Forty years ago, on the eve of a presidential election, millions of Americans gathered in front of their television sets to watch a fading Hollywood star deliver a speech on behalf of the Republican candidate, Sen. Barry Goldwater.
At the time, “The Speech” hardly seemed the historical watershed that we now recognize it as–especially since Goldwater would be defeated in a landslide days later. But in that October 1964 televised address, Ronald Reagan offered a compelling vision of America’s destiny, which would flower over the next two decades into the Reagan Revolution.
Reagan’s speech provides an important lesson for partisans on both sides of the aisle in this campaign season. Yes, the outcome of next week’s election will have important consequences. But the ideological direction of the country is never determined by one election. As Reagan and his allies in the conservative movement proved, the future depends on remaining committed to principles and staying active in advancing them.
The challenge for conservatives remains the same whether Bush wins or loses. Victory followed by complacency could be just as damaging as outright defeat. Conservatives ought to recommit themselves to a shared vision, and for that we should look to Ronald Reagan.
In the 1964 speech titled “A Time for Choosing,” Reagan presented the country fundamental questions that echo even into the current campaign: Will the U.S. halt its creep toward socialism in domestic policies? Will it confront the imperial ambitions of its ideological enemies abroad? He did not mince words about the importance of this choice:
You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.
Sixteen years later, of course, Reagan was elected to the presidency and began implementing his clear vision for reviving the American economy and the American spirit, and exporting the message of freedom all over the world.
Reagan realized more of his agenda than anyone would have expected. It is especially impressive when you recall that, in Reagan’s day, there were no alternative media to expose the spin of the liberal networks; there were only a handful of think tanks and magazines like National Review keeping the conservative flame alive, and he never had the opportunity to work with a friendly Congress.
Today, conservatives have a much better opportunity to win the policy victories that Reagan left unfinished: limiting the growth of government; reforming our entitlement programs so future generations are less dependent on government promises; and eliminating needlessly complex regulations that burden businesses and individuals.
After Reagan’s death in June, we heard Americans from all walks of life pay tribute to the 40th president. It’s time to do more than pay tribute: It’s time to roll up our sleeves and work for the commonsense reforms that Reagan articulated so clearly in his speeches, actions, and newspaper and radio commentaries.
Margaret Thatcher put it best in her eulogy: “We have one beacon to guide us that Ronald Reagan never had. We have his example.”
Let’s win one for Gipper. Not just on Tuesday, but in the big project that lies ahead, no matter the electoral outcome.
–Brad Lips and Dan Lips are the co-authors of The Reagan Vision: How You Can Revive The Reagan Revolution (Goldwater Institute, 2004).