By the time of the Goldwater speech, he was already a champion of the individual over the state, the essence of American conservatism. In his adult life, he never awakened in the morning saying to himself, “Government is popular now, so I will switch my principles and embrace big government.” In fact, his mature American conservatism, including the opposition to centralized authority, came at a time when the American people still generally believed in government. His embrace of the pro-life cause came at a time when the science wasn’t what it is today and the pro-abortion position was the more popular position for politicians, including within the GOP. Indeed, it was allies of Reagan’s who added the pro-life plank to the GOP platform in 1976, where it remains to this day.
His rejection of containment and détente and advocacy of actually winning the Cold War shocked the establishment, but by the end of the 1980 campaign, the American people had come to share his viewpoint and in point of fact supported nuclear superiority over the Russians.
In 1980, the American people were very skeptical of the idea of tax cuts until Reagan successfully explained that power should reside with the citizens, and they could better determine their own destiny if basic tools were available, including their own money. Reagan himself had been a latecomer to supply-side economics, but when he saw that it would reduce the power of the state and increase the power of the individual, he was all in.
Indeed, on all these issues and others, the American public swung to the Reagan position. In 1976, polling showed that Americans generally supported the Panama Canal Treaties, but by the time Reagan was done thrashing Ford and Carter over the plan, a sizable majority of citizens opposed the treaties.
Aid to the Nicaraguan Contras was never a popular cause, but that didn’t stop Reagan from fighting for them, speaking out for them, and, in the end, being proven right while his enemies were proven wrong.
In other words, Thomas Carlyle was right: Great men summon forth great ideas and great movements because they have great courage and great convictions.
Reagan was certainly adaptable, as was Churchill, as were other significant political leaders. In the early 1930s, commercial radio was a new medium, but he mastered it. In the late 1930s, talking pictures were a relatively new medium, and he mastered those. In the early 1950s, commercial television was a new venture, and he mastered that as well. If Reagan were alive today, he’d probably be using Facebook and Twitter (perfect for his quips!) and all the other new forms of communication to advance his ideas. Technology always fascinated him as a method of spreading ideas.
To say Reagan would not fit in today’s GOP or modern politics is to underestimate him once again. It is an indolent argument. I used to get angry in the 1980s when people would say “Let Reagan be Reagan” or blame Jim Baker for somehow moderating Reagan. Reagan was too steely to ever be manipulated, and, besides, Jim Baker never tried to manipulate Reagan. Instead, he helped him be a better president and leader.
The essence of leadership, to answer the question of Henry Adams, is to make the times one lives in. Reagan made the times he lived in, as did Washington, Lincoln, FDR, and Eisenhower.
If Reagan were with us today and he wanted to participate in modern politics, I suspect he would have done so with the same grace and élan he did beginning 50 years ago. In the meantime, the lesson for the GOP is to learn new things and learn to be adaptable, but never compromise on basic principles.
Some have suggested that Reagan could not survive in today’s GOP because he was “a man of his times.” In fact, given his principles, his vision, and his moral convictions, Reagan was a man for all times, for all seasons.
— Craig Shirley is a Reagan biographer, having written four books on the Gipper including the highly acclaimed Rendezvous with Destiny and Reagan’s Revolution. He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller December 1941. He has lectured at the Reagan Library and is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College. He is the president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs.