Political Hay

Why Ryan Terrifies the Left

Reagan, Kemp, and Mark Levin: Natural Rights and a challenge to moral superiority.

By 8.14.12

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Paul Ryan terrifies the American Left.

Which precisely explains the tones of hysteria coming from the Obama White House.

The real question is why the Chicago Thugs have suffered such a public meltdown over Mitt Romney's choice of the young Wisconsin Congressman to be his vice-presidential running mate.

And there is an answer. Three specific answers, actually.

• Ronald Reagan: President Reagan today is an American hero. Poll after poll has Americans placing him in the pantheon of great American presidents, and occasionally at the top of the list.

The admiration for Reagan has become such a part of American historical bedrock that even President Obama and likeminded professional leftists have essentially given up the ghost. When they mention Reagan at all, it is generally to play a sly game of casting Reagan as a moderate, pretending to salute him while taking a shot at some Republican for not being more like Reagan. Obama played this game four times in one speech back in April, effusively praising Reagan while casting Mitt Romney as some sort of wild-eyed extremist. 

No one is fooled.

Ronald Reagan was and remains the Left's worst nightmare.

Why?

Because it was Ronald Reagan who both understood conservative philosophy and was repeatedly turning it into effective policy. It was Reagan who began the massive historical deconstruction of a century's worth of the Left's ideas on everything from economics to national security -- repeatedly proving them as unworkable as they were dangerous. Not to mention that he trounced Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and, through his vice president in 1988, Michael Dukakis. Three consecutive political landslides in which Reagan so changed America that by 1992 Bill Clinton ran as a "New Democrat" -- essentially portraying himself as Reagan-lite.

As the assaults on Romney and Ryan abruptly escalate, it's more than worth a look back to put all of these attacks in perspective. To understand that the visceral nature of the attacks on Mitt Romney and now Paul Ryan is old news -- decades old in fact.

Recall that when Reagan's hand went up to take the oath of office in January 1981, liberal economics had, by the end of 1980, produced:

- An inflation rate of 13.58%

- An unemployment rate of 7.4% that was climbing steadily on the way up to 9.6%

- A prime interest rate of 21.50% -- an all time high.

Reagan's answer to this mess -- as is Paul Ryan's today -- was a combination of tax cuts and budget cuts along with regulatory reform. His critics instantly derided this as "Reaganomics."

And as today with Ryan and his "Path to Prosperity" -- aka "The Ryan Budget" -- the leftists in Congress and the media were merciless in savaging Reagan and his "Reaganomics." 

What did they say?

Steven F. Hayward has detailed the response to Reagan in his superb book (one of two) The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution 1980-1989.

In the lead was Speaker of the House Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, a Massachusetts Democrat who described himself as "an old-hat FDR Democrat." O'Neill made no pretense where he was coming from, saying: "I've been one of the big spenders of all time; it's true, I am a big spender." At one point, says Hayward, O'Neill boasted that he had gone out of his way to spend government money on a project to make dwarfs six inches taller.

O'Neill had no reluctance in showing his disdain for Reagan. He derided the new president as a "matinee idol," deliberately mispronouncing Reagan's name during the campaign as "Reegan." Uneasy at the size of Reagan's 1980 victory, O'Neill decided it was good strategy to give Reagan enough policy rope to hang himself and the GOP politically, believing this would eventually kill Reaganomics dead. Every moment he could find, O'Neill was not only warning that Reaganomics would be a dismal failure -- he frequently attacked the President in sharp personal terms. On one occasion O'Neill took to ABC's Good Morning America to say this to host Charlie Gibson:

"He [Reagan] has no concern, no regard, no care for the little man in America. And I understand that. Because of his lifestyle, he never meets those people. And so, consequently, he doesn't understand their problems. He's only been able to meet the wealthy…. We [liberals] are the party of the people. And we're their guardians."

At a later date O'Neill snapped of Reagan's policies and administration, both of which he consistently predicted would fail:

"Let's face it. This is a callous, right-wing administration, committed to repealing [LBJ's] the Great Society, [JFK's] the New Frontier, [Truman's] the Fair Deal, and [FDR's] the New Deal. It has made a target of the politically weak, the poor, the working people."

Still later O'Neill would declaim of Reagan:

"The evil is in the White House at the present time. And that evil is a man who has no care and no concern for the working class of America and the future generations of America, and who likes to ride a horse. He's cold. He's mean. He's got ice water for blood." 

This, mind you, was par for the course as liberals of the day dealt with Ronald Reagan. As one liberal media critic wrote in the day, the battle was between "FDR versus Darwin" -- almost exactly the lame line being advanced today by Obama and company.

Liberal mayors were apoplectic at the Reagan budget cuts, predicting riots in the streets (there were none). The liberal Governor of New York, Hugh Carey, insisted "there will be social upheaval in the country by October because of the Reagan Administration's budget cuts." Oops. Wrong again.

The ultimate irony -- and since there was no Fox or talk radio in the day, it was an irony unmentioned -- was that O'Neill and his fellow liberals were supported in their visceral anger at Reagan by none other than the Soviet Union. Longtime Soviet spokesman Georgi Arbatov dismissed Reaganomics by saying it was nothing more than an attempt "to cure the entrenched ills of the late 20th century simply by returning to the 'good old practices' of 19th-century capitalism."

Thus the American and the Communist left in the Soviet Union were in perfect synch: Reaganomics was evil, not to mention that it would never work.

And so it went.

All of which explains the absolute fury by liberals as one-by-one, everything they insisted would happen -- never happened. Reagan didn't simply prove them wrong, his policies humiliated their policies. Hard core liberals were furious -- absolutely furious. 

By the time of Reagan's re-election in November of 1984, interest rates were down more than a full 9 points, from 21.50 to 12%. The unemployment rate had peaked at 9.6% and stood at 7.5%. (By the time Reagan left office in 1989 the unemployment rate was down to 5.5%.) And inflation? By 1984 -- Reagan's re-election year -- inflation had dropped like a stone, from 13.58% in 1980 under the liberal Carter's tax-and-spend policies to 4.30% under Reagan.

Reagan took note of a curious silence, saying with a smile: "They don't call it Reaganomics anymore." Which is to say, Reaganomics -- once used by liberals like O'Neill and company as an epithet -- had become synonymous in the mind of Americans with economic success. So -- liberals stopped using the term.

Everything once being said about Ronald Reagan is now being hurled at Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. The reason for the intensity of it all (Romney murdered a guy's wife, Ryan wants to push grandma over the cliff) is that in primal recesses of the liberal mind, liberals look at Romney and Ryan as the return of Reaganomics.

The New York Times yesterday predictably branded Paul Ryan as -- really -- "the most extreme of vice-presidential possibilities." (Glad to know Sarah Palin is now a moderate in the eyes of the Times. Congratulations Governor Palin. You have officially "evolved.")

On November 2, 1980, the New York Times made a point of re-endorsing liberal Jimmy Carter by saying -- really -- that Carter's liberalism "offers better goods."

Better goods.

Which is to say, liberals really don't care if there's high unemployment (as there is now with Obama's 8.3%) hurting Americans. Or, in the case of 1980, if liberalism was producing 21.50% interest rates and 13.58% inflation. Liberals, you see, are all about "caring" -- even if the liberal version of caring in fact translates to a ruthless un-caring that ruins American lives every single day. The primary concern of liberals has for decades appeared to be all about feeling good about themselves -- not helping others.

Which is to say: Reaganomics began the successful dismantling of the failed liberal idea of a government-run command -- socialist if you will -- economy. An economy that was built not on the original American idea of equal opportunity but rather based on government arranging outcomes. An idea that failed miserably by 1980.

Paul Ryan is the very symbol of Reaganomics.

Or, if you will, he is Reagan's heir. The return of the left's worst nightmare -- in which all or most of the classes into which they love to divide America voted overwhelmingly for Reagan and against liberalism's standard bearers Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis. Not to mention launching a Reagan-lite Clinton presidency in a fourth and fifth election in 1992 and 1996. And, when Clinton wasn't Reaganesque enough in his first two years? The Reagan Revolution still had the clout to launch Newt Gingrich's Contract With America revolution in 1994 -- forcing Clinton back to the center.

Which brings us to Paul Ryan's mentor (and, full disclosure, my own boss at the Department of Housing and Urban Development):

• Jack Kemp: Jack Kemp, as was noted in this space back in January of 2009, was arguably the most important man in late 20th century American politics who never became president.

Usually that importance is attributed, understandably, to his role as what one might call the Godfather of Reaganomics. It was Kemp who took the arguments of Art Laffer and the Wall Street Journal's Jude Wanniski, and, using his role as a congressman, persuaded Ronald Reagan into adopting supply-side economics. (Which in fact was not a new idea, having provided the backbone of tax-cut policy for both Republican Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s and Democrat John F. Kennedy in the 1960s.)

Kemp's role here was in fact historic.

But Jack Kemp has one other serious political achievement to his credit aside from being the "Godfather of Reaganomics."

Jack Kemp began doing something that was long overdue: de-compassionating the Left.

Which is to say, as that Tip O'Neill quote about liberals being "the guardians" of working people and the poor illustrated, liberals have long connected the role of government to moral superiority.

Jack Kemp would have none of it. Not for a moment would he yield the moral high ground to socialism much less Marxism.

He never hesitated, for example, to challenge the idea that the American Left somehow had a moral claim to leadership in civil rights. He would remind, as he always called them, "our friends on the Left" that they had been "mired in Reconstruction mentality, (and had been) implicit defenders of white supremacy, the Solid South and the Ku Klux Klan." In a speech at Harvard he looked his liberal audience straight in the eye and said of his pro-growth, pro-capitalism policies that they were a "moral obligation" to our fellow Americans.

A Jack Kemp speech wasn't complete without describing left-wing policies as "paternalistic" or "condescending" or "elitist." "Manic egalitarians" as he once called leftists. He believed passionately in free markets and economic growth as a pillar of a moral society. "You can't enrich poor nations by impoverishing their people," he would say in a 1990 speech to "The Wealth of Nations" Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. Typically direct in addressing both American and international leftists Kemp added:

"The key to wealth and prosperity is allowing people freedom -- freedom to work, to save, freedom to own their own property and homes, to succeed, and yes, to fail, but try again. The ultimate cause of the wealth of nations, and indeed, the wealth of cities, is people." 

It is thus no surprise to hear Paul Ryan confront his critics directly, just as Jack Kemp once did, to look them in the eye and challenge the morality of big government liberalism. In a speech at Georgetown University in April of this year, Ryan took on President Obama exactly in the style of his former boss Kemp. Challenging Obama on what Ryan called the "moral implications" of Obama's policies Ryan noted that:

"He [President Obama] does not seem to understand that he can't promote the common good by setting class against class, or group against group.

Saying as well:

"My mentor, Jack Kemp, used to say, 'you can't help America's poor by making America poor.'"

What Jack Kemp accomplished in his life was to begin what might be called the "de-compassionating of the Left." Stripping the Left naked of its boastful, smug claims to moral superiority. Without doubt, the Left of today understands perfectly well that Paul Ryan is continuing that battle -- which is exactly why the attacks on Ryan have already been so brutal. And will get worse.

Last but not least with Paul Ryan?

• Mark Levin: Since being formally presented as the Romney choice for vice president the other day, Congressman Ryan has been saying something as rare as it is notable. I have put in bold the key phrase:

"But America is more than just a place...it's an idea. It's the only country founded on an idea. Our rights come from nature and God, not government."

Rights that come from nature and God, not government.

This is true, of course. But until fairly recently it's safe to say that there weren't many prominent candidates running around saying it -- and it is certainly true that weren't many Americans thinking about it.

This began to change with the advent of the Tea Party in 2009.

The Tea party and something else that happened in 2009 -- a big something else.

As was noted here in this space in November of 2010 -- which is to say the aftermath of the stunning conservative victory in the fall elections -- Mark Levin's 2009 book Liberty and Tyranny had become "The Book That Changed America."

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann noted that Levin's book had provided "the intellectual foundation" that had "motivated and inspired" Tea Party campaigns across the country. At the time, we posted this March of 2009 video of a crowd in Tyson's Corner, Virginia, standing patiently in a stunningly long line of people waiting to get into a Levin book signing, noting:

IT'S REASONABLE TO ASK after all of this -- why all the fuss over a book that defends the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence? What is it that drives over 1.2 million books to sell like glasses of cold lemonade in the Sahara Desert? What kind of book gets over 2,000 reviews on Amazon, the book rated with five stars by all but a handful of readers? What kind of book sends Americans into the streets waving copies as if they'd uncovered the Holy Grail?...

In a manner that Levin could not possibly have foreseen, his arguments defending individual freedoms and liberty from what Alexis de Tocqueville called "soft tyranny" -- the supremacy of the state suddenly took on a vivid, personal meaning for Americans. As the new Obama administration and its allies on Capitol Hill began rapidly expanding the size and scope of the federal government almost exponentially, jamming a government takeover of health care through a Congress besieged by constituents shouting -- sometimes literally -- not to do this, millions of Americans were provoked from stunned amazement to outrage. On top of a staggering so-called stimulus plan that cost almost $1 trillion plus government takeovers and bailouts of everything from car companies to financial institutions, the realization dawned on many Americans that Levin was right: the long march of collectivism had suddenly turned into a sprint.

Word of Levin's book spread like wildfire.…

His use of a once-forgotten old word quickly made its way into the 21st century American vocabulary. The term "statist" began tripping from angry lips, Levin having used it to characterize the "Modern Liberal." As Americans realized they were going to be forced by the government to buy health care, as they watched the President smoothly -- chillingly -- tell a woman in one televised exchange that the government would have to have "rules" for deciding end-of-life care, Levin's writings that the "Founders understood the greatest threat to liberty is an all-powerful central government" resonated.

Those who had never gotten closer to the Declaration of Independence than a Fourth of July picnic were now gobbling up a book that devoted its opening chapter to the philosophical history behind the first of the two founding documents creating the United States of America. For many it was a first time tutorial in the connection between Natural Law and individual rights. Writing clearly and concisely, Levin had taken care to present the basics of the ideas that had resulted in the country's founding. Philosophers from Adam Smith to Charles Montesquieu, John Locke and Edmund Burke were getting the spotlight treatment along with their thoughts on the free market, separation of powers, natural rights and, specifically, what Levin cited as Burke's "interconnection of liberty, free markets, religion, tradition, and authority."

In other words, Mark Levin had taken the oldest concepts of the founding of the American Republic and, in book form, popularized them in Liberty and Tyranny. Following up again this year with another bestseller, Ameritopia, in which he lasered in on the eternal leftist drive to create a utopia on earth -- or in this case, in America.

Just the other night, NBC's coverage of the Olympics included a special with Tom Brokaw on Britain's "Finest Hour" in the beginning of World War II. In which, Brokaw said (without a trace of irony as to where he might have seen the phrase) of this period that (my bolding):

"England stood alone, when England was all that was left between liberty and tyranny."

The phrase, which Levin took from an obscure 1864 speech of Abraham Lincoln's, is everywhere. Even in an NBC special with Tom Brokaw.

Suddenly, through the combination of Obama's election and Washington's headlong plunge to the left, followed by the rise of the Tea Party, Mark Levin's books were attracting a massive audience.

So when Paul Ryan stands up and gives a speech saying that "Our rights come from nature and God, not government" (as seen here at 14.36 in this video version) and the audience bursts into applause, chanting "USA! USA!" -- it's a safe bet that there is now a wide understanding of just what Ryan is talking about.

An understanding that surely is in some fashion related to the popularity of Levin's books.

Once upon a time a line like that would never have made it into an important speech, much less be repeated from speech to speech as Ryan now appears to be doing. Rule One in giving a speech is that the audience has to understand what the speech-giver is talking about or referencing.

Until the wild-fire success of Liberty and Tyranny, it's safe to say there weren't a lot of Americans quaffing a cold one and discussing natural rights received from God. Now Paul Ryan is electrifying audiences with the phrase. For that, one suspects Mark Levin's books deserve considerable credit.

All of which is to say -- there are reasons the Left is terrified of Paul Ryan.

Three of them.

Paul Ryan understands the ideas behind Reaganomics, the ideas that brought about the Left's worst political nightmare in which they were five times the loser in Reagan or Reagan-lite landslides.

Paul Ryan understands, as did his mentor Jack Kemp, that the Left should never be allowed to claim Big Government or socialism as a bulwark of moral superiority. Instead, like Jack Kemp, Ryan is unabashed about making the moral case for capitalism and economic growth.

Paul Ryan understands exactly what millions of Americans were reading about in Liberty and Tyranny and Ameritopia: that the rights of man are natural rights that come from God, not the government.

All of which means Paul Ryan is indeed the heir to Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp.

No wonder the American Left is terrified.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.