A Most Misunderstood Man

By Ed Hubbard, Contributor to US Daily Review.

Over the years I have come to the conclusion that many of our political and social problems here in the U.S. and in Europe stem from the fact that over the last 250 years we have misunderstood, misinterpreted and misapplied the teachings of Adam Smith and Charles Darwin.  These failings apply equally over the centuries to those who have purported to be their followers as well as to their critics.  Moreover, these failings intertwined to fuel diabolical military, political and social misadventures that cursed the world from the 1930s and through the 1960s.

But this is not a post about either of these men or their teachings.  It is about a third man—a man of the 20th Century—who, unfortunately, now is arguably among the most misunderstood of recent history:  Ronald Reagan.  As we head into a political season when his real ideas are needed as much as, if not more than ever, we need to address and correct the misunderstandings, misinterpretations and misapplications by both his followers and his critics, or else we could end up making matters far worse in the long run than they are today.

Let me start by saying that I don’t pretend to be a “Reagan Scholar”.  On occasion over the years, I have shared with others the fact that I was lucky to have interacted with Reagan when I was young on a handful of occasions when I was between the ages of 10 and 17, and it was based on the last of those interactions that I became a steadfast follower of his ideas—and have remained such a follower ever since.  Although I may at some point elaborate on those experiences, what I am going to say now has nothing to do with them.  Instead, my observations come from years of following what the man actually wrote, said and did over many decades.

I want to start with the biggest misunderstanding that has permeated our memory of Reagan—the idea that his leadership was primarily a product of his unique speaking skills.  Though this fallacy is embraced almost universally, it is the driving interpretation of Reagan from the left.  They never saw Reagan as a man of substance, but rather as a “pied piper” who led through the hypnosis of his speaking skills and cue cards (that were written by others).  As a character in John Ford’s famous movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance said, “once the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  For decades now, the idea that Reagan was simply “the Great Communicator” has become part of our social legend.

Reagan, himself, tried to dispel the myth in his Farewell Address in 1989, when he said that he was not a great communicator because of how he spoke, but because of the ideas he tried to convey.  You see, Reagan had an understanding of himself and his purpose that few have ever comprehended.

The Democrats surely never have.  After the Dukakis debacle in 1988, they went looking for “great communicators” and found a young, Southern Governor, with a folksy charm and an Ivy League degree, who could talk for hours about anything and say nothing; and in 2008, found an urbane young man who effectively used a teleprompter and vague, overwrought rhetoric to make his leftist ideas seem mainstream.  Essentially, Democrats to this day believe Reagan simply fooled the American people into following Republicans, and they’ve chosen their leaders based on their ability to fool enough people to follow Democrats long enough to win an election.  In the meantime, we on the right continue to feed the legend by referring to Reagan as “the Great Communicator,” forgetting the derisive origin of that label, and thereby unwittingly continuing to marginalize the real strength of the man’s intellect.

Recently, through the publication of more of Reagan’s papers and of his diaries, the public is finally getting a glimpse—but still only a glimpse—of a man who may have had one of the greatest minds for political philosophy in the last half of the 20th Century.  After receiving a liberal arts education fromEurekaCollege, and after becoming a leader in the labor movement inCalifornia after World War II, Reagan began re-thinking all of his political assumptions and absorbed historical and political writings like a sponge.  Due to his unique schedule as an actor and labor leader, Reagan had plenty of time to study and reflect during the 1940s and 1950s.  Then his chance to continue his study increased with a purpose, when he was engaged by General Electric to be its national spokesman.

By the early 1960s, Reagan had transformed himself intellectually into a force of nature.  In one of his last books, The Reagan I Knew, William F. Buckley, Jr., describes this Reagan whom the public never knew.  When Reagan burst into the country’s political consciousness with his famous televised speech for the Goldwater campaign in 1964, they saw not a man reading cue cards, but a formidable political intellectual, who wrote his own speech, and who spoke with a purpose using the skills honed over a decade of public speaking for General Electric.  It is that politician who won two landslide victories for Governor of California over the best candidates the Democratic Party had in that state; who nearly stole the 1968 Republican Convention from Nixon; who came within an eyelash of beating the incumbent for the 1976 Republican nomination; who, from 1977 to 1980, started to change the Republican Party with a new vision; who, then, changed the political and economic trajectory of this country; and who, with the help of Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, changed the world.

This Reagan believed that economic conservatives who had traditionally supported the Republican Party, and social conservatives who had traditionally supported the Democratic Party, could be molded into a “new” Republican Party, and he worked to create that new party after his loss in 1976.  Unfortunately, this new party has never fully formed.  Almost from the instant of his great landslide re-election victory in 1984, factions formed within his party, which continue to this day.  Although these factions have formed coalitions long enough to win three national elections since 1988, as well as to elect Republican Congresses through much of the last 20 years, they still have not formed the molded party of Reagan’s vision.  This failure is the primary reason why Democrats remain viable as a political party, which has led to such disastrous policies since 2006.

The primary reason these factions within the GOP remain divided is that we conservatives still don’t embrace the real vision Reagan had for this party, and our field of Presidential candidates reflects this fundamental problem.  Without going down the list of candidates and their misinterpretations of Reagan, let me just present a short list of examples of misunderstandings:

  • Reagan’s whole view started with the individual, families and communities.  He believed the genius ofAmerica arose from individuals, engaging in work in a free market, and engaging in self-governance through families, private organizations, churches, and local governments.  Regulations, and government in general, should be focused on protecting those activities.
  • Reagan did not believe in small and weak government.  Instead, he believed in strong governments at each level whose powers were limited to specific responsibilities, and that we had delegated too much responsibility to the federal government.  Responsibility and tax dollars needed to be returned to individuals, local governments and state governments (in that order) who were closer to the problems that needed to be addressed.
  • Reagan did not view the reduction or elimination of taxes as a social and economic good in and of itself, but by the late 1970s reduction of taxes had become an economic and political imperative.  There is no question that Reagan believed that individuals had the right to keep the fruits of their labor—it was their money that they had earned, and the government had no entitlement to it.  He also relied on evidence from the Coolidge and Kennedy administrations that showed that lowering taxes often, if not always, had the effect of raising tax revenue because it increased economic activity.  However, he also believed that taxes were needed to fund the legitimate activities of government at each level.  The job of each level of government was to determine its legitimate needs based on its legitimate responsibilities and limits, and then raise enough revenue to pay for them.  Ultimately, you can not understand Reagan’s views about taxes without understanding his belief in the limitations of the federal government.  He often said during his race in 1976 that the tax base diverted to the federal government should be returned to the local and state governments, so that the dollars could be more effectively directed and spent where the local needs were.  Over time, if such dollars were raised and spent locally, government would be more efficient and would cost less, so fewer tax dollars would need to be raised from each individual.
  • One of the powers legitimately delegated to the federal government was national defense, and he believed in maintaining peace by maintaining a strong military.
  • Reagan believed that much of our inherent strength came from our commitment to liberty at home, and that our most important diplomatic duty was to keep America as a beacon of liberty—as an example to others—and to defeat the biggest threat to liberty at that time—communism.  He did not believe that every dispute in the world required American intervention; but most disputes at that time affected, or were affected by, the Cold War with theSoviet Union, so he believed in an active engagement in world affairs.  His invasion of Grenada and his aid to rebels in Central America were messages to the Soviets and the Cubans, and his aid to Afghan rebels was part of his effort to defeat Soviet expansion.  Even Reagan’s famed bombing of Ghadafi’s compound inLibyawas a defensive action in response to an attack on American troops in Germany, and sent a message to the Soviets that any attack on our troops would be met with an armed response.  However, he showed restraint and prudence when the Soviets shot down a Korean airliner with American passengers, when the Soviets tried to thwart Polish independence, and when our Marines were killed in Lebanon.  He handled problems with our allies, including the peaceful transition of power in South Korea and the transition from apartheid in South Africathrough diplomacy rather than confrontation.  In the end, the accomplishments he set in motion were remarkable:  the Soviets abandoned Afghanistan; the Soviet Union collapsed, Eastern Europe was freed, and the Cold War ended; South Korea transitioned to a democratic government and a free-market powerhouse; South Africa ended apartheid; and Nicaragua and El Salvador elected democratic governments.
  • Reagan believed that the desire of people to come here, even illegally, was a sign of the strength of our beacon of liberty, not something to be feared.  Although we can now see that the immigration law of the late 1980s and the grant of amnesty at the time, were wrong, they were part of a sensible approach to a problem from that vantage point, and recognized that it was our freedom—our ultimate strength—that attracted these people to become our neighbors, and that we should never abandon our strength out of fear.
  • Reagan believed thatAmerica’s future would be strengthened through stronger ties with Mexico and Canada, and ultimately, with all of Central America.  I don’t know how long he had held this idea, but by the time he opposed the Panama Canal Treaty, he was advocating a strong economic and political alliance with Mexico and Canada.  His efforts ultimately were negotiated over his and G.H.W. Bush’s terms, and became the NAFTA treaty.
  • Reagan was committed politically to the preservation ofIsrael, but also to building a balance of power in the Middle East in which Israel could live without fear and which would deter the Soviets from becoming re-involved in the region.  I do not recall Reagan ever promoting our relationship withIsraelpurely because of its biblical importance, though I am sure one can find a sentence here or there where Israel’s place in our Judeo-Christian heritage would have been noted.  In fact, such rhetoric would have inflamed tensions in that region and thwarted his goal of building a balance of power in the region.  Reagan would have never abandoned Israel, but, as evidenced by his removal of troops from Lebanon, he did not believe our military presence necessarily made Israel safer.
  • Reagan was a man of deep faith, and his faith combined with his knowledge of history and his political philosophy provided the foundation for his vision for the Republican Party and the country.  Reagan spoke openly of his faith, the importance of faith to this nation, and the need for people of faith to be engaged in the “new” Republican Party.  But, frankly, I think Reagan would have been perplexed by the level of engagement in the organizational structure of the Republican Party by agents of certain congregations and faiths, and by the exclusivity they have sometimes employed as criteria for participating in the GOP.  Reagan always was clear that his was a political movement, not an ecclesiastical or ideological movement, and his blueprint for the new party he envisioned required inclusiveness, not exclusiveness.

Reagan was, at heart, a reformer, and he had a vision for reforming the GOP and this country.  Although the times have changed (e.g., there is no Soviet Union or Cold War, and the level of taxation is nowhere near what it was in the 1970s), and we have learned from mistakes during the years Reagan was President (e.g., amnesty is an inappropriate policy for addressing illegal immigration), I still adhere to Reagan’s vision for our party and our country:

  • an inclusive view of conservatism that is based on the fundamental strength of character of individuals who recognize that liberty is comprised of both freedom and responsibility;
  • the centrality of those individuals, their families, and their neighborhoods to the economic, political and social sustenance of the nation;
  • the need for most social services to be provided by private organizations, churches and local governments;
  • the preservation of strong, but limited governments at each level of government, with the revenue needed to meet their respective responsibilities;
  • the preservation of our active role in the world as a beacon for liberty;
  • the creation of a strong and lasting relationship with our closest neighbors, and their citizens, based on the strength of our liberty, and not on our fears; and
  • the maintenance of a strong military here and abroad to maintain peace.

I hope over the next few months that the spirit of this vision will finally bring the GOP together as the “new” Republican Party that Reagan envisioned.

Ed Hubbard is an appellate lawyer and a former candidate for office from Houston, TX.  Ed has a blog and you can follow Ed on twitter, @EdHubbard.

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All opinions expressed on USDR are those of the author and not necessarily those of US Daily Review.

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