ON RONALD REAGAN’S BIRTHDAY, HERE’S HIS GIFT TO YOU
Today marks the 106th birthday of President Ronald Wilson Reagan. The former actor, former president of the Screen Actors Guild, former governor of California, and former president certainly has left quite a legacy for the American people, even as the current administration has, in some ways, reverted back to “Big Government Republicanism.”
And Reagan has left a legacy for the Washington establishment.
Throughout both his failed 1976 campaign and his successful 1980 campaign, Reagan was attacked not just from the Left but also from the Right, and from the center. He was “too conservative,” both Democrats and Republicans complained. He was simply “that actor” who had no experience, critiques which deliberately overlooked his two successful terms as governor of California. Not much of a political resume, they said. He would start wars; he would undermine any progress with the Soviet Union (no matter how much of a failure the containment and détente policies were); the list of fears went on and on and on. They charged he would upset the apple cart.
For the establishment of the nation’s capital, those fears would become true.
“You know you don’t have to spend much time in Washington to appreciate the prophetic vision of the man who designed all the streets there. They go in circles,” Reagan quipped in Wyoming in 1982. For President Reagan, the muddling of bureaucracy and the federal government was a main source of contention with the Republican president. This was a platform he ran in 1976 as well, and he prided himself in being the “outsider,” as when he said, “I am not a part of the Washington establishment and I don’t consider that a disadvantage.” He often and accurately called D.C. a “buddy system,” in which D.C. only protects D.C. It has become more intrusive, more coercive, more meddlesome, and less effective.
Reagan’s policies of supply-side economics and anti-federal government dependence, of course, hit close to home for many of the elite. His inaugural address said as much: “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” One of his first targets was the Volunteers in Service of America, a fifteen-year old federal-funded organization which the Christian Science Monitor called “the domestic version of the Peace Corps,” supposedly with the goal of helping all in need in the United States. In April of 1981, Reagan announced that the funding would gradually be cut off, receiving only a third of its 1981 funding within two years. The Monitor noted pointedly:
Reagan was similarly critical of ACTION, the federal domestic volunteer agency formed under President Richard Nixon. Aided by Jim Burnley, Tom Pauken and Mark Levin, President Reagan tore it into a thousand shreds. Reagan would have done the same to the Department of Education and the Department of Energy — two Jimmy Carter agencies he despised — but the Democratic Congress and supplicant neocons wouldn’t budge.
Some might say that no, he did not change the federal government enough. He did not go to war with Congress enough; he did not debase the elites enough. Newly-appointed Chief of Staff, Howard H. Baker Jr., said in 1987, “I think there has indeed been a Reagan revolution, but I don’t think it is an anti-Establishment revolution.” But Reagan distinctly changed the outlook and Americans’ view of the feds. We haven’t trusted the Washington establishment since 1980, even during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
When Ronald Reagan won the nomination in 1980, many from both sides of the aisle predicted that this was the end of the GOP. “Carter could beat Reagan more easily than he could Bush or Baker,” said I. A. Lewis, director of the Los Angeles Times Poll at the time. But it was the exact opposite: the GOP did not die under a landslide Reagan victory, but only reinvigorated itself as a hard-identity party of real American conservatism. At his announcement in November of 1975, Reagan bearded the establishment lion right in its den, at ground zero at the National Press Club. “In my opinion, the root of these problems lies right here — in Washington, D.C. Our nation’s capital has become the seat of a “buddy” system that functions for its own benefit — increasingly insensitive to the needs of the American worker who supports it with his taxes.”
And then Reagan let the Washington Establishment have it, right between the eyes. “Today it is difficult,” he said in his announcement for the presidential candidacy in 1975, “to find leaders who are independent of the forces that have brought us our problems — the Congress, the bureaucracy, the lobbyist, big business and big labor. If America is to survive and go forward, this must change. It will only change when the American people vote for a leadership that listens to them, relies on them and seeks to return government to them. We need a government that is confident not of what it can do, but of what the people can do.”
It was the first salvo launched against Washington and corrupt centralized authority since the first stirrings of the New Deal. From 1933 forward, all Democrats and many Republicans believed government was good and more government was better. Reagan began a fierce intellectual debate which continues on to this day. We now look at Washington with mostly contempt and look to ourselves more. This is good as this was the way the framers and founders intended our system to be.
Reagan, who left the presidency in early 1989 and left this earth in mid-2004, has given an ongoing present to us for his birthday. The fight for American liberty and American conservatism and American freedom, dignity and privacy, which he jump-started, lives on, and will continue to live on. This was Reagan’s birthday gift to us.
Craig Shirley is a Reagan biographer and presidential historian. He is the author of four Reagan biographies including the forthcoming “Reagan Rising” due out in March of 2017.
Scott Mauer is Mr. Shirley’s research assistant.