Well you (we) did lose. In monumental style.
Reagan, For Those Under 40
This may sound shocking to anyone under 40, but 30 years ago, a lot of serious people were seriously wondering whether Americas best days were already past us.
Time magazine ran a cover story asking “Where have all the Heroes Gone?”
Inflation was 12%, Unemployment over 7% and both were rising simultaneously, giving birth to a new term, “stagflation”. Gasoline was just as expensive as it is today (accounting for inflation), except there wasnt much to buy and long lines snaked around the block. Articles in respected magazines and newspapers asked whether the American Presidency was “too big a job for just one person”.
American soldiers werent the good guys. Just watch any war movie made in the mid-to late 70’s. If our guys werent bad, they were distraught, discouraged, crazy or suicidal.
Just 10 short years before becoming the worlds only Superpower, America seemed paralyzed after Vietnam while the Soviet empire expanded throughout the Third World. And it wasnt just the Communists pushing us around. Millions of Americans watched Islamic militants sack the American embassy in Iran and march 52 blindfolded American hostages in front of television cameras. They wouldnt release them for over 400 days.
In the Spring of 1979, President Jimmy Carter delivered one of the most unusual presidential speeches ever delivered from the White House. Known today as the “Malaise” speech, its theme was that America was suffering a “crisis of the spirit”. Even Democrats were not impressed. Carter was challenged for renomination by Senator Ted Kennedy. Carter won (or Kennedy lost, more accurately), but his party was divided and his nation was despondent.
Enter Ronald Reagan. Against this somber background, Reagan insisted that Americas brightest days were still in front of us, not behind us. He rejected the Vietnam syndrome, instead declaring that America was not the cause of corruption and evil abroad, but the cure for it, particularly in facing down Soviet communism. As for solving problems at home, we didnt need the government to do more, we needed it to do less. The size, girth and expense of government was the problem, not the solution. In an era preoccupied with the “complexity” of insoluble problems, Reagan said “There are simple solutions - just not easy ones.”
Sophisticated people found Reagan, well....... unsophisticated. Also naive, not all that bright, and much too hard line.
But Reagan was telling Americans what they wanted to hear and what they wanted to believe about their country. And when they elected him by a 41 State landslide, he went to work doing what he said he would do.
He said his program to cut income taxes, government regulation and domestic government spending would unleash a rising tide of jobs, prosperity and opportunity. It did. He said that deregulating oil prices would lower the price of gasoline and end the “energy crisis”. It did. He said he would fire the air traffic controllers who were illegally striking if they didnt return to work. He did.
As for dealing with the Soviets, Reagan said that his program of vastly increasing military spending, planting Pershing missiles in NATO countries and aiding anti-Soviet rebels throughout the Third World would one day relegate Marxist Leninism to “the ash heap of history”. This was too much for his critics, made up of a big chunk of Congress, most university professors, and much of the national news media. They regarded Reagan as either dumb, a warmonger or both, and they insisted that his policies would trigger a never-ending arms race and perhaps lead to the unthinkable a nuclear war.
When Reagan announced his support for a space-based system to defend the country from a nuclear strike, tensions rose even higher. ABC aired a movie, “The Day After”, about America under nuclear attack. The “nuclear freeze” movement in 1984 was every bit as intense and its demonstrations every bit as large as the anti-Iraq-War movement is in 2004. History has yet to render a verdict on Iraq, but we already know who was right about the Soviets. The dumb warmonger won the Cold War without firing a shot. And soldiers were the good guys in the movies again. Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now” gave way to Tom Cruise and Tom Skerrit in “Top Gun”.
But Reagan did more than unlock the American economy and liberate millions of people from Communist captivity. He gave America back its smile. His sense of humor helped, but so did his belief that political differences werent personal differences, a sentiment that seems to have gone missing on both sides in recent years.
Where should history rank Reagan? Probably as the greatest President in the last 50 years because, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Reagan defined and ignited an entire political movement. For FDR it was New Deal liberalism. For Reagan, American conservatism.
Before Reagan, conservatism was instinctively reactive and mostly negative: stop spending on this, dont do that, etc. Reagan made it both positive and pro-active - a movement based on core beliefs and clear ideas. As Ted Kennedy, of all people, put it, Reagan “wrote most of these ideas not only into law, but into the national consciousness.”
Dozens of conservative think tanks and more than 40 state-based policy centers around the country are daily churning out ideas for policymakers based on free markets, limited government and personal responsibility. Reaganism lives on.
Today we take it for granted in America that great days are still in front of us. We take for granted that lower taxes will stimulate growth. We take for granted that the best way to deal with deadly adversaries is to stand up to them, not make excuses for them.
25 short years ago, Americans didnt take any of those things for granted. Thats what Reagan changed.