It is hard to believe, but it has been 25 remarkable and often hopeful years since Ronald Reagan won one of the most important elections of the 20th century. Now, as Republicans go through their autumn of discontent and confusion, they would do well to look back a quarter century and study the leader who created the modern conservative movement and the modern Republican Party.
In a world in which the Soviet Union has been defeated, Germany has been reunited, pride in being an American is high (61 percent extraordinarily proud, 22 percent very proud according to Gallup in January 2005), and in which we have had an almost unbroken two decades of growing economic opportunity, productivity and prosperity, it is hard to remember just how bad things were shortly before former Gov. Reagan became President.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter and the liberal Democrats had led America into a series of disasters. Inflation was at 18 percent. Interest rates peaked at 22 percent. Unemployment was growing toward the deepest recession since the Depression. The Soviet Union was on offense in Afghanistan, Angola, Mozambique, Grenada, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Intellectuals wrote about the death of democracy. There were gasoline lines everywhere and people were told they should get used to rationing. President Carter addressed the nation and suggested our future was inherently limited, malaise was a condition we had brought on ourselves, and that we should get used to lowering our expectations.
Candidate Ronald Reagan responded to the failures of the left with enormous clarity and directness.
On the economy, Reagan said "when your cousin loses his job it is called a recession. When you lose your job it is a depression. When Jimmy Carter loses his job it is a recovery." Sure enough, inflation dropped to 4.3 percent by 1984 and 4.1 percent by 1988. The unemployment rate dropped from 7.6 percent to 5.5 percent and 20 million new jobs were created during Reagan's two terms.
On the inevitability of the Soviet Union, Reagan responded with a then shocking vision for the Cold War--"we win, they lose." And shortly after, Reagan replaced the entire vision of detente with two vivid words: "Evil Empire."
Eight years after the inauguration of Ronald Wilson Reagan, the Berlin Wall fell. (Who can forget "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.") Two years later the Soviet Union disappeared.
What should Americans learn from this remarkable man and his remarkable Presidency?
- The "right" ideas really matter (the left was wrong and Reagan was right about virtually every major public policy issue and the historic record is clear for those willing to look at it).
- Courage and persistence are the keys to historic achievement. Reagan first became an anti-Communist in 1947 (read Peter Schweizer's Reagan's War). He first spoke to the nation about modern conservatism in October 1964. He first called for the Berlin Wall to be torn down in 1967. He first ran for President in 1968. Cheerful persistence rather than easy victories were the keys to Reagan's career.
- Relying on the good sense of the American people beats relying on the elite intellectuals, entrenched bureaucrats and smug lobbyists who dominate Washington. Reagan never won an argument in Washington. Reagan won his arguments in the country with the American people and then the American people imposed their will on Washington.
- The key to capturing the attention and, yes, the hearts of Americans is to focus on their future and their children's future. Reagan understood this and it showed in the polls, as in 1984, when he received an astonishing 65.5 percent of the under 30 vote.
- Successful governance means having a framework through which to lead the American people. For Reagan, that framework was freedom. Everything emanated from this organizing principle.
Today's Republican Party would do well to regain the firm, courageous, "no pale pastels" clarity which was the hallmark of Reagan's leadership. They would also do well to remember that Reaganism is about real change both at home and overseas and that real change requires upsetting the entrenched interests feeding at the public trough.
Sometimes looking forward requires first studying the past. Reagan, a product of the future, nonetheless understood one needed to have a firm grasp of history.
This is a good time for that same kind of introspection within the GOP.
Newt Gingrich is a senior fellow at AEI. Craig Shirley is the president of Shirley and Banister Public Affairs and the author of Reagan's Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign that Started it All about the 1976 campaign.