In what amounted to a valedictory address to the nation at the 1992 Republican National Convention, Ronald Reagan said that “whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears.”
The tenor of the current presidential campaign, alas, has been just the opposite, full of anger, insults and fearmongering. Yet it need not be so. In this first full week of a new year, we should demand a more Reaganesque approach — and reward it.
First, let’s be clear: Reagan’s approach was more than just a slogan. His original “make America great again” in 1980, unlike Donald Trump’s copycat use of the phrase in this election, was matched by plenteous substance — and also matched by a tone that, while resolute and clear-headed about the nation’s dire condition, appealed (also quoting the 1992 convention speech) “to your confidence rather than your doubts.”
In Reagan’s 1980 nomination-acceptance speech, he cited a “community of shared values.” He repeatedly paid homage to the power of individuals, in voluntary community, to overcome obstacles. He ran on a platform of bold new tax cuts (when tax cuts were not yet fully Republican orthodoxy), energy development, domestic spending cuts, a devolution of power to states and localities, and a bolstered military. The Republican platform that year called for a firm re-commitment to protecting private property from government intrusions (unlike, for instance, Trump’s support for radically expanded eminent domain), for urban homesteading and a promising new idea called reverse mortgages, and for the creative welfare reforms that later became known as “workfare.”
Most remarkable, though, was the tone — firm but never mean, frustrated with America’s current state but never down on America itself. Reagan’s announcement speech in November 1979 described an America that was “a living, breathing presence, unimpressed by what others say is impossible, proud of its own success; generous, yes, and naïve; sometimes wrong, never mean, always impatient to provide a better life for its people in a framework of a basic fairness and freedom.”
And, decidedly unlike today’s Republican front-runner, Reagan said America could be great again not because he himself was a powerful magician who could make it so, but because the people themselves were resourceful and would succeed if only the government didn’t hamper them. As he said in his 1980 convention speech, “’Trust me’ government asks that we concentrate our hopes and dreams on one man; that we trust him to do what’s best for us. My view of government places trust not in one person or one party, but in those values that transcend persons and parties. The trust is where it belongs — in the people.”
Compare Reagan’s exhortation to Trump’s boasting in a Nov. 22 interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos: “I’ve done great, you know, things. I’ve done fabulous developments all over the world and I’ve made a lot of money. And that’s the kind of thinking we need in office. That’s the kind of thinking we need in Washington. And that’s why people are resonating with me.”
With Trump, it’s always about power; with Reagan, it was always about freedom — a word that almost never crosses Trump’s lips.
Alas, Trump is not the only transgressor this year. In fact, aside from Marco Rubio and at times Rick Santorum and Ben Carson, all the remaining Republican candidates sound dour, angry, and grim. A newly awakened Rip van Winkle watching any of the Republican debates thus far likely would run, frightened, back to bed while swallowing a fistful of Ambien.
It doesn’t need to be this way. We should be talking about reducing poverty through re-establishment of welfare-reform practices ended by Barack Obama, and expansion of the 1996 welfare-reform principles to food stamps and 47 other welfare-like federal programs. We should (like Carson and Santorum) be proposing exciting expansions of health savings accounts, while replacing Obamacare with market-based systems rewarding de-bureaucratization not just in government but in the medical and insurance industries too.
We should offer farmers a choice — not a mandate — between traditional price supports combined with output quotas or, alternatively, a new crop-insurance program as long advocated by former U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.). We should revive the idea, for those under age 40, of optional, individual savings accounts within Social Security. We should transition the entire Medicare program to a market-competitive system modeled on Medicare Part D. We should find ways to encourage states to incentivize better vocational education.
We should continue reforming the Veterans Affairs system to give still greater medical-voucher-like options for veterans to choose their own doctors and hospitals in their own communities. We should reinvigorate military recruitment by offering at least small pensions for those who serve 10 years, rather than only for those who serve 20. We should further unleash energy production by allowing development off the coast of any state that wants it, while we also fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to the brim (rather than deplete it as a short-term budgetary trick) while prices are near 10-year lows.
And yes, of course we should build more walls and do other things to improve border security and anti-illegal-alien enforcement — while also ordering a thorough overhaul of the legal immigration system to make it fairer, more streamlined, more sensible and more conducive to assimilation rather than ethnic separatism. This also means the English language should be treated as an indication of belonging to this new American community, not as an unnecessary insult.
All of this — and more — should be promoted in terms of unlocking vast human potential, and especially American potential, not by administrative command-and-control but through the incentives and dynamism of ordered liberty in a strong, voluntary, civil society.
What Reagan said in his first inaugural address should be touted again: We believe America can be great again not because one powerful leader makes the best deals for us, but because “we have every right to dream heroic dreams…. And after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.”
Quin Hillyer is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. He is a 40-year veteran of conservative journalism and activism, now living in Mobile, Alabama. You can follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.