Remembering Mr. Reagan

by Glenn on July 31, 2016

I miss Ronald Reagan. For a project earlier this year I had occasion to visit a couple of his most famous speeches, his 1964 speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater and his First Inaugural Address.

In his October 27, 1964 address, sometimes called “A Time for Choosing,” other times know as “The Speech,” Mr. Reagan said,

“This is the issue of this election: whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”

No one running for President this year talks like that. Today, both candidates/parties simply declare different versions of what the Federal government will do for (which sometimes means to) us.

Also in The Speech was humor of the good-natured variety:

“No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. So, governments’ programs, once launched, never disappear.
“Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”

Mr. Reagan was able to frame issues so well, which you could hear in his call to action at the end:

“You and I have a rendezvous with destiny.
“We’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we’ll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”

The speech is well worth watching, and while it did not accomplish its goal of getting Barry Goldwater elected President, it brought Mr. Reagan into greater prominence.

Among the things I appreciate about Mr. Reagan was that over the more than sixteen years between that speech and his first inaugural address, he seemed to stay pretty consistent with his political philosophy. His positions didn’t really change. He simply took time to persuade more people to look at things the way he did (although the country’s circumstances—slow economy, high inflation—during the Jimmy Carter Administration certainly helped Mr. Reagan in his election bid),

In Mr. Reagan’s First Inaugural Address, he said this,

“You and I, as individuals, can, by borrowing, live beyond our means, but for only a limited period of time. Why, then, should we think that collectively, as a nation, we’re not bound by that same limitation? We must act today in order to preserve tomorrow. And let there be no misunderstanding: We are going to begin to act, beginning today.

“The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we as Americans have the capacity now, as we’ve had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom.

“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price. “

Common themes run through the two speeches:

Tax burdens are too high.
The national debt is too large.
The American experiment is worth protecting.
The federal government is more wasteful and inefficient than the private sector.
Human freedom is the goal of good government.

Sadly, Mr. Reagan grew the national debt (it more than doubled, from $1 trillion when he took office to $2.3 trillion when he left), although in my mind he gets something of a pass because at least he spent the Soviet Empire into oblivion, which meant we had something to show for it. Because tax revenues grew so much during Mr. Reagan’s two terms, if Congress had simply held spending, they would have balanced the budget.

If the Reagan administration failed to live up to its ideals, at least it had ideals.

This doubling of the national debt can’t go on as Mr. Reagan as well as our current (Barack Obama) and former (George W. Bush) presidents each have done. It feels like we are running to the edge of a cliff and need to stop before the point of no return (unless it’s already behind us).

Is this the end of the Republic?

At what point do we become a version of Greece, albeit with the most powerful military on the planet?

If you are concerned about the size of the federal government and the national debt, to which party do you turn?

It seems to me that politics is often about direction. There is no perfect political system or political leader. And dispensing with government altogether is not the goal.

But while we’re all dependent on government in various ways (security, for example), the sheer percentage of people who are dependent on government for day-to-day expenses, from retirement, medical care, regular salary, or welfare, is staggering.

You have to ask yourself at this point, what is the value of working in the private sector when government benefits are so much better?

And so I say I miss Ronald Reagan. Or, maybe it’s his time, when we could still have this debate before so many more in our country had come to depend on the federal government for their subsistence.

Mr. Reagan had a coherent agenda. You might or might not have agreed with him, but it felt like he had a genuine desire to persuade, rather than pander or frighten.

 *  *  *

I don’t recall an election in my lifetime where the presidential voting options feel so bleak. Most people I know are voting against one or the other candidate rather than voting for their man or woman. My circle tends to be more conservative, and for them this election has included a real coming to terms with reality—sort of a political equivalent to the stages of grief, ending in acceptance or, at least, resignation. Donald Trump is the Republican nominee. I’d add “for better or worse,” but mostly it feels like worse at this point.

Some Republicans cannot come to terms with Mr. Trump as the candidate. They say, “Never Trump.” George Will has even left the Republican Party, although that makes me ask, “What took you so long?” More on that in a moment.

Unfortunately, to say you don’t accept Mr. Trump means you want Hillary Clinton to be the President since a third party alternative isn’t viable at this point.

Do I want Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton to be the President? It’s the crazy man or the criminal. One is unqualified; the other should be disqualified.

The one, you never know what he’s going to say (as someone put it, he’s always one sentence from catastrophe), but odds are good it will be offensive and if you call him on it, then he doubles and triples down.

The other seems incapable of telling the truth and should probably be behind bars or at least banned from further so-called government “service.” (Near as I can tell, her life in politics has yielded quite substantial payment.)

Both candidates are infuriating.

Mr. Trump is the “chaos candidate.” In a world gone mad, is unpredictability a good quality in a presidential candidate? He doesn’t seem ready to govern a nation (where Mrs. Clinton appears all too ready) but perhaps there is capacity there for growing into the job.

Mrs. Clinton is packaged as sensible and steady, but with respect to her and people who are attracted to her candidacy, I believe she is the most compromised and beholden candidate I’ve ever seen in a presidential election.

It’s seriously difficult to imagine either candidate in the Oval Office. But just as soon as you think, “Donald Trump should not be President,” then you are left with the unthinkable idea of Mrs. Clinton as President.

It goes the other way, too: “Mrs. Clinton should not be President!” But, we can’t have a brand governing our country.

I don’t think I’m alone. And because of this, I detect a palpable sadness in most of the people I talk to about this coming election.

*   *   *

During the presidency of George W. Bush, my wife and I changed our party affiliation from Republican to “Unaffiliated with any party.” As a Christian I had struggled with the fact that not only were there “Red” and “Blue” states in our country, it seemed like there were Red and Blue churches. I didn’t like identifying with only half the church.

And I didn’t think it was biblical to say that one party was more Christian than another. (Here I am referring to the historic Democrat Party. If there was a Democrat candidate for president—or, this year, either candidate for President—saying things like,

“My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,”

I would have a hard time not resonating.)

Further, I became disillusioned by the George W. Bush presidency. While 9/11 was devastating, our country’s response to it was equally so. 2,996 people died tragically on 9/11. But, more than 5,000 U.S. soldiers have died in our subsequent war on terror. We’ve lost more people avenging a loss than had been lost. And we’re still at war over 13 years later. When you remember that President Bush’s father famously refused to invade Iraq in the first Gulf War, you couldn’t help but wish his son had that kind of prescience and prudence (or had listened to people like Brent Scowcroft  who advised against invading Iraq).

Domestically, Mr. Bush introduced the idea of “compassionate conservatism,” which included significant growth in Medicare spending. That’s not necessarily bad. But not figuring out a way to pay for it is inexcusable. So that when we talk about our country’s national debt (Nearly $19 and a half trillion and counting) it’s deceptive, because there is this whole world of “unfunded mandates,” promises made (at every level of government) that will be tough to keep.

On Thursday, 2 February 2008, I wrote a letter to the Bend Bulletin (we were Central Oregon residents at the time) and said this:

“These are rough days to be a Republican. The party for smaller government and fiscal discipline today enjoys executive and legislative control and has this record: a more than $600 billion year-over-year increase in the budget deficit, $8.2 trillion in debt, and huge unfunded mandates in Social Security and Medicare. A once-in-a-generation opportunity to demonstrate Republican principles has us disillusioned.

“We are just 20 years from a budget where, according to White House projections, 85 percent of outlays will be spent on retirement, defense, and interest. This won’t be “morning in America.”

“In 1994 the Republican Contract With America promised ‘…to restore fiscal responsibility to an out-of-control Congress, requiring them to live under the same budget constraints as families and businesses.’

“Broken promises are the ultimate political cliché, but I have economic concerns and, with the coming midterm and next presidential elections, honestly don’t know which party to vote for. Choosing more of the same is insane, but to vote Democrat has always been untenable for me. It seems the most conservative vote in the coming elections may be for political gridlock. After all, it was a Democrat president fighting a Republican Congress that created a balanced budget in the 1990’s.

“It’s sad to think that we can’t vote for principles because of our unprincipled leaders.”

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It was around this time that we left the Republican party.

Today, I feel the same.

Is there a Ronald Reagan in our future? Is there still time for “a time for choosing”? Or are we all too compromised at this point?