Reagan Betrayed: Are Conservatives Fumbling His Legacy?

Article excerpt

What can conservatives today learn most from Ronald Reagan? Which features of Reagan's legacy (his principles, his rhetoric, his policies, his leadership style) are conservatives today most in danger of forgetting or betraying? Policy Review asked these questions of several of the conservative movement's top leaders.

-- Grover G. Norquist --

Before Ronald Reagan, great men like Whittaker Chambers said and believed that conservatives were on the "losing side of history." In the 1950s, Bill Buckley said that the task of conservatives was to "stand athwart history and yell 'stop.' " From Ronald Reagan, conservatives have learned optimism and dis- covered they are on the winning side of history.

Today, conservatives know that it is Marxism-Leninism that is in the dustbin of history, and we march with confidence against the welfare state. Speaker Newt Gingrich and Majority Leader Trent Lott move to abolish the capital-gains tax and the death tax and propose a single-rate tax on income or retail sales. Every conservative knows that we will win radical tax reform and reduction as soon as we elect a president who will sign the bill. The flow of history is with us. Our victories can be delayed, but not denied. This is the change wrought by Ronald Reagan.

But conservative leaders sometimes forget that one of Reagan's great strengths was his ability to remain in visionary mode. He called for tax cuts, then left it to staffers such as James Baker to negotiate and compromise as needed to get a tax cut through Congress. Reagan himself never spoke about compromises. When one Republican leader was quoted recently as saying that conservatives lacked the votes to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts, the press misconstrued the statement as a retreat from efforts to defund the NEA. Leaders should keep their eyes on the goal and leave such comments to their staffs.

Conservatives should also remember Reagan's willingness to repeat his mes- sage-over and over again. Active minds find it difficult to repeat, in speech after speech, the conservative goals of lower taxes, less regulation, and smaller government. But when you give the speech for the 100th time, there will be someone in the audience who is hearing it for the first time. Younger voters are always being introduced to the conservative message.

Conservatives are repeating one important error of the 1980s. During the Reagan years, conservative activists often complained that they would win the day if only the president would focus on their issue of concern long enough to make a few phone calls or send out a letter or have a meeting. This, of course, was true. A president can win any small battle in which he engages. But there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of possible problems to solve. We complained about what Reagan or his underlings failed to do for us. Now some conservatives are falling into the same trap, as they complain that we could win issue X if Gingrich or Lott won it for us. Whining about Gingrich or Lott is no substitute for doing the hard work of fighting these battles ourselves.

-- Michael Reagan --

On the day he was inaugurated, my father placed his hand on his mother's well-worn Bible and took the presidential oath of office. His hand rested on 2 Chronicles 7:14: "If My people who are called by My name will humble them- selves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land."

America certainly needed healing that day. We had endured a long national nightmare: the Iranian hostage crisis, double-digit inflation, and entrenched pessimism. Our economy was in ruins. Our hollow military seemed no match for the Soviet power that threatened the globe.

But the next eight years changed all that.

Ronald Reagan had long known what he intended to do in office. In 1976, he wrote a newspaper column, "Tax Cuts and Increased Revenue," that foreshadowed supply-side Reaganomics. …