In 1977, when conservatism was at its political nadir, Ronald Reagan gave a bold, optimistic speech at the fourth annual CPAC convention. “A New Republican Party” was effectively Reagan’s blueprint for victory in 1980, and it rested on Reagan’s political touchstone, respect and admiration for the common American. Last week, two young heirs of the Reagan tradition offered their ideas of what a new conservatism might look like. Turns out it’s an updating of the master’s old conservatism, including recognition that a conservatism that fails to rest on respect for the common man is one doomed to failure. It’s about time.
Paul Ryan’s Wall Street Journal op-ed has received the most attention. In it, the 2012 vice-presidential nominee repudiated his past use of the phrase “makers versus takers” as unintentionally insulting to the majority of Americans who, at some point in their lives, receive government benefits. The “makers versus takers” rhetoric is very far away from Reagan’s idea that the average American, even those on unemployment or receiving food stamps, is worthy of respect. More important than the retraction, though, are Ryan’s ideas on a conservative philosophy of governance. For Ryan, government assistance is needed and a good if it helps people move into lives of self-sufficiency. It’s also a good if it helps people afford market-driven health care “while offering a real safety net for those in need.”
In his landmark 1964 speech endorsing Barry Goldwater, Reagan took on the liberal canard that “we’re always ‘against’ things — we’re never ‘for’ anything.” He then laid out the broad case for a social safety net that helped people truly in need, but not as one-sized-fits-all compulsory government programs for people who did not. Ryan’s ideas, encapsulated in his recent anti-poverty plan, which I dubbed “Ryan 2.0,” are right up the Gipper’s alley.
But not everyone is so dependent upon government that they are eligible for benefits under food stamps, housing vouchers, or cash welfare. Most Americans are well above those thresholds, yet they find life in today’s economy a struggle to get ahead. For those Americans, comprehensive tax reform of the type generally proposed by conservatives offers little to nothing in the short term. That’s because most Americans’ incomes fall in the 10 or 15 percent brackets: cutting their rates by 20 or 30 percent simply won’t give them a lot of money back. And if tax breaks they use, such as the personal exemption, the child tax credit, the EITC, or the health-insurance premium exclusion, are reduced to make way for tax-rate cuts, then they could find their income taxes going up to pay for rate reductions for millionaires.
Senator Mike Lee has offered a tax reform plan that gives everyone a break, cutting top rates and increasing the child tax credit. He spoke about that at the Reagan Ranch last week, but his speech was also much more notable for his philosophy of governance.
Lee’s Reaganesque philosophy does not rest primarily on Reagan’s opposition to government. Instead, he reminds us that Reagan “had the cadence of compassion.” He noted that the Reagan who created that new Republican party from 1977–80 focused on the “people shouldering the brunt of big government’s failure: the working men and women of and aspiring to America’s middle class.” Lee noted that while the poor “attracted Washington’s sympathy” and the rich “could influence public policy,” the average American was “being ignored, slighted, and left behind by the political class in Washington.”
Sound familiar? Reagan’s challenge is our challenge.
Lee even unearthed a long-forgotten Reagan quote from a 1964 essay he wrote in National Review explaining why Goldwater lost. In that piece, Reagan said “we [conservatives] represent the forgotten American — that simple soul who goes to work, bucks for a raise, takes out insurance, pays for his kids’ schooling, contributes to his church and charity and knows there just ‘ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.’” Lee cites this approvingly and, I believe correctly, goes on to argue that Reagan “believed government should stand on the side of the little guy against unfair concentrations of political and economic power.” Most important, Lee notes that Reagan believed “that freedom doesn’t mean you’re on your own; it means we’re all in this together.”
Yes, yes, ten thousand times yes!
The conservatism that lapses unintentionally into the language of “makers versus takers” also unintentionally lapses into the language of human inequality. By seeking to tarnish Americans who receive government assistance as “takers,” this approach tarnished the character of virtually all Americans who, at some point in their lives, are net fiscal recipients from the treasury. That sentiment may be representative of an anarchic libertarianism, but it is definitely not representative of conservatism or of conservatism’s greatest hero.
A new Republican party of the sort outlined by Lee and Ryan can recapture the center of American politics, a center that wants government to offer everyone a hand up and no one a handout. It’s a party that can win and, more important, a party that deserves to win.
— Henry Olsen is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center