POACHING ON RONALD REAGAN´S LEGACY
As Ronald Reagan celebrates his 87th birthday, he is recognized now
even by most of his critics as the most influential President since Franklin Roosevelt. While Bill Clinton still tries rhetorically to denigrate this record, he adds his unacknowledged acquiescence by the facts of his puny budget increases--where his voice is forced to request millions and will acquire less, while his heart lusts billions--and his abject submission to his predecessor´s vision, by his concession: The era of big government is over.
As Lady Thatcher put it in her Heritage Foundation lecture, while it is an irony that it is an administration of instinctive spenders and regulators that now is reaping much of the political reward, the unmistakable fact is that "todays American prosperity in the late 1990's is the result, above all, of the fundamental shift of direction President Reagan promoted in the 1980's." Successor conservative leaders in both his and her countries first departed from this program and then were frustrated that they were unable to re-create it.
Yet, if Ronald Reagan himself ran in the year 2000, he would not run on the Reagan platform. Despite the plethora of rightist leaders trying to poach the Reagan legacy, it is too late: his set of policies is passe. All conservatives can learn from President Reagan now is his basic philosophy and his character. As Dinesh D´Souza puts it in his new book, "Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader," it is sufficient to learn that he "had a vision for America, he was not afraid to act, and he believed in the good sense and decency of the American people." Vision, courage, good sense and decency were the essence of Ronald Reagan, as they were of his view of America. While he deeply valued the conservative values of the Founders, what made him such a leader was his courage and good sense, including being able to see the world both clearly as it was and idealistically as it should be.
There is much talk about optimism being the secret of President Reagan´s success. But it was not a sunny optimism that skirted tough issues. As D´Souza documents, he often went courageously against literally all Experts@ opinion, not only on obviously big issues such as his refusal to conceded the Strategic Defense Initiative to get an arms agreement with the Soviet Union but also when he boldly confronted Libya, invaded Grenada, shut down the air controllers union, and even refused to cancel his visit to the Bitburg cemetery. Contrary to those who now see him as assertive generally in foreign policy, he was also prudent enough to be almost disengaged on major foreign issues like South Africa, Chile and Haiti. He had enormous courage to act and the prudence not to risk American treasure nor blood unless absolutely necessary.
While President Reagan will be most remembered for his critical role in ending the Cold War, his domestic legacy of taming the welfare state might be greater in the long run. Many thought he lacked courage here and even D´Souza believes he did not reduce domestic spending. Yet, the facts show he reduced non-defense spending hundreds of billions, from 17.9 to 16.4 percent of Gross National Product. Indeed, a return to the Founders´ idea of limited government was equal to his passion against the evil empire. At his first inaugural, he was clear that he was not cutting government spending just to save money, but to return power to states, communities and citizens. Consequently, William Kristol and David Brooks National Greatness Conservatism, when it claims that the revitalization of our local civic culture depends, ultimately, on our national political health, and that America won´t be good locally if it isn´t great nationally, has it quite backwards in the Reagan philosophy. It is communities and individuals that make us great to Ronald Reagan.
Virginia I. Postrel and James K. Glassman were closer when they responded that Kristol-Brooks conservatives "confuse small government with no government and neutral government with vice." Lacking faith in non-governmental and community institutions to solve problems, "national-greatness conservatives are desperately seeking the moral equivalent of the Cold War"; to keep the national government busy. Yet, Postrel-Glassman´s emphasis upon individual happiness, private pursuits and avoiding "gloom and doom" at all costs, is at variance with the urgency with which Ronald Reagan viewed America´s departure from limited government and how difficult he thought it would be to rebuild private institutions. For he believed that big government had grievously wounded the nation and he had a sense of urgency for its reform.
Ronald Reagan was and still would be moved by the fact one out of three American children are born to unmarried mothers and that, for the first time in history, these accumulating 1.2 millions per year will not have a family to guide them. His solution would not be some Clinton-light additional millions to some silly, bureaucratic child-care program but an urgent desire to break the government-supported incentives in welfare that reward this behavior. Unlike Congressmen prematurely claiming success, he would face the fact that, at the last moment, the Republicans caved on the largest part of welfare and dropped Medicaid reform; and they later kept silent when President Clinton, paying off his public sector union friends, doomed workfare by not allowing those on welfare to get their most likely job, on a government payroll. Mr. Reagan would not claim success on education because the GOP spent as much as Mr. Clinton but face the fact that only 40 percent of eighth grade urban children have basic reading, math or science skills. More shocking, only 60 percent of suburban students have. That is, even 40 percent in the prosperous areas are not taught basic educational skills in the near-monopoly government schools as a result, not of oversight, but of a plan to de-emphasize these skills because failure to master them might cause lower self-esteem. Even for those lucky enough to have a family, good education and a real job, their leisure is polluted with senseless violence, amoral entertainment and vile behavior from a little box in their own homes.
What is more important than kids and family, friends and neighbors, and one´s own living space? Official complacency about them is why polls show that Americans are still dissatisfied in the midst of one of the greatest economic expansions in history. When that economic bubble bursts, as it soon will (probably from Asian economic flu), Reagan-like tax and regulatory policy will help revive the economy. But conservatives need a program for the more fundamental problems too. Real welfare reform, private and charter school voucher scholarships, the strengthening of private institutions by letting them have more of their own money to spend on their own children, families and neighbors, and determined Presidential moral leadership to tell Hollywood we simply will not tolerate such filth, is a Reagan program to both fulfill his legacy and celebrate his birthday properly.
Happy birthday, Mr. president, we miss you. Donald Devine