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The challenges our country faces today are different than in Reagan’s time. Our foreign enemy is not a nuclear superpower but rather a nasty web of terrorist organizations intertwined with a few well-placed governments that finance and enable their terrorist activities.
Today, advances in communications and surveillance pose far greater threats to our cherished individual liberties. Virtually unconstrained by the Constitution, the federal government is now bigger and more menacing than ever. It seeks ever more power and authority even as it demonstrates its utter incompetence to perform the basic functions of a sovereign authority.
Ronald Reagan is no longer a contemporary political figure but rather an historic figure. As such, we see in him what we wish to see. He’s become our Rorschach test for a host of current controversies. Individuals with radically different views see themselves as his intellectual heir. It’s a mark of his enormous shadow and historical reputation that diverse groups across the political spectrum now seek the confirmation of their own views in Reagan’s record and political legacy.
That all being said, we can say a few things with some certainty about how President Reagan would approach the problems that we face today even if we can’t be sure of his exact views.
First, I think Reagan would have taken voters seriously in that he would have spoken with them honestly about the choices our country faces.
He would treat people as adults, not bargain hunters anxious for special favors.
He would have focused on the issues that really matter to our country – debts, taxes, and an out of control federal government- and told them what he would do to move America in the right direction.
He would have connected his campaigns with his government and his administration.
He believed that leaders owed this to the people, that leaders should do what they promised to do, that promises kept would reduce public cynicism, and in the end this would help to form national consensus that would keep the country moving forward.
Second, Reagan believed people could best handle their own affairs and the affairs of their familes.
He believed that outside of its core functions , government made most social problems worse, not better.
He said exactly this in his first Inaugural Address in 1981 and devoted a good deal of “A Time for Choosing” to debunking the failures of the Great Society. He would be sounding the alarm today against the overbroad reach and scope of government.
Third, Reagan’s message would focus on uniting, not dividing Americans. He never campaigned heavily on so called “wedge” issues. Though he was a “divisive” figure in his time, his strategy was to add new groups to expand his coalition.
He was a unique figure in that he had the support of conservative and moderate Republicans but also blue collar workers, young people, independents and even those most cynical about government. That added up to nearly 60% of the popular vote in his reelection year.
To him, good policy was not a zero sum game. He preached inclusive, positive messages that focused on how average Americans would benefit from a growing economy and more economic opportunity. As he once noted, “Our destinations are more important than our origins” and he believed that everyone in America should have the opportunity to reach their full potential.
Finally, Reagan would have understood the threat posed by international terrorism and not shirked from America’s responsibility to lead the Free World, not from behind, but by proudly proclaiming the clear contrast between Western values of freedom and the terrorist creed of violence and oppression.
He would see the confrontation as much in moral and ideological terms as in conventional military ones.
He would have spoken of the aspirations of freedom by people living in societies governed by oppressive and tyrannical theocracies.
At the same time, he would have been strongly supportive of limiting the powers of the federal government to ensure that our basic constitutional protections enshrined in the Fourth Amendment were protected against overreaching bureaucracies. There was always a libertarian streak in Reagan that made him recoil from convenient justifications for expansion of government powers, even for ultimate purposes that he agreed with.
In sum, though the issues are different, Reagan’s legacy still has much to teach us today. We can sum it up: Trust the people, Freedom works, America must lead. Such eternal truths are valid no matter the time or the personalities.