In 1980, the year I was eligible to vote in my first presidential election, Ronald Reagan accomplished at least two things. He convinced a good number of people in my generation that the Republican Party had the best ideas for America, and he convinced a good number of people from an older generation, folks who were, perhaps, wavering in their political leanings, to accept conservative principles as the best way forward for America. Those who lived during those times can recall that Reagan’s politics, while rooted in the politics of Goldwater, signaled a fundamentally new direction for our country. The issues of that day were daunting, to say the least: economic recession, energy crises, high interest rates (my first car loan for a 1977 Pinto was financed at 18%), U.S. hostages in Iran, and an entrenched Cold War with the Soviet Union. We were not in good shape, the world was testing our resolve, and it appeared that we didn’t have the political will or vision or fortitude to successfully work through the domestic and international issues staring us down. I admit that some of the gravity of these issues was lost on me as a 20-year old college student with a working class, blue-collar background. But, I was about to marry the only girl I ever have been, or ever will be, in love with, and the prospects of being responsible for my wife and children during uncertain times was sobering. So…I listened—I listened to Ronald Reagan and I listened to Jimmy Carter talk about the future of America. They talked about their ideas, both domestic and international, and I understood that they represented two very different approaches. They never struck me as hating one another. They simply had different political beliefs and each was convinced that his ideas would work best for America. They argued and debated with passion and frequent sharpness; but, always as statesmen, never trying to cloud the issues with personal arrogance, pompousness, or self-righteousness, and they both appealed to our better nature and senses on fair political grounds. Consequently, I was able to see the contrast in their respective visions and, in the end, Ronald Reagan won. He won my support and he won the support of America.
The issues of today are even more daunting than those of 1980 as almost every single issue is domestic and global–economics, energy, climate, terrorism, recessions, trade, and human rights, to name a few. Yet, as undisciplined spending habits erode our fiscal condition, our economic ship tacks into stronger and stronger headwinds of debt with little being done to correct the course. Our occupation of the commanding heights in this world is being challenged on more than one front, particularly the challenge of a rising China, which is now our strategic competitor and is offering the world a new way forward as an alternative to the American way of freedom and liberty. Yet, our government leadership seems to occupy itself and our political process with populist issues that distract us from core fundamental matters of national security–a distraction that threatens our domestic prosperity and freedoms as well as the liberal international order America was chief signatory of and that has provided the world general peace and prosperity for the past 70-plus years. Some simply insist on infusing the Republican party with inherently divisive issues, forcing a box-checking litmus test process for vetting candidates, and then leveraging those issues to strategically divide, conquer and secure votes and delegates, oftentimes appealing to our worst nature in the process. While I have strong personal feelings on these issues, some are ill-suited for our politics. More pragmatically, I can’t understand the political calculus of a within-party divide-and-conquer strategy that alienates anyone and everyone who doesn’t agree on every single issue. Ronald Reagan, as I understand him, would have no part of these politics.
However, at the same time I have no interest in, and in fact am disgusted by, the socialist politics of leftist Democrats. Not classical liberals–leftists.
I suppose, then, I’m stuck in the murky political middle, right-of-center, where the way forward is difficult and challenging, as opposed to the extremist political margins where dogmatic ideology renders all decisions as black-and-white, right-and-wrong, my-way-or-no-way. The political pendulum no longer swings from left to right by passing through the middle. Instead, it goes over the top, which pretty much characterizes U.S. politics today–“Over the top”. But it stands to reason, because the middle is hard and difficult and it gives no quarter to hubris. It requires compromise and an occasional concession that we are in agreement with our political opposite on issues that accommodate conciliation and concessions without sacrificing core principles–this is something I learned from Ronald Reagan. So, I’m stuck in the murky middle–but that’s where I live, that’s where my wife and I have made a life together and raised our children. And that’s where my politics settle–conservative, pragmatic and compromising when possible, but unyielding on core principles.
I suppose I’m a pragmatic conservative with boundaries to the left and boundaries to the right–but I don’t think that has much of a place in today’s politics.
From my own perspective of U.S. history, and particularly with respect to my time in it, Ronald Reagan was an exceptional American and statesman, and I still love and admire the man for what he did to marshal our courage as a people and redirect our country during difficult times. I understand that he was an actor and a great communicator who leveraged his skills on the national stage to help him secure the presidency. That’s expected; and every single presidential candidate does it–they leverage their own skills, if they have any. But, it was Ronald Reagan’s ideas that struck a chord with me and helped me realize as a young man just exactly where my individual ideals, hopes and dreams for my family, friends and community fit into the political fabric of America in 1980. Ronald Reagan didn’t convince me to be a conservative. Ronald Reagan showed me that I was a conservative—the kind of conservative that Ronald Reagan was. I remain that kind of conservative, but am deeply worried that some within the party of Reagan and Lincoln, the party of individual liberty, limited bureaucracy, and the pursuit of happiness without respect to one’s person, are giving the false appearance that Republicans cannot integrate bedrock conservative principles into modern times without sacrificing or selling its soul. At the same time, today’s Democratic party also seems lost and incapable of mapping classical liberalism into 21st century America.
I remain confident, however, that a new generation of conservatives is stepping forward to right the ship and correct our course. A new generation of conservatives who, in the spirit of Reagan, believe in a brighter tomorrow and will shun self-serving politics in order to build that tomorrow for their own family, friends and community.
Credit my son, Jeremy, for the “Straight Outta” part.