Reagan, Reformation, and the GOP

"Well, now, if government planning and welfare had the answer, and they've had almost 30 years of it, shouldn't we expect government to read the score to us once in a while? Shouldn't they be telling us about the decline each year in the number of people needing help?"

With that incisive phrase in his landmark speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater in 1964, Ronald Reagan began a remarkable career in American politics, which rejected the destructive choices of the modern elites and recast the questions about government to the benefit of his American conservative philosophy and the private citizen. It is a lesson that the Republican Party of 2010 needs to relearn if it is ever going to rephrase the argument and chart a path back to power--ironically, by giving power back to the American people.

That's right. Power in Washington for conservatives must be based on returning power from Washington to the American people.

Reagan had a framework for governance based on freedom and the individual over the state.

Just this past week, President Barack Obama announced a monstrous huge new budget, laden with destructive deficit spending and yet another government-centered jobs bill. One year ago, he proposed a huge, pork-stuffed, deficient budget, with yet another jobs bill. But after billions spent in 12 short months, our nation is further in debt and millions more are unemployed, all at the hands of Obama's policies, despite his pitiable attempts to blame George W. Bush.

Obama, like other members of the modern elite, is an architect of the same old unhelpful choices brought to us by these articulate, privileged shepherds. Indeed, some of the very liberal elements of his party are now trying to frame the spending debate as one between jobs and deficits, even though it was proved in 2009 that deficits do not lower unemployment. Deficits increase unemployment. It is entirely legitimate to ask Obama to read the score back to America, since no one in the Republican Party has effectively made this argument. Thus, the president and his followers continue to dominate the debate.

The governmental elites have embraced these destructive choices, as they allow them to dictate the terms: bank fees vs. bank corruption, property tax hikes vs. cutting police and fire service. They are the false choices of C.S. Lewis's "Screwtape Letters." If a man's house is on fire, give him a lighter. If he is drowning, give him a bucket of water. The false and destructive arguments of the elites are designed to keep people's eyes off the ball. In most cases, Republicans still fall for the same gambit, still trying to kick the football held by the liberal Lucy.

When Reagan ran in 1980, the elites in both political parties rejected his embrace of the Kemp-Roth tax cuts, seeing them as irresponsible. "What?" they cried. "Tax cuts for businesses, maybe, but certainly not for the American people." Others in both parties simply derided tax cuts at any time, for anybody or any entity. Reagan rejected the arguments of both sides, pushing tax cuts for individuals, reducing federal spending and beginning an unprecedented quarter-century of economic growth while creating millions of jobs.

In fall 1980, in a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Reagan had inserted in his draft remarks the phrase "noble cause" in referring to America's loss of the Vietnam War. It was unsettling to the intellectual classes of America. They said America had lost Southeast Asia because of the incompetence and corruption of the Pentagon, as well as the incompetence and corruption of the South Vietnamese government, and that 55,000 American soldiers had died in vain. In their view, the defeat was certainly not because of the evil intentions of the Communist North Vietnamese.

Non-Reaganites in the campaign took the phrase out of the draft. Reagan put it back in. They took it out again. Reagan put it back in. Sound familiar? It went on like this until Reagan gave his speech, with the "noble cause" phrase kept in. The elites came down with the vapors, but the American people loved it.

Reagan had a framework for governance based on freedom and the individual over the state. He was a populist who was suspicious of any concentration of power, whether corporate, union or governmental. He knew concentrated power was unhealthy as it inevitably led to corruption and the diminution of personal freedoms. Obama and his enthusiastic band of contemporary elitists understand the argument, which is why they embrace government over people. They understand this is about power.

We have a Department of Energy created by President Jimmy Carter, whose purpose was to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil. Billions of dollars later, the United States is more dependent than ever on foreign oil. We have a Department of Education, again courtesy of Carter, whose purpose was to raise academic standards. Take a wild guess on the success of this bureaucracy. If walls imprisoning people can be torn down, then so, too, can more than useless and wasteful bureaucracies.

What mattered for Reagan then--and should matter now for the recovering but not yet recovered Republican Party--is that his was a lifetime of thought and conviction that grew steadily into those principles that mattered both at home and abroad. He then had the courage to state them and keep on stating them for 16 years, from 1964 until 1980, and then live out those convictions as president. During the 1980 primaries, he made open appeals to Democrats and independents to cross over and join his "community of shared values," which was maddening to the entrenched country clubbers of the GOP but which laid the basis for the new political movement.

In a nation of more than 300 million people, in a nation as vast and diverse as the United States, it is simply impractical to believe that 50 sovereign states can be governed by one corrupt city on the Potomac River. It's a good lesson to learn on this, Reagan's 99th birthday and the beginning of the Reagan Centennial.

It's time for those on the right to follow the lead of the tea party advocates and start demanding of their anti-intellectual political leaders that they read the score back once in a while.

And begin the process of reframing the debate.

Newt Gingrich is a senior fellow at AEI. Craig Shirley is the president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs.

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