What Would Reagan Do?

Published November 11, 2008

Wall Street Journal

This is not the first time that conservatives and Republicans have stared into an electoral abyss. After Barry Goldwater’s crushing 1964 defeat, most political observers thought the only future for the GOP was to become a centrist party only slightly to the right of Great Society Democrats.

Ronald Reagan didn’t agree. In a trenchant column penned in the December 1, 1964 issue of National Review, he argued that Americans had rejected only a false vision of conservatism as a radical departure from the status quo. Conservatives, he said, had only “lost a battle in the continuing war for freedom.” Voters would rally to the conservative banner once they realized that Democratic liberals were the true radicals.

His article is striking for what he said–and didn’t say. Reagan spoke of a “war for freedom,” but he did not mention a single specific conservative policy. Rather, he defended conservatism’s salience by arguing that “we represent the forgotten American–that simple soul who goes to work, bucks for a raise, takes out insurance, pays for his kids’ schooling, contributes to his church and charity and knows there just ‘ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.'”

This vision of conservatism would succeed by pointing out how liberal values diverged from the American consensus, and by attracting to conservatism average Americans–the Reagan Democrats. It is only a short distance from Reagan’s words, penned in abject defeat in 1964, to the triumphs of 1984, 1994 and 2004.

Reagan’s vision also established conservatism as a movement dedicated to a principle rather than one married to a specific agenda. That principle, human freedom, was fixed. But it would be interpreted and applied in light of specific circumstances, and in ways to persuade “that simple soul” upon whose consent American political success rests.

In fact, Reagan frequently faltered in formulating the precise mix of rhetoric and policy that would maintain the core principle of American conservatism while making it relevant to American circumstance. But he was ultimately successful.

Our task as conservatives is no different. We, too, face the task of taking an eternal principle and making it attractive in a changed world. In doing so, we must avoid two temptations.

The first is to reject the core principle of American conservatism on the assumption that the forgotten American no longer believes in the idea that freedom and free markets improve our lives. Whether this conservatism is heroic or Hamiltonian, it posits that other principles–family, stability, nationalism–should take center stage if the Republican Party is to regain the allegiance of a majority.

The second temptation focuses on the many deviations from modern conservative dogma over the past decade, then argues that if only our political leaders had remained true to our platform all would have been well. But this confuses policies with principles. Our principles can flourish only if our policies resonate with average Americans who deal with concrete problems and who are resistant to radical change. One thing is certain: A conservatism that abandons freedom as its core principle is not distinctively American; and a conservatism that ignores reality will not win.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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