Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and the Future of Conservatism

Published January 29, 2013

Last week, E.J. Dionne had an interesting column comparing President Obama to Ronald Reagan. Both presidents, Dionne argues, were able to transform the political landscape, bringing about long-term changes in the way the electorate sees their government. Dionne compares Obama’s second inaugural to Reagan’s first inaugural to demonstrate the point:

Like Reagan, Obama hopes to usher in a long-term electoral realignment — in Obama’s case toward the moderate left, thereby reversing the 40th president’s political legacy. The Reagan metaphor helps explain the tone of Obama’s inaugural address, built not on a contrived call to an impossible bipartisanship but on a philosophical argument for a progressive vision of the country rooted in our history.

Reagan used his first inaugural to make an unabashed case for conservatism. Conservatives who loved that Reagan speech are now criticizing Obama for emulating their hero and his bold defense of first principles.

Dionne’s point is a good one, so far as it goes. Obama is neither a moderate centrist (like Mitt Romney) nor a triangulating pragmatist (like Bill Clinton); he is a devoted Leftist — at least as progressive as Reagan was conservative. Dionne, however, overlooks one very important difference between the two presidents’ competing claims to be the standard-bearer of the American Founding. When Reagan claimed in his first inaugural that his vision of conservatism reflected an understanding of limited government commensurate with the Founding, he was saying something both appealing and true. When Obama made the same claim about his Progressive agenda, he was saying something appealing but false.

While Progressivism is deeply ingrained in American political life, it has also always had it out for the Founding. Progressivism arose a century after the Founding precisely as an alternative to that way-of-being-American embodied by our Constitutional system, a system Progressives found — and find — to be fundamentally inadequate to the ends of government.

Of course, the claim that Progressivism is contrary to the Founding is not, in itself, sufficient to claim that Progressivism is bad for America; Republicans would do well to stop acting as though it were.

The goodness of the Constitution is not self-evident — just ask those who worked to see it ratified. Those who would preserve it today must never weary of making the case for it. Conservatives, of all people, should know better than to take the weight of tradition for granted. If there is something in the American founding worth preserving but jeopardized by Progressivism, then conservatives must be prepared to make that case for preservation over and against the alternative. (See, for example, Carson Holloway’s excellent post from yesterday.)

All of which brings us to another good point from Dionne. He writes, “Reagan forced Democrats to realize they wouldn’t keep winning simply by invoking FDR’s legacy.” The same, Dionne suggests, goes for the GOP and their own favorite forbears.

The GOP must realize that they won’t get back to winning elections simply by persistently invoking the legacy of the Founders or Ronald Reagan. These legacies are important — very important — but not because they tell us anything about today’s Republican Party. They are important because they remind us that a conservative approach to governing can succeed if, and probably only if, it is bound to, and points toward, a robust vision of the good of the whole polity — what we Catholics call the common good.

The great principles of American conservatism — limited government, individual liberty, and personal responsibility — are not opposed to the common good. On the contrary, they serve it. As Catholics we must know this and we must say it. The Founders did so, in their own way; that’s why the Constitution justifies itself on the promise of “a more perfect union.” Ronald Reagan knew this, too. That’s why he asked, in his first inaugural address:

How can we love our country and not love our countrymen, and loving them, reach out a hand when they fall, heal them when they are sick, and provide opportunities to make them self-sufficient so they will be equal in fact and not just in theory?

Reagan knew that loving one’s countrymen is something citizens do, not governments. But he also knew that love for our fellow man was not a luxury afforded by liberty, secondary to the ends of society; it was the whole point of our common life and a necessary precondition of our liberty. In short, Reagan made a common-good case for conservative policies. If Republicans hope to shape the American future, the first step they must take is to learn (or perhaps, re-learn) how to make that case.

Individual liberty, limited government, personal responsibility — these principles can no more be sustained in a people dedicated primarily to self-interest or personal gain than in a people bent under Leviathan’s yoke. These principles must serve the common good — and be seen to serve the common good — or they will fail, both politically and morally. In the end, citizens, not governments, are the true guarantors of freedom. And citizens who forget their obligations to the good of all only invite the loss of their own.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.

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