What Would Reagan Do? What would our 40th President do if he became, through some miracle, our 45th President? Ronald Reagan, born on this day, February 6, 1911--Happy Birthday Mr. President, wherever you are!--passed away in 2004, but this question is still important to answer--as our thoughts turn to the future, to the next president after the 44th.
Because we know we don’t want Barack Obama in the Oval Office for more than a single term.
For conservatives and libertarians--and, after the recent elections, independents and independent Democrats--there’s not much more to be said about the incumbent. From the audacity of hope to the reality of deep disappointment, his decline and fall compressed itself into just a year.
We know that Obama and his liberal-left policies have damaged our economy, degraded our national finances, and insulted traditional values.
But what really tears it for us, and tears it for the American people, is his mismanagement of our national and homeland security. Giving in to the Russians on missile defense was strike one. Opening the door to prosecutions of CIA agents who helped in the war on terror--while dithering on Afghanistan--was strike two. Reluctance to confront the reality of domestic terrorism in the wake of Fort Hood, together with the feckless handling of Gitmo, and the ACLU-ish treatment of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed and the underwear bomber-- was strike three.
That’s three strikes. Time to retire the batter; no matter how much he enjoys swanning around the field.
And so the situation today resembles, ever more closely, the situation of the late 70s. Thirty years ago, Jimmy Carter delivered his confidence-breaking “malaise” speech during the third year of his presidency; Obama needed less than a year to convince middle America that he is not ready for the sacred national proscenium.
Even Reagan’s bitterest critics, by contrast, would agree that the Gipper was superb at bringing the country together in times of national grief and on occasions of solemn remembrance. His address on the night of the Challenger explosion in 1986 was a defining moment for a generation; so, too, was his speech at the Normandy cliffs on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. Gesturing to elderly Army veterans, the President declared, “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent”--as an enthralled world watched in misty-eyed admiration.
But Reagan was vastly more than a scene-setter and speechmaker. He was a great president, one of America’s greatest. During his eight years in office, inflation and interest rates fell from their double-digit levels, even as the nation’s economic output grew by a third. He appointed center-right judges who helped restore order and sanity to our legal system, initiating a process that reduced crime and ended egregious legal insults to common sense.
He rebuilt our military, a group that had been demoralized after Vietnam. In the late 70s, the United States had ships that couldn’t sail, planes that couldn’t fly and soldiers and sailors who were on food stamps. In the 80s, Reagan changed all that. He built the mightiest military in the world with improved manpower and the best equipment in the world that faced down the Soviets from a position of superior strength. The Reagan defense buildup has been the backbone of today's military, which has defended America and its allies for the last quarter-century.
Overseas, Reagan’s achievements were even more remarkable. Working through agents and allies, the president beat the Soviets in Afghanistan, without the loss of a single American G.I. His leadership set the stage for the fall of the Berlin Wall, thus imploding the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War.
Did he make mistakes? Sure. But when he did, he took responsibility and fixed the problem, without wallowing in self-pity. And all the while, he demonstrated a personal probity that never left anyone wondering if the man in the Oval Office was keeping faith with the people who had put their faith in him.
So if he were with us today, what would Reagan do? We can answer that question by recalling the Reagan agenda. Anyone even passingly familiar with American politics knows the Reagan policies: He wanted to cut tax rates to spur economic growth. He wanted to control spending and get government off our backs, so that entrepreneurs could once again grow small payrolls into big payrolls. And so what would Reagan say about “cap-and-trade” legislation? In private, he’d rail against the stupidity of such a scheme, but in public, he would just chuckle and encourage others to laugh such foolishness off the national stage.
Yet a neo-Reaganite economic policy would not shy away from delivering stern news: We are going to have to tighten our belts and cut spending--even as we invest in much-needed scientific projects, laying the groundwork for future growth. So yes, he would say, we are going to feel some pain, but we must stay the course, because the alternative is infinitely more painful. But our Reagan would always offer hope. He would remind us that America has always been, and must continue to be, a shining city on a hill--the last best hope for mankind.
Like Jimmy Carter before him, the current president seems happy presiding over a strong government and a weak America. A new Gipper, by contrast, would display profound confidence in the majesty and morality of American Exceptionalism. No bowing down to anyone.
But at the same time, he would never be reckless; the goal would not be to fight hot wars, but rather, to win cold wars. If America had to go in, as in Grenada, our new Reagan would not hesitate. He would give the order. But if others could do the fighting, as in Angola and Nicaragua back in the 80s, as well as in Afghanistan--that would be even better. And if our enemies could fight each other, as they did during the Iran-Iraq war, well, the Gipper would grasp the Machiavellian utility in such mutual destruction.
Above all, a Reagan of today would see clearly the threat of radical Islam, realizing that while the jihadist threat might be centered--and sponsored--in the Middle East, the tentacles of that threat reach across the world, even into military bases in the Heartland.
Today’s Reagan would think long and hard about Islam, just as the original Reagan thought long and hard about communism. The original Reagan read Whittaker Chambers and consulted with Alexander Solzhenitsyn; the new Reagan would be similarly learning from experts and survivors. And so once he was in the White House, the new Reagan would gather the best and most clear-eyed advisers, before determining the best course of action.
George W. Bush thought he could change the culture of Islam through military force. Obama thinks he can change the culture of Islam through the force of words, including a lot of “I’m sorry” wording--and a little bit of bowing. Our Reagan would do better. Mindful of the stubborn realities of human nature, he would work with key allies to craft a comprehensive strategy for protecting the West. And he would seek, when and if possible, to advance security and freedom for the rest of the world.
To do so, he would cheerfully think outside of mental boxes he might have inherited from narrower-thinking predecessors. Always genial, but never naive, Reagan would dispense with illusion and credulity, pursuing instead missile defense and credible arms control. Indeed, in today’s proliferated world, it’s hard to think of a better idea right now than missile defense. Reagan thought so, too--and said so, from the Oval Office, back in 1983. If we had made steady progress on missile defense over the last three decades, America and her allies would be safe now from rogue regimes in Iran, North Korea, and Lebanon.
Back on the homefront, the new Reagan would look around for another Antonin Scalia to put on the Supreme Court. He would pursue a conservative social agenda, but not to untenable extremes. To a good Reaganite, politics is always based firmly on a moral and ethical foundation, but it is also always the art of the possible.
Our next Reagan would be committed, of course, to federalism. The ex-governor would always regard the 50 states as the best possible laboratories of democracy. And so if Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson, starting in the late 80s, could blaze a trail on welfare reform that the rest of the country would follow, a new Reagan would ask: “Who is the next domestic reformer to arise outside the puzzle palaces on the Potomac?” And speaking of reform, who would be the next Bill Bennett? The “Nation At Risk” report, published by the Reagan administration back in 1983, enshrined the idea of educational standards and rigor. What’s next?
The once and future Reagan would always combine a showman’s sense of how to handle the moment with the canny skill of a patient negotiator. As the original Gipper liked to say, “You can get anything you want done, as long as you don’t care who gets the credit.”
But what if Congress still said no? Easy. The new Reagan would go over their heads, taking his case directly to the American people. So if the old Reagan could do that with TV, over the strong objection of most media of his day, we can imagine what RR II could do with the Internet as a powerful tool.
Of course, the new Reagan would have to get elected in 2012, just as the old Reagan won in 1980. But our new Gipper has one advantage: He can learn from the old Gipper. For example, could any future challenger improve upon these words, delivered by the one and only Ronald Reagan at the Republican convention on July 17, 1980? As the Gipper said of the incumbent Democrat back then:
“Our problems are both acute and chronic, yet all we hear from those in positions of leadership are the same tired proposals for more government tinkering, more meddling and more control -- all of which led us to this state in the first place.
“Can anyone look at the record of this administration and say, ‘Well done?’ Can anyone compare the state of our economy when the Carter administration took office with where we are today and say, ‘Keep up the good work?’ Can anyone look at our reduced standing in the world today and say, ‘Let's have four more years of this?”
Whoever delivers that message in 2012--and means it--will be our next president. Because as much as we revere Ronald Reagan, we will never see him back here on this earth. He has earned his eternal rest, secure in our national pantheon.
As for the rest of us today, what we need is the courage of our 40th president’s convictions, the clarity of his fundamental insights, and the inspiration that comes from his memory.
James P. Pinkerton is a writer and Fox News contributor. He worked on the 1980 and 1984 Reagan presidential campaigns. He also served, at a very low level, in the Reagan White House from 1981 to 1983.