Years ago, when I was a policy gnome at the American Enterprise Institute, I received a first-hand lesson in the brilliance of Ronald Reagan.
Generally regarded as maintaining the greatest collection of living neoconservatives in captivity, AEI was almost a Reaganite government in exile. One Friday, Joshua Muravchik, probably the premier neocon foreign-policy intellectual of his generation, was giving a Brown Bag talk (AEI now calls them, lamely, “Friday Forums”) on the current state of neoconservatism. A who’s who of Reaganite intellectuals were in attendance (as well as a who’s nobody roster of researchers and interns — which explains my attendance). During the Q&A I asked Muravchik to explain what exactly a neoconservative is. His answer was a surprisingly unsatisfying bit of sophistry — something like “neoconservatism is the body of beliefs held by people who call themselves neoconservative.” But the response from big-wigs was fantastic, and I will always remember it.
In the course of his answer, Muravchik said that the Reagan movement was primarily a foreign-policy cause united around defeating Communism. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I recall he said, essentially, “We let the economic and religious conservatives into the movement in order to get our agenda accomplished.”
At this assertion, an “au contraire” was offered from Irwin Stelzer, Ronald Reagan’s brilliant former regulation czar. He said that Reaganism was essentially an economic philosophy, and while anti-Communism was surely a vital part, foreign-policy activists were simply another wing emanating from the core of the true Reagan coalition. Seconds after Stelzer finished, my friend Michael Novak — perhaps America’s leading Catholic intellectual, Templeton Prize winner, and contributing editor to National Review Online — begged to differ. While, of course, fighting for free-markets and against the Red menace was vital to Reaganism, argued the former Reagan ambassador, those policies were largely outgrowths of a moral and religious vision, which is why the Reagan movement was essentially a religious cause.
An intellectual brouhaha ensued — and, I’m proud to say, I started it.
Now all of these people are smarter than I am fat, so how is it they could each see a political insurgency — they were intimately involved in — so differently?
“How We Got Here”
The answer lies at the heart of Reagan’s success and conservatism’s current doldrums. To paraphrase David Frum’s engaging polemic, How We Got Here, the 1970s were just plain awful: inflation, spiritual exhaustion and confusion, family dissolution, Vietnam, disco, terrorism, riots, drugs, mood rings, hostage-takings, and on and on and on.
In hindsight it seems that virtually every social and economic indicator went inexplicably wacky, like a compass near a hidden magnet. Divorce rates skyrocketed. The authors of Open Marriage wrote, “If it comes down to your marriage or your identity, we think your identity is more important.” Meanwhile, the Dow average was lower in 1979 than it was in 1969. In 1975, Frum reminds us, Alan Greenspan told Congress that the economy had reached a “point of discontinuity,” where America had to choose between socialism and capitalism. We began the decade losing a war in Southeast Asia, while the Soviets boldly launched one in Central Asia at the end of it. As Frum asserts, some things did get better in the 1970s — women’s rights, for example — but that didn’t make the trends themselves any less confusing or the arguments any less wrenching.
Along Came Ronald Reagan
Well, that’s not quite right, as he had been there for years, offering his remedies to a nation that didn’t want them, in much the same way that Winston Churchill had endured the 1930s. Indeed, the new book Reagan, In His Own Hand (reviewed by NR’s Jay Nordlinger on NRO Weekend) reveals how deliberate Reagan was in formulating his prescriptions for what ailed us.
His program was decidedly simple and therefore completely out of step with elite wisdom. The “me decade” of personally defined morality rendered sweeping statements about the way things ought to be unacceptable in “enlightened” discourse. According to the establishment vision, everything was complicated. Reagan called for rearmament, lower taxes, less regulation, greater personal freedom, more personal responsibility, and many other themes that sound so familiar today now that they have been co-opted by both parties for more than a decade. Indeed, David Broder points out today precisely how long Reagan’s shadow is.
It is not hard to imagine how amidst cancerous inflation, Watergate, “malaise,” and our loss of prestige abroad, Reagan’s platform would not seem merely wise or attractive: It would seem like a return to normalcy. It is also unsurprising that the various social activists, Atari Democrats, and social reformers — who saw the chaos of the 1970s as evidence their programs needed to be driven further — saw Reagan’s program as simplistic and dangerous. But among the scattered tribes of the conservative movement, Reagan was as close to a messianic figure as a politician can be.
Indeed, it’s hardly surprising that so many intellectuals thought Reagan was their guy. Picture a sick person with many symptoms. One doctor treats the patient’s cough, another treats his bad legs, and another tends to his poor sight. If the patient took a pill that could cure him, the doctors might think the pill primarily cured what they were in charge of. The same thing works with sick societies and the intellectuals who emphasize certain aspects of them. The brilliance of Reagan was that he was essentially the cure-all for what ailed us.
Seizing the Moment
Even as his primary campaign was going down in flames, Bill Bradley explained that he wanted to be president because he thought he best exemplified the “national moment.” In several interviews he compared himself to Lincoln and FDR as a man who could embody the times. The irrepressibly dull and pedantic Bradley was laughably wrong about his own prospects. But he was right about what makes great presidents great. They fit the moment. Barry Goldwater was Reagan’s equal in many respects and even his superior in a few, but in 1964 the times were not ready for Goldwater. The same held true for Reagan in 1976. But by 1980 America was ready for Reagan in much the same way that Britain was finally ready for Churchill in 1940.
This fact often seems lost on today’s Republican politicians and activists. Throughout the Republican primaries, the various candidates consistently jockeyed for the Reagan mantle. Gary Bauer, literally, invoked Reagan in every speech. John McCain made the argument that he was Reagan-like because he attracted moderates and Democrats. Forbes made the credible claim that his policies were the most Reaganesque.
What all of these people fail to recognize is that politics is about moments and winning politicians are the ones who can best capitalize on them. Ronald Reagan was the perfect candidate for the times he lived in. But that does not mean he would be equally successful today. Voters threw Winston Churchill out office when the war ended, largely because they felt he no longer fit the times. Reagan was a stabilizing force when one was sorely needed. Claiming to be his reincarnation is necessarily a nostalgic appeal and therefore of limited use.
That political moods shift and moments end poses a distinct dilemma for conservatives. After all, conservatism is an ideology or philosophy that reveres eternal immutable ideas and tries to apply them to ever-changing human circumstances. Whittaker Chambers understood this when he called himself a dialectician in all things and as a consequence rejected the “conservative” label.
It may sound somewhat demeaning to the cause I hold dear, but conservatives must countenance the fact that sometimes we are the broken clocks of American history. We are right when the times catch up with what we have to say. We are still right when the times are wrong, but it will understandably appear otherwise.
An early version of this article first appeared on IntellectualCapital.com.