This Friday, conservatives all over the country will celebrate the life of the greatest president of our lifetime, Ronald Reagan, as he turns 93. While Alzheimer’s Disease has robbed the Gipper of the knowledge that he inspired America to greatness, Americans must never forget the lessons of the 1980s. President Reagan loved this country with an infectious passion, always believing that our best days lay ahead. He saw beyond the horizon, beyond where most men dared to look. No matter what storm we were enduring, Reagan always focused on the bright days that would follow because he was confident that the course he charted would lead us there.
Unlike the leaders of both political parties today, Reagan governed under a consistent political philosophy that could be summed up in a single phrase: “Advancing individual liberty at home and abroad.” When he assumed the presidency in 1981, America was in dire straits. The inflation rate was 12.5 percent, the civilian unemployment rate was 7.1 percent, and the prime interest rate was over 15 percent. The Soviet Union was gobbling up nations, spreading Communism around the world. Iranian terrorists were holding Americans hostage. America’s morale was lower than ever, demonstrated by Jimmy Carter complaining about our national “malaise.”
In the midst of this nightmare, a cowboy from California rode into Washington, D.C. exuding confidence, proclaiming that sunny days were ahead. In his inaugural address, the new president declared:
“[Today’s crises require] our best effort and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds, to believe that together with God’s help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us. And after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.”
The chattering class was aghast. “Who is this nut preaching about happy days during such a miserable time?” But that was Reagan’s genius. He was always looking ahead to a better day and urging his fellow Americans to do the same. He believed in Americans’ ability to solve economic problems for ourselves and in our moral courage to defeat the evil empire.
By slashing taxes, deregulating industry, and encouraging responsible monetary policy, Reagan was able to get the government off the backs of the American people so that they could create the largest peacetime expansion in American history. By the end of his second term, per capita income was substantially higher, inflation was defeated, interest rates were low, and the unemployment rate had plummeted.
But Reagan rightly never took credit for these accomplishments. He gave the credit to those who deserved it — American businessmen and laborers. Reagan only took credit for getting the government out of peoples’ way and for inspiring them to dream of better days.
Reagan was also an incredible visionary with regard to the Soviet Union. During the early and middle 1980s, the establishment orthodoxy — as espoused by both Republicans and Democrats — was that the U.S.S.R. was a permanent part of the world community. Dinesh D’Souza’s research confirms this.
In 1982, Dr. Seweryn Bialer, a Sovietologist from Columbia University, proclaimed, “The Soviet Union is not now, nor will it be during the next decade, in the throes of a true systematic crisis.” Also in 1982, historian Arthur Schlessinger, Jr. stated that “those in the United States who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse [are] wishful thinkers.” During the period 1984-1989, three renowned economists — Paul Samuelson, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Lester Thurow — claimed that the Soviet Union’s command economy would produce sustained economic growth. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger insisted that “the Soviet system will not collapse.”
While the “experts” were predicting an immortal Soviet Union, Reagan was cheerfully looking beyond the horizon. In a 1981 speech at the University of Notre Dame, Reagan told his audience, “The West won’t contain Communism. It will transcend it. It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” Similarly, in a 1982 speech to the British Parliament, Reagan said that freedom and democracy “will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.”
How did Reagan know that the Soviet Union would fall when even the experts did not? First, he believed that the policies he supported — national missile defense, a military buildup, and economic sanctions — would hasten the Soviet collapse. Second, Reagan instinctively knew that totalitarianism could not be sustained under the weight of freedom’s cry.
Like all great visionaries, Reagan was able to see what others could not or would not see. He could confidently talk of the bright days ahead because he truly believed that his policies would lead us there. And he was right.
Liberals called him a warmonger. The political class called him an “amiable dunce.” College students protested against his nuclear policies. Reagan just smiled. While others saw only the dark clouds overhead, he saw the rays of sunshine breaking through.
I often think of what Reagan would do if he were president today, in the midst of the war on terrorism. In some ways, he would probably be a lot like George W. Bush. He would speak in plain, morally unambiguous terms about the importance of fighting this war. He would emphasize the struggle between freedom and tyranny.
But in some ways, he would probably be a little different. Bush focuses on the long war ahead and constantly braces America for the hardships we will face. That’s important. But Reagan would probably spend more time talking about that bright, glorious day when America will win the war on terrorism. He would look beyond the horizon and urge Americans to lift our eyes there too. And, you know, that’s why we fell in love with him. Happy Birthday, Mr. President.
Joe Sabia is a grad student in economics. He can be reached at [email protected]