Starting a New Year with Ronald Reagan

On this first day of a new year, I’m not going to say too much. Instead, I’m just going to let Ronald Reagan encourage and challenge you.

I believe standing up for America also means standing up for the God who has so blessed this land. We’ve strayed so far, it may be later than we think. There’s a hunger in our land to see traditional values reflected in public policy again. To those who cite the first amendment as reason for excluding God from more and more of our institutions and everyday life, may I just point out, the first amendment of the Constitution was not written to protect the people of this country from religious values—it was written to protect religious values from government tyranny.

The American people are hungry for your message, because they’re hungry for a spiritual revival in this land. When Americans reach out for values of faith, family, and caring for the needy, they’re saying, “We want the word of God. We want to face the future with the Bible.” …

We’re blessed to have its words of strength, comfort, and truth. I’m accused of being simplistic at times with some of the problems that confront us. But I’ve often wondered: Within the covers of that single Book are all the answers to all the problems that face us today, if we’d only look there. “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, but the word of our God shall stand forever.” …

I pledge to you that America will stand up, speak out, and defend the values we share. To those who would crush religious freedom, our message is plain: You may jail your believers. You may close their churches, confiscate their Bibles, and harass their rabbis and priests, but you will never destroy the love of God and freedom that burns in their hearts. They will triumph over you.

While America’s military strength is important, let me add here that I’ve always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.

Reagan: The Principled & the History Makers

As we close the book on 2010, and as we consider the challenges that loom, some select quotes from Ronald Reagan may help us focus on our responsibilities. There are some quotes from Reagan with which many people are familiar, but I’ve chosen to pull out some that are less well known, yet just as insightful.

Just two months into his presidency, right before the assassination attempt, he spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference dinner:

We’ve heard in our century far too much of the sounds of anguish from those who live under totalitarian rule. We’ve seen too many monuments made not out of marble or stone but out of barbed wire and terror. But from these terrible places have come survivors, witnesses to the triumph of the human spirit over the mystique of state power, prisoners whose spiritual values made them the rulers of their guards. With their survival, they brought us “the secret of the camps,” a lesson for our time and for any age: Evil is powerless if the good are unafraid.

That last line is the key. As we think of the battles ahead, we need to believe that. At a commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the Heritage Foundation, he exhorted his audience that they had to face the reality of the world situation:

We must never be inhibited by those who say telling the truth about the Soviet empire is an act of belligerence on our part. To the contrary, we must continue to remind the world that self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts is folly, that whatever the imperfections of the democratic nations, the struggle now going on in the world is essentially the struggle between freedom and totalitarianism, between what is right and what is wrong. This is not a simplistic or unsophisticated observation. Rather, it’s the beginning of wisdom about the world we live in, the perils we face, and the great opportunity we have in the years ahead to broaden the frontiers of freedom and to build a durable, meaningful peace.

 When laying a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery, Reagan spoke of principles and common sense:

Peace fails when we forget what we stand for. It fails when we forget that our Republic is based on firm principles, principles that have real meaning, that with them, we are the last, best hope of man on Earth; without them, we’re little more than the crust of a continent. Peace also fails when we forget to bring to the bargaining table God’s first intellectual gift to man: common sense. Common sense gives us a realistic knowledge of human beings and how they think, how they live in the world, what motivates them. Common sense tells us that man has magic in him, but also clay. Common sense can tell the difference between right and wrong. Common sense forgives error, but it always recognizes it to be error first.

I added the emphasis at the end.

I’ll conclude today with a pithy, yet valuable, Reagan perspective—one we would do well to remember:

History is no captive of some inevitable force. History is made by men and women of vision and courage.

Let’s go out and make some history in 2011.

Presidential Poll Numbers & Reelection

President Obama’s approval ratings have been below 50% for quite some time now. Depending on which poll you believe, his favorability is somewhere between 42-48%. That certainly looks bad for him at this stage of his presidency.

In an interview with Barbara Walters a few days ago, he said he’s not really in that bad of shape; as proof, he cited how poorly both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were doing two years into their presidencies—both lower than he is currently.

He is correct. There are other factors to take into consideration, however. Let’s start with Bill Clinton.

After experimenting with normalizing homosexuality in the military and concocting a healthcare bill that foreshadowed Obama’s, Clinton’s popularity was definitely in the tank. Neither was he helped by the accusations of scandal that began early in his administration. As a result of these unpopular policies and proven congressional misdeeds, Democrats lost control of Congress just two years into Clinton’s first term. There are shades of Obama’s predicament in what Clinton had to negotiate, although Democrats currently still control the Senate, albeit precariously.

What did Clinton do? He refashioned himself into a centrist. No more social experimentation with the nation’s military and no more radical agenda items. He even famously declared in one of his State of the Union addresses that the era of big government was over. Now, I don’t think he really believed that, but it was politically expedient to say so.

Couple that image makeover with a thoroughly beatable Republican candidate in 1996—Bob Dole—and Clinton was able to win a second term. The scandals continued, of course, and he suffered an impeachment trial, but the public was fat and happy with the economy, the foundations of which he inherited from Ronald Reagan.

What of Reagan’s unpopularity two years after his inauguration? There are distinct differences.

  • First, since Reagan didn’t believe in government pump-priming to create an artificial prosperity, he didn’t push for a huge stimulus bill. He chose the long view of things rather than a quick fix.
  • He successfully shepherded tax cuts through a Congress where the Democrats continued to control the House, showing his ability to work with the other side and win key Democrats over to his policies.
  • His budget, with tax cuts as part of it, didn’t even begin until October of his first year. Consequently, it would take a while for them to go into effect and spread through the economy.
  • The public may not have liked waiting [the source of popular discontent] but they at least saw a viable plan being put into operation. They could wait for results. With Obama, results were promised immediately, only to fall flat.
  • The last two years of Reagan’s first term saw a distinct rise in the economy that showed the wisdom of his approach. He won reelection on the heels of an America that was on its way back to prosperity after the nightmare of the Nixon-Ford-Carter years.

Why does all this matter? I don’t think Obama has it in him to emulate Clinton. He’s an ideologue who genuinely believes in his “solutions,” false as they are. He will not bend. The consensus from economists is that we can expect high unemployment through the next two years. If the economy hasn’t shown any serious life by then, he will be in far deeper trouble than Clinton had to face in 1996.

Neither is he a Reagan. Again, his ideology blinds him to real solutions. Even as things get worse, he paints a rosy picture. Anyone remember “Recovery Summer”? Maybe you just missed it; you weren’t paying attention. Right.

Reagan not only cut taxes but he also directed his administration to reduce federal regulations. Obama’s vision is the polar opposite. Reagan saw a recovery that lasted throughout his final six years in office. That’s not going to happen in our day without a significant shift in policy. Republicans can’t make that happen by having the majority in the House only. Even if they controlled the Senate, it would not be by a large enough margin to override presidential vetoes of bills they pass.

In other words, unless Obama changes drastically, don’t expect any uptick in America’s economy. Unless he deals correctly with the mounting debt [i.e., spending cuts], things will only get worse. If we go into hyperinflation, which many economists predict, expect a voting public that’s even more upset with the state of affairs than in 2010.

If all this occurs as predicted, expect Obama to be a one-term president.

Reagan Nostalgia

I’ve spent some time in this blog this week examining the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. My presumption is that it’s going to be one of the three who currently poll best—Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, or Mike Huckabee.

Now, someone else may sneak up on them, whether it’s Newt Gingrich, Mitch Daniels, or an entirely surprising name that no one is considering right now. But it’s not likely. Whoever it is, though, had better be principled and focused. It is never a simple task to unseat a sitting president even in bad times. The Jimmy Carter years were horrendous, yet until the week before the election in 1980, many polls still showed Reagan running behind him. The overwhelming Reagan victory in that election masks the tremendous effort it took to overcome the inertia of the American voter.

Most Republicans look back fondly on the Reagan years. In 2008, when one of the Republican primary debates was held at the Reagan Library, this cartoon appeared:

In the view of the cartoonist, none of the aspirants could match the Reagan legacy. Another one commented on the wistfulness expressed by some conservatives:

I am a great admirer of Ronald Reagan. I’ve just completed a book manuscript that I hope to get published in which Reagan is one of the two men I examine in detail. I also teach a course on Reagan and the modern conservative movement. Yet no matter how much I appreciate what he did, I refuse to live in the past. I believe other leaders exist who are prepared to provide principled leadership at this time. We just need to recognize them and allow them to fulfill the destiny for which they have been groomed.

Don’t give in to cynicism. Give God the opportunity to save a people who often don’t even know they are in need of saving.

The Reagan-Palin Connection

I have a second posting for you today [don’t miss the other one down below this one]. It’s on Big Government. I see a similarity in the way Ronald Reagan was treated with what Sarah Palin is currently experiencing. You can go directly to it at:

A Reagan Reflection On the Future of America

I’m a historian, so I have the developed habit of looking back as I contemplate the future. I look back for instances when leaders stood on principle and hope we will have such leaders as we go forward as a nation. Many of us are rightly distressed over the current state of affairs, but I would like to offer a few words of encouragement.

When Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981, the country was a mess economically, militarily, and in foreign affairs. The task before him seemed, to many, impossible to manage. Yet it was not. In his farewell address to the nation in 1989, Reagan surveyed his eight years in office and had some profound thoughts to share. I’d like to remind us of what he said at that time. The following are excerpts from that address. Take them to heart.

Well, back in 1980, when I was running for President, it was all so different. Some pundits said our programs would result in catastrophe. Our views on foreign affairs would cause war. Our plans for the economy would cause inflation to soar and bring about economic collapse. I even remember one highly respected economist saying, back in 1982, that “The engines of economic growth have shut down here, and they’re likely to stay that way for years to come.” Well, he and the other opinion leaders were wrong. The fact is, what they called “radical” was really “right.” What they called “dangerous” was just “desperately needed.”

 And in all of that time I won a nickname, “The Great Communicator.” But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: it was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation — from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries. They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I’ll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense. …

Ours was the first revolution in the history of mankind that truly reversed the course of government, and with three little words: “We the People.” “We the People” tell the government what to do; it doesn’t tell us. “We the People” are the driver; the government is the car. And we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast. Almost all the world’s constitutions are documents in which governments tell the people what their privileges are. Our Constitution is a document in which “We the People” tell the government what it is allowed to do. “We the People” are free. This belief has been the underlying basis for everything I’ve tried to do these past 8 years. …

Finally, there is a great tradition of warnings in Presidential farewells, and I’ve got one that’s been on my mind for some time. But oddly enough it starts with one of the things I’m proudest of in the past 8 years: the resurgence of national pride that I called the new patriotism. This national feeling is good, but it won’t count for much, and it won’t last unless it’s grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.

 An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world?

There are some inspiring words in that address: the “great rediscovery”  and the paragraph about the limits of government stand out. I also like the warning at the end. Patriotism is not a feeling; it is a thoughtful and knowledgeable commitment. Are we informed patriots or just angry citizens? There is a difference. And what do our children know about the real history of America? What are we doing to ensure they have a balanced perspective?

We are not yet doomed. God can raise up leaders who will put principle over pragmatism. We need to pray for them and support them in every way we can.

Reagan's Political Conversion

What happened to change Ronald Reagan from a New Deal liberal into a conservative icon? My latest posting on Big Government tells you how it happened. They made it the feature story for the day. You can find it here:

Most of the posting is an excerpt from my book on Reagan and Whittaker Chambers, which I just finished writing  recently. I’m looking for a publisher now. Prayer would be appreciated.