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11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative

Paul Kengor writes a classic.

By 4.17.14

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The 2014 election season dawns, with 2016 closing close behind that.

Make book that before both are over, the most quoted or cited person in Republican campaigns — and not infrequently in Democrat campaigns as well — will be Ronald Reagan.

There is a reason for this, as Reagan biographer — and American Spectator contributor — Paul Kengor notes in his newest Reagan book 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative. In addition to being a prolific Reagan scholar, Kengor is a professor of political science at Grove City College and the executive director of the college’s Center for Vision & Values.

Why is this book important — a classic — particularly as the next two elections loom?

While Reagan’s name is invoked constantly, all too frequently it is done for show or with misinformation that tries to lead an audience to believe Reagan believed something that in fact he did not. Making of America’s most famous conviction politician an all-purpose believer in everything and nothing simultaneously. Kengor has performed an enormously useful task here by setting out the core tenets of those who call themselves Reagan conservatives. (And yes, I would be one.) To add extra weight to the volume, there is a foreword by Reagan’s longtime friend, policy adviser and U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III.

Here are the eleven Reagan principles.

• Freedom
• Faith
• Family
• Sanctity and Dignity of Human Life
• American Exceptionalism
• The Founders’ Wisdom and Vision
• Lower Taxes
• Limited Government
• Peace Through Strength
• Anti-Communism
• Belief in the Individual

Kengor opens with this Reagan quote from 1977 that gets to the heart of the matter: 

The principles of conservatism are sound because they are based on what men and women have discovered through experience in not just one generation or a dozen, but in all the combined experience of mankind…I have seen the conservative future and it works…Our task is not to sell a philosophy, but to make the majority of Americans, who already share that philosophy, see that modern conservatism offers them a political home.

There is no accident that, as Kengor documents, “Reagan’s presidential success is all the more notable when juxtaposed with the presidential careers of his contemporaries.” Beginning with the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson and continuing right up until today’s Barack Obama, Reagan stands alone in his popularity, electoral and substantive success. Kengor writes that LBJ

was destroyed by Vietnam and decided not to pursue reelection.… Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace…. the uninspiring Gerald Ford was unable to win a single election… Jimmy Carter was resoundingly rejected…(and) after Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president and White House successor, won only one term. He was defeated by Bill Clinton, who won two terms but never with more than 50 percent of the vote, and was impeached. Following Clinton was George W. Bush, who, though likewise winning two terms, had a very difficult presidency…. A December 2006 Gallup poll found that Americans considered George W. Bush the most unsuccessful of modern presidents, with an approval rating lower than Carter and Nixon. Bush registered the highest disapproval of any president since Truman…. And though Barack Obama won two terms, he was the first president in history to be reelected with fewer popular and Electoral College votes than he received in 2008. Obama won a bare majority of states in 2012 — only twenty-six of them. And should we even mention counties? The county map under Reagan was a sea of red, and it remained a sea of red still under Obama.

In fact, as Kengor notes, the National Geographic commissioned a poll shortly after Obama’s second inaugural asking Americans who they would vote for in an election between Reagan and Obama. “Reagan won in a landslide, taking 58 percent of the vote, an even higher total than his trouncing of Jimmy Carter in 1980. Remarkably, Reagan even defeated Obama among voters aged eighteen to thirty-four, the powerful youth segment that swept Obama into the White House.”

All of this has combined to make Reagan the “gold standard” for GOP candidates.

Let’s take a look at a few of the Reagan principles.

Principle One is freedom. Reagan would discuss this principle over and over and over again through the years. The immediate topic could be taxes or regulation or education, energy, religion, entrepreneurship or communism and any number of other subjects. Reagan would always bring the conversation back to freedom. He saw freedom as not simply a God-given right but elemental to the success of individual Americans and America itself. “Is man born to be free, or (a) slave?” he once asked. Conservatives needed to be, in Reagan’s words, “keepers of the flame of liberty”, with the central focus of conservatism being to conserve freedom, to profess freedom, to fight for freedom. It is the central, underlying tenet of Reagan conservatism.

One of Ronald Reagan’s most distinguishing characteristics was his boundless optimism, an optimism that Kengor ascribes to Reagan Conservative Principle Two: Faith. All the way back in 1950 — thirty years before his first election as president — Kengor informs that Reagan wrote an article for a Hollywood magazine titled “My Faith” A piece Reagan ended with the line from a poem: “God’s in His Heaven/All’s right with the world.” It was an optimism that he drew directly from his belief in God and lay at the base of Reagan’s belief that America could win the Cold War outright. Something Kengor correctly notes Reagan’s critics in the day thought “crazy-impossible.”

Reagan Principle Eight was Limited Government. And importantly it needs to be noted that contrary to the image his opponents always tried to paint, Reagan was not anti-government. As the new president said in his first inaugural, “it’s not my intention to do away with government.” Reagan was “anti-big government.” Which is to say, he opposed “unnecessary government, intrusive government, overly burdensome government, ‘nanny state’ cradle-to-grave government, ever-expanding and encroaching government, unlimited government.” One can only imagine Reagan’s reaction today to the IRS scandal much less Obamacare or Common Core.

Principle Nine is “Peace Through Strength.” While Kengor doesn’t mention it, this Reagan belief is one of the oldest and well-grounded in history. Indeed, in his famous multi-volume The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Edward Gibbon writes of the Romans: “They preserved peace by a constant preparation for war.” Reagan phrased exactly this belief this way in his 1981 inaugural: “We will maintain sufficient strength to prevail if need be, knowing that if we do so we have the best chance of never having to use that strength.” Later that year, in a speech at Yorktown that celebrated the Bicentennial Observance of George Washington’s Revolutionary War-ending victory over the British, Reagan said that “military inferiority does not avoid a conflict, it only invites one and then ensures defeat.…We’re rebuilding our defense so that our sons and daughters never need to be sent to war.” It is, in fact, this belief that enabled Reagan, in Margaret Thatcher’s famous words, to win the Cold War “without firing a shot.”

There’s more here in Kengor’s book, much more. He notes in the chapter on lower taxes that liberals love to claim Reagan “increased taxes.” Reagan agreed to excise tax increases in 1982 - in return for a 3-to-1 ratio of spending cuts which never materialized as promised by Democrats (Reagan never forgot that lesson). He compromised on the Social Security payroll tax in 1983 to save Social Security and there were some smaller tax increases in 1984 and 1987. But Reagan never — ever — compromised on income taxes. Kengor quotes Reagan biographer Steve Hayward; Reagan “never budged an inch on marginal income tax rates.” Kengor adds — correctly — Reagan understood that not all taxes, or tax increases, are equal.” The Reagan income tax cuts were the largest in American history — and they were a huge success. While liberals won’t discuss it — and it is particularly relevant today when one looks at the high unemployment rate in the black community — blacks, Latinos, and women “did extremely well during the Reagan years” — and Kengor provides the stats. Another issue liberals won’t talk about? Reagan was pilloried for homelessness in the 1980s. But “by comparison, the number of homeless under Barack Obama by his fourth year was double the number under Reagan.”

Kengor spends serious time on Principle Five — American Exceptionalism. Said Reagan:

[The idea of America] is nothing but the inherent love of freedom in each one of us, and the great ideological struggle that we find ourselves engaged in today is not a new struggle. It’s the same old battle. We met it under the name of Hitlerism; we met it under the name of Kaiserism; and we have met it back through the ages in the name of every conqueror that has ever set upon a course of establishing his rule over mankind. It is simply the idea, the basis of this country and of our religion, the idea of the dignity of man, the idea that deep within the heart of each of us is something so God-like and precious that no individual or group has a right to impose his or its will upon the people so well as they can decide for themselves.

What makes this an important book is Kengor’s crystallizing of Reagan conservatism, a decidedly important contribution as the election season gets underway in earnest.

Reagan once borrowed Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography (Stewart said that he knew it when he saw it) and applied it to conservatism. Said the President in a Heritage Foundation speech:

During the years when I was out on the mashed potato circuit (i.e., a popular dinner speaker) I was sometimes asked to define conservatism, and I must confess that while I have the cream of the conservative intellectual movement before me, I’m tempted to use Justice Potter Stewart’s definition. He gave it for another subject, by the way. He said he couldn’t define it exactly, but “I know it when I see it.”

So too do Reaganites today believe the same. Which accounts, one suspects, for everything from the boos drawn at the mention of the absent Jeb Bush’s name at a recent New Hampshire forum for potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates to the failure of Mike Huckabee’s radio show to the failure of the GOP base to turn out for Mitt Romney in 2012.

Reagan conservatives have Reagan’s instinctive feel for who is a conservative — and who is not.

Jeb Bush, of course, is the son of Reagan’s vice president — George H.W. Bush who, Kengor notes, lost his re-election in 1992 to Bill Clinton. This happened after Bush 41 raised income taxes — breaking with Reagan’s conservatism on the subject. Jeb is also the brother of George W., who, as Kengor notes, departed office in the depths of a spectacular unpopularity. We would note here that this unpopularity came after an administration in which, among other things, Bush opposed the Reagan conservative views on limited government. For example, as we have also noted several times, Bush set about pumping up the federal role in education with No Child Left Behind, while Reagan tried to eliminate the Department of Education. Two vastly different views on Reagan conservative principles on limited government and freedom when it comes to education. Today, Jeb Bush is out there pushing Common Core, upping the ante for the federal role in education even more than his brother. Reagan conservatives look at Jeb Bush and see, quite predictably, the anti-Reagan.

Mike Huckabee’s brief foray into radio was launched with repeated attacks on radio’s famously Reagan conservative host Rush Limbaugh. Huckabee was promoted by the Cumulus-owning Dickey brothers as the “conservative talk radio host of the future” and the “safe, non-dangerous alternative to Rush.” Which is to say, this was a pitch incongruously telling Reagan conservatives that Huckabee was out to ditch — Reagan conservatives. As noted in this space at the time: 

Have the Dickeys no understanding that sending the signal to America's conservatives that they are plotting to substitute someone who is seen by the conservative talk radio base as just another dime-a-dozen Republican moderate ex-governor for… yes indeed… Mr. Conservative Talk Radio Himself… is a sure-fire way to send conservatives fleeing this peculiar Cumulus venture before it even gets off the ground?

Well, the answer was no. So on — and eventually off — went the Huckabee show. Whatever other reasons there may have been for this venture, it was and is abundantly clear that the potential audience of Reagan conservatives was not understood. For Huckabee to market himself in this fashion may well catch up to him again if in fact he makes a bid for the 2016 GOP nomination. No Reagan conservative would ever say of Mitt Romney as did Huckabee in 2008 that Romney reminds voters not of a co-worker but “the boss who laid them off.” Ronald Reagan liked workers — and bosses. Or as he called the latter frequently, “entrepreneurs.”

 And speaking of Romney? Here was the GOP nominee who professed all kinds of admiration for Reagan — only to have it surface eventually that in fact he had campaigned in 1994 for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat by defensively saying “I’m not trying to return to Reagan-Bush.” As the New York Times would note in 2012, this was a problem for Romney with the GOP conservative base because “Today, Mr. Reagan stands alone as a hero to Republican constituents and politicians.” So true. Romney, the returns would eventually show, lost the White House because the base of the GOP — the Reagan conservative base — simply didn’t show up to vote for him in November.

While the above instances focus on Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, in fact the friction between Reagan conservatives and the GOP Establishment shows up time and time again. The move by House Republicans to upend Speaker John Boehner, the popularity of Senator Ted Cruz and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin among others, the fierce divide on when and how to challenge President Obama on Obamacare and other issues — all of these and more have a direct relation to some formulation of the Reagan conservative principles as Paul Kengor has outlined them in 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.

There is, for those willing to take the time to take all this to heart, a lesson to be learned. There is a reason for the popularity of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and others who spend radio and TV time illustrating one or another of Reagan conservative principles with the day’s news. There is a reason for the success of the Tea Party and the raft of insurgents challenging moderate GOP candidates across the country.

Kengor — who appends several Reagan speeches in his book — closes with a chapter called “A New Time for Choosing.” The title fashioned after Reagan’s 1964 speech “A Time for Choosing.” Kengor concludes:

So, when hearing a Republican presidential aspirant invoking the name of Ronald Reagan, consider whether the candidate shares Reagan’s faith-based optimism, his belief in the individual, his belief in American exceptionalism, his regard for the sanctity and dignity of unborn human life. Is the candidate the pessimist in the room full of toys or the optimist searching for the pony in the dung heap? Would the candidate submit the “foundational” and “divine institution” of the family to the harm of the latest cultural trend, dictate, fad, or fashion? If you hear a self-professing conservative heralding “freedom,” ask whether he or she believes that a self-governing nation can govern freely without the vital moral rudder that is faith. Can there be genuine freedom without faith? What did Tocqueville say? Reagan said what Tocqueville said.

This, and more, is what a Reagan conservative would say.

And finally, Reagan’s conservatism …was also an affirmation of his personal idea of America and what it means to be an American. Reagan said that America is less of a place than an idea. …Understanding Reagan’s conservatism also means understanding Reagan’s very concept of the idea of America. Really, then, to answer the question “What is a Reagan conservative?” is less a particular political lesson than an enduring civics lesson. It has value for all American citizens going forward.

Conservatives should not be downcast, Kengor advises, looking back at Reagan’s words from the dark days of the late 1970s when the economy of the country plummeted, Communism was riding high and Americans were grim and dispirited. “We can do it in America,” Reagan insisted. “This is not a dream, a wistful hope. It is and has been a reality. I have seen the conservative future and it works.”

“Now that,” says Kengor, “is Reagan conservatism.”

And so it is.

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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.