But he was almost 70 years old when he took the oath of office for the first time, the oldest American ever to do so.
Neither was Reagan afraid to change and adapt his policies to changing times. The Ronald Reagan who ended one of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War by launching a new era of détente with Mikhail Gorbachev was not a different Reagan from the Reagan who had had fearlessly stood up to previous Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev, Yury Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. It was the same Reagan. But when the Soviet leadership changed, he recognized when he needed to change his policies – never his principles – too.
Ronald Reagan was no war-lover, armchair warrior or quick on the trigger hothead. He defused immensely serious crises with the Soviet Union and Iran on many occasions. But he also avoided getting the United States bogged down in any blooded and extended war, unlike others we could mention. Like Dwight David Eisenhower, for a full eight years he brilliantly preserved peace through strength and wisdom when it seemed almost impossible to do.
Reagan had nerves of steel and genuinely trusted the workings of the free market. He let interest rates soar to break the back of inflation in 1981-82 even though for more than a year it looked as if he would suffer sweeping defeat in any re-election bid for doing so.
George W. Bush never shared that courage and optimistic faith and kept interest rates bottled up for almost his entire two terms. The result was the housing bubble burst and disastrous Wall Street meltdown of 2008.
The Republican Party and the conservative movement need to recover that steely courage in applying necessary economic policies rather than pandering to either public opinion or ignorant pundits.
Reagan would not have despaired — or even been disheartened — by the national election results on Tuesday night. He would have been energized by them to seek out new opportunities. He would have sought to learn the right lessons and apply them. And he would not have let the architects of such a sweeping and comprehensive defeat get the chance to bang their heads against the same old brick walls and ever bury the conservative movement again.
Finally, Ronald Reagan would never have tried to turn the clock back to some mythical golden age before the New Deal, or before Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal or, for that matter, before the Bill of Rights. For him the true golden age was always ahead, and it was a privilege for him and the American people to strive to achieve it.